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German Traces in Latvia: From German Theater to Latvian National Opera

The Latvian National Opera is an emblem of national culture. Many a musician’s careers took off here. But did you know the building was initially built for upper-class Baltic Germans in Rīga?

A number of Latvian artists of worldwide renown gave their first performances here. Notable soloists, such as Elīna Garanča, Kristīne Opolais, Egils Siliņš, Aleksandrs Antoņenko, as well as conductor Andris Nelsons entered the world of art by stepping on the stage of Rīga’s luxurious opera house. Works by Latvian composers, too, are regularly staged here in productions by local artists.

But this was not always the case. The building, in which internationally recognized operas and ballet performances are held nowadays, was initially built as a theater for upper-class Baltic Germans.

Popularly known as the White House, the neoclassical building was constructed in 1863 to serve as the new premises for the Rīga City Theater, which needed refurbishment. The original City Theater building in Old Rīga was the first regular home for German theater troupes in the Baltic metropolis, which was part of the Russian Empire at the time. From 1837 to 1839, Richard Wagner acted as the Kapellmeister there, and there’s now a relief above the stage of the opera house to testify to this.

Planning and design of the new building took more than thirty years. It was only after 1857, when Emperor Alexander II gave permission to dismantle the fortification ramparts and erect new walls outside the old town, that an agreement was struck allowing use of a vacant territory on the bank of the current city canal. Construction was entrusted to Ludwig Bohnstedt (1822-1885), a St. Petersburg-born architect of German ancestry. Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein's Camp and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio were the first works staged at the newly-built theater.

On June 14, 1882 fire erupted in the building. The audience hall was completely consumed by the flames. The Baltic German architect Reinhold Schmeling (1840-1917), a resident of Rīga, assumed the task of reconstruction. Five years later, this cultural temple opened doors again, looking almost the same after being renovated according to Schmeling’s designs.

During the Latvian War of Independence, 1918 to 1920, the theater was renamed a number of times. As the Red Army was closing in on Rīga in 1918, Baltic Germans left the building. Soon after, the newly established Latvian opera collective moved to the building of the Rīga City Theater.

But December 1919 is considered the birthday of the Latvian National Opera. It was on that day it assumed its current name. The Baltic Germans, until then the upper social stratum in terms of cultural output, became a cultural minority. As the theater was reconstructed after Latvia regained its independence in 1991, evidence was found that they had hoped to return to their theater. The Baltic Germans’ old theater library was discovered inside a hiding place by the second balcony, along with partitures and documents.

The German Traces series was first published as part of the Goethe Institut in Rīga project “German Footprints in Latvia” ("Vācu pēdas Latvijā" www.goethe.de/vacu-pedas). The linked mobile application "German Footprints in Latvia" can be downloaded at www.ej.uz/vp-iOS and www.ej.uz/vp-Android.

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