Monday, July 9, 2018

Backstage at the Latvian National Opera

The grand 19th century theater was built on the grounds where a bastion of the city’s defenses had formerly stood; the site went from being a fortification of a military nature to a cultural one, providing a home to theater, opera and ballet for the next 150 years. Today, it stands on the banks of the Rīga canal resplendent not only in architecture but also in its contribution to the cultural scene of Europe: Latvijas Nacionālā opera un balets, home to the Latvian National Opera and the Latvian National Ballet.

August Volz's "Nymph" and the Latvian National Opera

We gathered for our tour on the steps facing the square and Bastejkalna parks, formal gardens with meandering paths, fountains and expanses of lush green grass providing a backdrop to the ornate National Opera. The fountain visible just to the north was created in 1887 by August Volz, and features a maiden balancing a large seashell above her head, four cherubic children frolicking with dolphins at the base. Legend has it that work on the fountain took forever to complete because Volz had fallen in love with the young woman who posed for the sculpture, and only finished it after she agreed to be married. The statue we see today is actually a replica, as the original Nymph was made of zinc – the city could not afford bronze at the time it was commissioned. However, this frugality was what possibly saved the sculpture from being carted off to Russia during WWI along with most of Rīga’s bronze monuments, and in 1986 sculptor Mirdza Lukaža created a bronze replacement, the original removed to Rundāle Palace park. Volz also created the statue of Roland in Ratslaukums and the lions in Vērmanes dārzs.

From the statue we turned our attention to the ornate building before us. When the center of Rīga was redesigned in 1856 a site on the Rīga canal was chosen for the new theater, and in 1860 a design by architect Ludwig Bohnstedt was chosen and construction begun. The neo-classical building was opened to the public in 1863 as the Rīga German Theater. Not even twenty years later a major portion was destroyed by fire, although Rīga's chief architect Reinholds Schmaeling faithfully followed Bohnstedt's original design and completed its reconstruction by 1887.

Soon after Latvia declared its independence on November 18th, 1918, the Latvian National Opera Company was founded. Joined by the first professional Latvian ballet ensemble in the 1920s, the opera house was a cultural center for the next twenty years. In 1944, following the illegal occupation of Latvia by Soviet Union, the Latvian National Opera became the Latvian S.S.R. State Opera and Ballet Theater and remained as such until 1990.

Backstage with the set

Multiple small-scale renovations to the building were completed in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1990 that a complete reconstruction and restoration was begun. The work of architects Imants Jākobsons and Juris Gertmanis to the front of the house and to the stage enabled the National Opera to re-open with the production of Jānis Mediņš’ Uguns un nakts (Fire and Night) in 1995.

Sarkanā zāle

In 2001, a new annex was completed, providing offices and a rehearsal stage, as well as additional performace space. Jaunā zāle (the ‘New Hall’) seats 300 and hosts chamber operas, concerts and lectures. It, along with the main hall, the red hall and the beletāžas zāle are also available for rental; I attending a beautiful wedding reception in the jaunā zāle a dozen years and one week ago (laimīgu laulības jubileju K & A!!!)

Over the course of their September-June season, the Latvian National Opera and Ballet sees more than 200 performances, and many world-renowned musicians have launched their careers in the great hall including conductor Andris Nelsons, operatic sopranos Kristīne Opolais and Marina Rebeka, mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča, and tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko. Mikhail Baryshnikov was born in Rīga, and trained there until leaving the country in 1964 to pursue an international career. In recent years he has returned for multiple projects including a solo show “Letter to a Man” at the Latvian National Opera.

An enormous paldies to our wonderfully knowledgeable guide Mārtiņš, who was so patient with our questions and easily passed on to us his enthusiasm for the history of this grand building. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to take the stage of the National Opera, and I will not soon forget the chance to see the majestic chandelier up close, climb the spiral staircase in the red room, emerge on the Ionic portico for a look over the gardens, or peek into the President’s alcove.

Tours are about 45 minutes in length and are conducted in Latvian, English, German or Russian. For more information on scheduling your tour, please visit the LNO website.


  1. Wow---what a gorgeous opera house... I'm sure there are fine presentations there --either by the opera company or the ballet company.... BEAUTIFUL.


    1. It is Betsy, so very ornate and grand! Very befitting the performances hosted there!


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