An international cultural centre is to be established in the former German Theatre in the Latvian capital Riga.
It is hard to believe that music history was once written behind the dreary façade with its crumbling brickwork and weathered window frames. After all, a memorial plaque announces that a certain Rihards Vāgners was active in the house as a conductor and composer between 1837 and 1839, and that in addition 1842 Ferenzs Lists, 1844 Klāra Vīka-Šumane and Antons Rubinsteins, and in 1847 Hector Berliozs were guests in the building. The former German Theatre in the Latvian capital Riga is now called the “Wagner Hall” and preserves the memory of the fact that Richard Wagner spent two decisive years of his early artistic life at this site. The Latvian spelling of the names of Wagner, Franz Liszt, Klara Wieck-Schumann, Anton Rubinstein and Héctor Berlioz has been distorted to such an extent that it is still possible to recognise the luminaries of early Romanticism who performed in the house.
Wagner conducted the concerts in Riga, devoted himself intensively to his first truly great opera (“Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes”) and made discoveries in the German Theatre which will be of decisive importance for his still embryonic project of a musical theatre encompassing all the arts. He was fascinated by the parquet floor rising like an amphitheatre and the darkened auditorium, from which the audience’s gaze is inevitably focused on the illuminated stage. He was also fascinated by the pragmatic solution, born of pure space constraints, to make the orchestra partially disappear under the stage.
Such experiences were decisive in the planning of Wagner’s own festival theatre in Bayreuth, where he had the audience rows rise in a similar way to Riga and even had the orchestra pit completely covered. The German Theater, designed as a kind of palace, was built by the German-Baltic Baron Otto Hermann von Vietinghoff as a private investor according to the plans of the German architect Christoph Haberland. Of course, there is almost nothing left of the original furnishings.
After the Riga Opera House was opened in 1863, the German Theatre lost its importance. During the Soviet era new fixtures were added, as the “Wagner Hall” the house housed various cultural institutions, and it also served as a library, dance hall and music club in the newly independent Latvia. The complex was closed a decade and a half ago, because the walls showed new cracks and other serious damage. Various initiatives to renovate the building and give it a new purpose have been stuck in local political squabbles. However, Maris Gailis, former Prime Minister of Latvia and chairman of the local Richard Wagner Association, has now given new impetus to the plan to turn the building into much more than just a Wagner pilgrimage site.
In the complex, which will hopefully soon be thoroughly renovated and expanded, an international cultural centre is to be created in which Wagner’s ideas of a Gesamtkunstwerk encompassing all forms of artistic expression on an equal footing are to be transferred to the present and future. Nothing less than a cultural “lighthouse” visible everywhere in Europe is to be created from the previously neglected building. Representatives of all genres, from musicians and directors to film musicians and lighting designers, should each work there for a while and be able to contribute their share to the further development of music theatre. Once restored, the theatre hall, which will hold around four hundred visitors, would at least be suitable for chamber concerts and opera performances with a small cast. In the other rooms, some of which have a stately appearance, young musicians from all over Europe could train in seminars and courses. The cultural centre should also be open to the public. Museum rooms, concerts, readings and festive events should also attract the crowds of tourists flocking to Riga.
This all sounds very promising, but the decisive factor will be whether the ambitious project can be financed. Twenty-five million euros have been estimated for renovation and expansion, and another ten million euros or so for equipment and various follow-up costs. The fundraising is in full swing, and the response so far from potential public sponsors such as private sponsors, patrons or patrons gives those responsible confidence. Gailis has convinced a whole range of personalities of the urgent need to save the building from further decay or even demolition and to prevent a shopping centre from being built on the historic site.
As allies, Gailis has already won over the current Latvian President Egils Levits, Wagner’s great-granddaughter Eva Wagner-Pasquier, Elisabeth Motschmann, a member of the Bundestag who is committed to German-Baltic exchange, project manager Konrad Winckler and German Wagner associations.
Latvian and German cultural workers, politicians and organisations are primarily committed to the project – Brussels and the individual member states of the European Community would have to contribute more than just a small mite to the development of such an ambitious international project.