Wagner’s vision of the Festspielhaus

The former German Theater in Riga is to become an international music center / By Josef Oehrlein, Riga

It was only two years during which Richard Wagner worked as conductor at the Deutsches Theater in the Latvian capital, Riga, which at the time belonged to Russia. From 1837 to 1839, he obviously had to serve the routine opera repertoire of the time there in a rather bored manner. But at the same time he received groundbreaking impulses for his future work. He was fascinated by the amphitheatre-style rising parquet floor, the darkened auditorium with its focus on the illuminated scenery and the orchestra, which was partly concealed under the stage. These special features of the Riga theatre impressed Wagner and influenced his ideas of his own musical theatre building, as he later realised it in Bayreuth.

Wagner’s artistic development also received decisive impulses in Riga. In addition to opera, he created his own concert series, especially with works by Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, and worked on his first truly great opera, “Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes”. He had already begun composing it before his time in Riga, although it was not premiered until 1842 in Dresden. And on his adventurous flight from Riga to escape his creditors, Wagner, who was notoriously over-indebted, had the inspiration to create an opera from his impressions of the stormy sea journey. It became the “Flying Dutchman”.

The German Theatre in Riga was a centre of German culture even beyond Wagner’s time. Franz Liszt, Clara Schumann and other renowned artists from the German-speaking world gave guest performances there. The German-Baltic Baron Otto Hermann von Vietinghoff had had the palace-like complex built as a private investor, as one would say today, in the second half of the eighteenth century; the German architect Christoph Haberland had planned it. When the new opera house in Riga, which opened in the sixties of the nineteenth century, went into operation in 1862, the German Theatre lost its importance. During the Soviet era, it was given new fixtures as the “Wagner Hall” and used for various cultural purposes, including a library, dance hall and music club.

The building has been closed for a decade and a half because of cracks and other defects, some of which were very serious. It seemed to be left to decay. There were repeated attempts to renovate the building and revive it, but the project got stuck in Riga’s communal squabbles, and above all there was always a lack of money. Another priority was the project to provide the city with a large concert hall. The “Wagnersaal” is not suitable for this purpose, although a large building complex opens up behind the inconspicuous façade on Richard-Wagner-Strasse. It accommodates a large number of medium-sized rooms, some of them of a stately character. But a hall for concerts and other events can be accommodated in the building for at most about four hundred visitors.

Riga still does not have a concert hall, apart from the Great Guild, but now the Wagner Hall project is gaining momentum. The driving force behind the project is former Latvian Prime Minister Maris Gailis, chairman of the Riga Richard Wagner Society. He has convinced a number of personalities of the necessity of saving the building from decay or even demolition. As allies, he has already brought on board the incumbent Latvian President Egils Levits, Wagner’s great-granddaughter Eva-Wagner Pasquier, Elisabeth Motschmann, a member of the German Bundestag who is committed to German-Baltic exchange, and project manager Konrad Winckler, as well as German Wagner associations, and above all several sponsors who have already expressed their serious commitment to financing the reconstruction and expansion.

In the meantime, there are quite clear ideas on how the building complex can be used: as a musical cultural centre with a restored theatre hall, a museum and rooms for seminars and for young musicians to meet luminaries in their respective fields in an international scholarship programme. The Riga-born violinist Gidon Kremer, for example, would like to maintain an office in the building and offer master classes. But the centre is also to be open to the public. The reconstructed hall would at least be suitable for chamber concerts and opera performances with a small cast, for example of works from the baroque period, and the museum could develop into a magnet for the flocks of tourists who come to Riga mainly from cruise ships.
The three-storey building complex with a total area of five thousand square metres, which can be extended to five storeys, is still owned by the city of Riga, but it is to be handed over to the local Wagner Society under conditions of use; a law to this effect is expected to be passed shortly. Twenty-five million euros have been estimated for the renovation and expansion, and another ten million euros or so for the equipment and various follow-up costs. Fundraising is still in progress. In an interview with this newspaper, Gailis expressed confidence that the renovation work could begin in a year or two. The music centre could then open in 2024 at the earliest.

In the meantime, the project is largely a Baltic-German project. In view of the importance of Richard Wagner as a European artist, Brussels and the European countries in general must also commit themselves to the preservation of the Palace of Culture and its future sensible use. Nothing would be worse than for the house to fall into the hands of commerce. Sad to think that a shopping centre could move in where Richard Wagner spent two crucial years of his artistic life.

published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 6. Dezember 2020

View PDF