When the Latvian government named him director of the National Opera in 1996, Andrejs Zagars concedes, it was something of a surprise. Two directors had come and gone in a matter of months. The theater was hemorrhaging money, and its repertoire was decidedly moribund. For many, the decline of Riga's beloved "White House" was a testament to the vainglory and incompetence of the first post-Soviet generation of Latvian politicians. Now, to cap it all, the government was appointing a 38-year-old actor and restaurateur to run it.
Yet Zagars proved to be an inspired choice. Five years later, the Latvian National Opera is a vital, confident place that has found its financial footing. Nobody talks of folly anymore. Zagars's success has helped make him a star at home and a highly effective ambassador for the new Latvia abroad.
It is an important role, one he discusses with just the right blend of enthusiasm and self-deprecating irony. Latvia has always looked as much to the West as to the East, both economically and culturally. The economy may be staggering along, but foreign tourists and financiers are beginning to return to Riga, the sparkling capital, which celebrates its 800th anniversary this year. And Latvian artists are swimming in the European stream again, led by Zagars and his opera company.
AT 42, ZAGARS RETAINS THE SQUARE-JAWED good looks that won him a string of parts in Soviet TV soaps and action movies before Latvia's independence in 1991. "There were two years of complete euphoria" after the Soviets left, Zagars says. "But then we had to start work. To compete in an international economy, we needed to change our way of doing things." His way was to open a summer café in a theater courtyard, then a bar named Twelve Chairs (all the furniture he could afford). Now he runs a wine store; a jazz club called Dizzi Music Club; Deco Bars, a cocktail bar and café that bulges with Riga's bright young things; and four restaurants that share a combination still rare in Riga—good food, strong design, and excellent service.
His most recent venture is a high-end restaurant that he opened as a place to see and be seen. But so far, Zagara Jaunais is a flop. "The locals like heavy German food," Zagars says. "To them, sushi is just rice. As for stuffed mangoes . . ." He keeps the place open because he's not ready to give up on his vision of restaurant as performance, and because he hopes that as the economy recovers and tastes evolve, Rigans will come to terms with his prices and with a menu that includes crocodile medallions and ostrich fillets.
For many Latvians, change has not been easy. Given the country's recent history, it's hard for anyone of a certain age to be optimistic about the future. Much of Latvia's 20th century was a nightmarish cycle of invasion, mass murder, and deportation at the hands of the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again. No one was left unscathed.
Zagars's parents were deported to Siberia, where he was born. He returned to Latvia with his family as an infant. By the time he came of age, the Soviet Union was already creaking under the strain of its own contradictions, and the arts community in Riga was electric. "Between the seventies and the nineties there was a phenomenal poetry scene, which the Communists just couldn't control," he says. "And there was real motivation in the theater. That's where the most creative, open-minded people were." In the glasnost years, he used his movie money to rush through the suddenly open door to the West. He was in Miami in August 1991 when he learned of the attempted coup in the Soviet Union. "All the people I was close to were here," he says now. "I had to come back."