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Rebirth on the Baltic

Marie Hennechart

Photo: Marie Hennechart

The years since then have been kind to Zagars, a little less so to his country. The economy is making progress, and Latvia is homing in on membership in the European Union. But after 10 governments in 10 years, the political class is held in general contempt. And in a country where the average monthly wage is as low as $240, not everyone is riding the wave.

You're unlikely to learn this in Riga, which is still the city Graham Greene called "the Paris of the north." Structurally, at least, Riga was barely touched by World War II. It has a lovely old town, all cobblestones and cafés, its architecture a harmonious blend of medieval, Gothic, and Jugendstil—the German version of Art Nouveau, of which Riga has some of the world's finest examples. To the north, Alberta Street is a riot of decorative excess, with turrets and exotic tile work, mythological beasts and classical heroes. Many of these buildings are being spruced up. In fact, refurbishment projects are humming along citywide as Riga dresses for its new role as a modern European capital. The canal that runs past the old town has been dredged, the Russian Orthodox cathedral is cloaked in scaffolding, and the talismanic Freedom Monument is under wraps.

There is method to Riga's makeover. Latvia sees itself as a regional leader for the Baltic States and wants a city to match. After watching visitor levels surge in the last few years, the government recognizes what tourism can do for the economy. Old hotels are being gussied up and new ones are emerging, most notably the Schlössle Hotel Group's opulent Grand Palace Hotel in the center of town.

What many visitors come for, especially the hordes that descend on the city for the summer festivals, is music. Puny Latvia, always under the heel of some great power bent on crushing its culture, has used music to retain its identity, and to describe an often painful reality. "We have more than a hundred music schools, all funneling into the opera," Zagars says. "To be a good singer or musician has real prestige here."

RIGA MAKES THE CASE FOR HIM. Live music is everywhere in the old town: the start, stop, and start again of a choir practice; voices wafting from an upper window; the piano-clarinet duo jamming one afternoon in an empty restaurant; the rock bands hammering out American and British standards in countless pubs and cafés.

In this exuberant climate, Zagars has given the patrician white opera house substance to match its style. "We had handmade lamps from Germany, British carpets, Italian wallpaper," he says. "But it's not a museum. We needed to produce something." He brought in sponsors to fund tutoring and international tours. He revamped the orchestra and the choir. And he ended the old seniority system, promoting talented young singers and dancers. While keeping the company's traditional repertoire, he also encouraged daringly staged productions—hiring prominent Latvian artists like Ilmars Blumbergs as set designers—and challenging modern work from Latvian composers Zigmars Liepins and Romualds Kalsons.

"The aim at first was to become the best theater in the Baltic," Zagars says. "I think we've done that. The next step was to be one of the best in Northern and Eastern Europe. The music critics tell us we're just about there. But the mission was never to be a theater for stars, to have Kiri Te Kanawa. It was to be a really good ensemble theater."

Zagars also wants to take the opera to the people. In summer, the company performs in the open air at a medieval castle in Cesis, 55 miles from Riga. "Thousands come by car," he says. "They bring their sandwiches and bottles of wine. You hear people saying, 'Oh, this is quite good. It's not just fat ladies and men bellowing onstage.' I want to show them that opera is not a luxury; that it's emotional, cathartic. I want to kill the idea that you have to be all dressed up to go to the opera. Of course, everyone comes in their best clothes." He laughs. "It's a hard idea to kill."

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