As Latvia celebrates its 10th post-Soviet year, Riga, the capital, is emerging as the gem of the new East. One native son, an actor-turned-impresario, is behind much of its success
Marie Hennechart
| Credit: Marie Hennechart

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."

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."