A Centenary of Lithuanian Opera: from Traditions to Innovations

By Rima Jūraitė 2020 12 19 menufaktura.lt
Collage of famous opera productions: “Don Carlos” (1981), “Rigoletto” (2003), “Don Carlos” (2016), “Madama Butterfly” (2006), “Turandot” (2019), “Sun & Sea (Marina)” (2017).
Collage of famous opera productions: “Don Carlos” (1981), “Rigoletto” (2003), “Don Carlos” (2016), “Madama Butterfly” (2006), “Turandot” (2019), “Sun & Sea (Marina)” (2017).

Professional activities of opera culture in Lithuania have started in Kaunas (country's second largest city), during the period between the two wars: Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata was the first production presented on the 31st of December 1920. This gave rise to the continuing Lithuanian tradition to show La Traviata on New Year's Eve. In December 2020, to celebrate the centenary of professional opera culture in Lithuania, two premieres of La Traviata are being prepared by the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre (LNOBT, the largest and most important institution situated in the capital city Vilnius and representing the opera genre at national level) and Kaunas State Musical Theatre. Hopefully, these premieres will not be delayed due to the quarantine limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout the entire 20th century the Lithuanian opera theatre mostly cherished the traditions of romantic operas and the singers were raised in accordance with Italian bel canto school of singing. The major part of the repertoire (around three quarters) consisted of the Romantic era opera productions. The history of Lithuanian opera commenced with Verdi's piece and has maintained focus on the heritage of the composer from then on - the repertoire featured continually revived old productions or repeatedly staged new interpretations of Aida, Rigoletto and La Traviata. Along these works, dominance was established by chrestomathic melodic operas by Italian composers Gaetano Donizetti, Gioachino Rossini and Giacomo Puccini, as well as the prominent works by French composers - Faust by Charles Gounod, Carmen by Georges Bizet and others.

Another branch of repertoire continually maintained by the Lithuanian theatre was related to the Russian Romantic opera (first instance of Russian opera presented at Lithuanian theatre in 1921 was The Demon by Anton Rubinstein, followed by works of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Modest Musorgsky and others). It is important to note that some of the Lithuanian opera singers were educated and gained experience of stage singing in Russia, for instance, tenor Kipras Petrauskas, who performed Alfredo in the first Lithuanian production of La Traviata (1920) and was one of the directors of this production (Konstantinas Glinskis is cited as the principal director in historical sources) has spent most of his singing career performing and studying in Russia.

Over the hundred years of Lithuanian opera history no performing traditions of Baroque opera have emerged. On the one hand, this was due to the absence of school of early music vocal and instrumental performance, on the other hand - the management of Lithuanian national opera and ballet theatre did not even attempt to include any of the early opera works into the repertoire, therefore, the opera lovers did not develop the skills and need to listen to early music. Unfortunately, only one Baroque opera was featured in the repertoire of the Lithuanian national opera and ballet theatre over the period of 100 years (a small comic intermezzo La serva padrona by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi), along with several attempts to turn pieces of other Baroque genres (Johaness-Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach, an oratorio by Georg Fiedrich Händel etc) into theatrical performances.

Therefore, the history of Lithuanian opera relied on the repertoire featuring Classical era works from the second half of the 18th century - predominantly represented at out theatre by the most popular operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart especially favoured by the Lithuanian audiences; they were part of the repertoire at all periods of development of the Lithuanian opera theatre. However, as mentioned before, at all times the repertoire was based upon the prominent Romantic opera works, and only on rare occasions did the theatre sought to add operas of more modern musical language to the repertoire, as was the case with Salome by Richard Strauss. Also, opera stagings at the Lithuanian opera theatre in the 20th century frequently followed the canon of traditional costume opera performances. During this period, more spectacular, original and conceptual interpretations occurred only in set design, i.e. the theatre scenography. One of such cornerstones in the Lithuanian opera theatre was Don Carlos (1981) with set design produced by painter Liudas Truikys. It is also noteworthy that the running repertoire hardly accepted Lithuanian national opera works, although there was at least one such piece at all times. Guidelines for repertoire formation during the period of Soviet occupation were determined by the necessity to present certain mandatory works, which often were of little artistic value, but were in place to serve the ideological objectives.

Essential turning points in professional Lithuanian opera stage occurred at the turn of the 20th-21st centuries, when directing of operas was entrusted to creators of conceptual, auteur directing. Lithuania, a country internationally renown for its original drama theatre directors, finally started presenting the works by its prominent directors at the opera stage, including productions by Eimuntas Nekrošius (Die Walküre, Ottello), Jonas Vaitkus (Nabucco, Salome), Gintaras Varnas (The Queen of Spades, Rigoletto and others) and Oskaras Koršunovas (L'elisir d'amore, Fidelio). Subjectively, the author of this text regards Rigoletto (2003) by Lithuanian director Gintaras Varnas as one of the most impressive and musical works on the LNOBT stage during this time. The director interpreted Verdi's opera employing the aesthetics of German expressionist silent cinema and intriguing dramatic interpretation, based on ideas of Freudian psychoanalysis. This period might be defined by a conclusion that the repertoire of LNOBT at the beginning of the 21st century starts demonstrating the balance between classical, traditional opera productions and original directing interpretations. 

Over the last two decades, the repertoire of the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre placed significant focus on international co-productions, carried out together with the world's most respected opera theatres and prominent directors. These productions are often impressive examples of contemporary directing, such as Turandot directed by Robert Wilson (joint production of LNOBT, Teatro Real Madrid, Canadian Opera Company Toronto and Huston's Grand Opera, 2019), an interpretation of Madama Butterfly by Anthony Minghella (coproduced by LNOBT, English National Opera and New York Metropolitan Opera, 2006) and others. International creative teams are invited to stage contemporary works as well; one of the more interesting examples being a production of opera Love and Other Demons by composer Peter Eötvös (co-produced by LNOBT and Glyndebourne Festival, 2008).

A number of other highly original interpretations of classical repertoire operas by foreign directors and dramatists have been staged during this period at the initiative of the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. One of such memorable conceptual works was Don Carlos, concerned with the topic of Russian annexation of Ukrainian lands in 2014. The production was presented by two German creators: director and dramatist Günter Krämer, dramatist Herbert Schäfer (2016).

Several recent years show that the repertoire of the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre is becoming increasingly varied. Not only the theatre presents new works of national opera (including an increase in operatic repertoire for children), but it also produces contemporary crossgenre works, such as the world premiere of dance opera Forever and a Day in 2019 (choreographer Itzik Galili, composer Rita Mačiliūnaitė, dramatist Ingrida Gerbutavičiūtė). Musicologist Jūratė Katinaitė also notes that LNOBT's repertoire is undergoing positive change towards a more contemporary repertoire: “Of all the good trends I would distinguish the fact that the classical opera of the 20th century has finally found its place in the repertoire. On the national stage we finally have the Bluebeard's Castle by Béla Bartók, <...> new works are commissioned, such as Kornetas [Cornet] by Onutė Narbutaitė. Dance opera Forever and a Day is a cross-genre piece altogether. It is important that new phenomena of musical theatre start to emerge, stepping beyond pure opera. Such performances attract new audiences that are not particularly interested in Verdi's or Bellini's works.”

So far the article has presented the history of operatic repertoire of the largest opera institution - the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. However, along this flagship of the opera genre, three more musical theatres are active in different Lithuanian cities, namely, Kaunas, Klaipėda and Panevėžys. Also, in recent two decades several independent creative teams have formed in the country, two of them operating most widely and regularly.

The first is called Vilnius City Opera (formerly known as The Bohemians, established in 2003; firstly introduced themselves to the audience with Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Puccini's La Bohème), led by director Dalia Ibelhauptaitė and conductor Gintaras Rinkevičius: the company present 1-2 productions of the classical opera repertoire each year, regularly inviting internationally acclaimed Lithuanian opera singers: soprano Asmik Grigorian (selected the best singer of the year at International Opera Awards in 2019), tenor Edgaras Montvidas, soprano Aušrinė Stundytė, bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas and others. It is noteworthy that some of the operas staged by the company have never been produced in Lithuania before, including Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande.

The second one is an independent creative team, a producer company Operomanija (established in 2008), focussed on creation and presentation of contemporary and new opera in Lithuania and the international promotion thereof. Since 2008 Operomanija regularly hosts the New Opera Action festival. The company's productions that have garnered most international acclaim include opera Have a Good Day! (concept authors: libretto - Vaiva Grainytė, composer - Lina Lapelytė, director - Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, 2011), telling of the daily life of cashiers at a trade centre. It is an opera for ten voices, electronics and piano. In 2013 the International Theatre Institute selected opera Have a Good Day! to the finals of the Music Theatre NOW competition (Biennale for Performing Arts, Sweden), where the production was awarded the Globe Teana-Theatre Observation prize. The production continues regular tours at international music, theatre, opera and contemporary art festivals - it was shown in the USA, China, Russia, Germany, France, Italy etc.

The three creators of Have a Good Day! (Vaiva Grainytė, Lina Lapelytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė) have received the highest accolades on the international scene: their opera-performance Sun & Sea (Marina) was awarded the Golden Lion for Best International Participation at the 58th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia in 2019.

There is a number of other recently established creative teams, collectives and personal initiatives active in the sphere of operatic genre. The Baroque Opera Theatre (established in 2014) has already presented several concert performances of Baroque operas. Baltic Chamber Opera Theatre (established in 2012, today better known as Kosmos Theatre), formerly advocating an innovative approach towards works of the classical operatic repertoire, presently focuses on contemporary crossgenre creations relying on the principles of visual theatre. Chamber Opera Theatre established in 2013 at the initiative of one Lithuanian opera singer strives to present the productions of traditional opera repertoire.


This article is part of the series “100 years of the Lithuanian Opera Culture”. It is partially financed by funds from individual scholarship granted by the Lithuanian Council of Culture.