Contemporary Musical Theatre in Lithuania

By Rima Jūraitė 2021 09 30
Opera “Have a Good Day!”; authors: Vaiva Grainytė, Lina Lapelytė, Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė (producer “Operomanija”). Photo by Modestas Endriuška
Opera “Have a Good Day!”; authors: Vaiva Grainytė, Lina Lapelytė, Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė (producer “Operomanija”). Photo by Modestas Endriuška

Professional opera celebrated its centenary in Lithuania in 2020. Not only has it become entrenched as a cultural oasis, its establishment had national significance as well. During this period, the main aim was to create a repertoire of chrestomathic works from the world of opera, to create and build up the national opera repertoire. Today in Vilnius (the capital of Lithuania) we have the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, the largest national institution presenting opera. There are also musical theatres in other cities (Kaunas and Klaipėda). Vilnius also has the Vilnius City Opera, a professional company, and various independent creative groups. These organisations explore the classical opera repertoire, or present operas from certain periods, as does, for example, the Baroque Opera Theatre.

True to the long European tradition of musical theatre, the opera and musical theatres in Lithuania are exclusive representatives of classical art. Their repertoire has been dominated at all times by classical opera or operetta, and occasionally musicals. They perceive modernity not as works in a new form, but as conceptual directing, making the centuries-old heritage of opera relevant today.

The development and expansion of opera served as grounds for the emergence and growth of contemporary musical theatre, and the new opera movement, during the first decades of the 21st century. Today, there are a number of initiatives, of which perhaps the most active and successful are the production companies Operomanija and Neon Realism. New opera has attracted regular contributions from contributors in various fields, including dramatists, composers, singers, musicians, directors, actors, choreographers, set designers and architects. Until then, there were few cases of contemporary musical theatre or experimental music as theatre. Productions would occasionally be presented at international festivals in Lithuania, including both touring works by foreigners and premières of works by Lithuanians specially commissioned by these festivals. In both cases, they were mostly one-off events.

The concept of new opera used to be rarely used: it was legitimised somewhat in 2008 by the creative production company Operomanija, when it organised the first short opera festival, New Opera Action (NOA). This festival expanded the concept of opera, and established the idea of new opera in Lithuania in the performing arts and music. This is evidenced primarily by the fact that, unlike other festivals in Lithuania, NOA is entirely devoted to new opera, and not merely to presenting occasional works in the genre. Active for 14 years, through its NOA festivals, Operomanija has created a continuous tradition supporting the genre: by its third year, what started as an annual short opera festival had outgrown its short format, turning into a contemporary opera festival.

Of the last seven NOA festivals, the first five presented mostly premières (six or seven contemporary operas each year), the majority of which were performed only once. The first festivals exhibited a certain trend: participants adhered strongly to the new opera format, and their pieces were distinguished by the clear presence of elements of classical opera, namely, composer, author of the libretto, director, set designer, musical director, conductor, orchestra, chorusmaster, chorus and soloists. Even the titles of the productions expressly emphasised the operatic nature of the works: solo performance, opera, dance opera, haiku opera, nano-opera, etc.

After the fifth NOA festival in 2012, the concept of opera itself continued to expand, until it eventually proved insufficient to describe new works; for this reason, the accurate and precise naming of the genre has become a priority for Operomanija, the production company organising the festival. The company demonstrated an increasing desire to experiment, occasionally moving from the new opera genre into contemporary musical theatre, which offers a much broader means of expression. This determined the diversity of genres, so the term opera was used less and less to describe the productions presented by Operomanija. They currently include a variety of interdisciplinary works, acoustic experiments and new forms, such as sound installation-performance, sonic experience and musical imagery. Since 2012, the NOA festival has been held every three years, and not annually. Premières are presented outside the festival, and productions are shown regularly, as a continuous repertoire. The festival has turned into a summary of works produced between the festivals, an event presenting a range of works created in the preceding three years.

One of the key aspects distinguishing the contemporary operas produced by Operomanija from traditional operas written by a composer is the principle of collective creation. From the very first NOA festival, each piece was presented as the result of creative teamwork. Therefore, breaking standard forms and creative models might be seen as another, and perhaps the most important, trend followed by contemporary musical theatre.  

Of equal importance is the fact that, while originally contemporary operas were of a local character, today the operatic pieces created and produced by Lithuanians have a global character, leaving a significant trace in the international presentation of Lithuanian culture at the world's major venues. For example, the opera-performance Sun and Sea (Marina) was awarded the Golden Lion Award at the 58th Venice Biennale; the opera Have a Good Day! keeps touring and appearing at contemporary art and new opera festivals throughout the world; last year, the Baroque theatre noise machines' performance Navigations (Operomanija, 2018) won the first prize at a competition organised by the Carapelli for Art Foundation.

The international acclaim for the contemporary operas written by a trio of Lithuanians, the composer Lina Lapelytė, the librettist Vaiva Grainytė and the director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, was thanks to the conceptual form and the global themes of their works. Through the stories of ten workers at a check-out in a supermarket, Have a Good Day! (Operomanija, short version 2011; extended version 2013) reveals their daily experiences and presents a sharp cross-section of society. The piece also expresses criticism of consumer culture. The opera-performance Sun and Sea (Marina) (producer company Neon Realism, 2017) highlights issues of climate change and ecological problems.

The team focuses on a secondary group, bringing out processes and people who are usually invisible in daily life (such as check-out workers in supermarket, or holidaymakers on a beach). Highlighting these often unremarkable characters, the authors of the opera reveal their biographies via a unique sound and a sung text, using small sketches to build up a vivid portrait of each character, who exist in our daily surroundings.

In the context of the minimalistic and clean set design and directing, accurately defining the time and the place of the action, the word comes to the fore, a kind of musical score of spoken text written by the librettist, the poetess Vaiva Grainytė. She extracts and identifies the authentic sounds, intonations and nuances from the often stereotypical phrases heard (or likely to be heard) from check-out workers in a supermarket or visitors to a beach, thus creating and presenting lively and realistic characters. The librettos of Have a Good Day! and Sun and Sea (Marina) are distinguished by their verbal capacity (rarely encountered even in contemporary opera), whereby just a couple of phrases, as precise as surgical incisions, are enough to define a character's life and world-view, and occasionally even his or her social status. The libretto by Vaiva Grainytė and the music by Lina Lapelytė transcend the boundaries of a single genre; both the text and the music unfold through composition techniques that feature polyphony, collage and antithesis.

Another interesting aspect is how flexible and adaptive contemporary / new opera can be, as it can be integrated into entirely unexpected places, ranging from black box spaces, chamber halls and art galleries, to impressive all'italiana theatre stages, which gives new connotations to a contemporary piece. The photographs of Have a Good Day! taken in Rome's Teatro Argentina, with its boxes, red velvet upholstery and glittering gold, make a surprise impression. It is quite a contrast to how the same opera looks in a sterile and empty white space. Even more unusual is the fact that Sun and Sea (Marina), with its 20 tonnes of beach sand, was allowed to occupy the stalls of the Teatro Argentina.

The increasing popularity of contemporary musical theatre is marked by more than international acclaim and the wide range of world tours. This genre of art has already found its supporters in Lithuania; there is a growing number of experiments and initiatives from creators in diverse fields of art, along with increased critical attention.

Contemporary / new opera has had an uneven ride in Lithuania. Originally a rare occurrence, 14 years ago it transformed into continuous initiatives, as the production company Operomanija began to organise and attract contemporary artists who were interested in the new genre. Its development is also shown by the fact that works of contemporary musical theatre were originally closer to traditional opera, while trends in interdisciplinary works, acoustic experimentation and performative concepts evolved later. Overall, the constant quest for innovation might be regarded as one of the essential directions assumed by present-day contemporary musical theatre.


This article is part of the series 'Contemporary Musical Theatre: New Opera in Lithuania'. It is partly financed by a grant from the Lithuanian Council of Culture.