“Opera Theater is not a church”

Andrejs Žagars has led Latvian National Opera for 17 years. He has worked with eminent theaters around the world and has cooperated with Armenian National Theater of Opera and Ballet recently to stage one of the most large-scale performances in the latest history of Yerevan theater. We spoke to Andrejs Žagars about the modern opera of the world and changing the opera of Armenia.

Interview: Karine Ghazaryan



The opera is still perceived as academic art difficult to digest and enjoy. Do you agree with this view?

— Opera is not just an academic concert, it is a form of performing art. Sure, for understanding classical opera it is better to have basic education, have at least some musical training, know a bit of history of art to understand the context. But things change when it comes to contemporary opera. First, there are operas created just five or ten years ago. Second, directors constantly interpret the classical stories differently trying to engage more people, and it does work. In Germany, for example, opera is very popular. The country has over 70 concert houses, Berlin alone has three. And people of different generations and ages attend performances.

opera concert hall


You’ve led the Latvian National Opera for 17 years. What was your strategy of building a successful opera theater?

— I think it was because I saw and understood the changes that took place. I became director of Latvian National Opera in 1996. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Latvia had had several years of independence, and the private institutions – banks, law companies, healthcare companies – adapted very quickly to market economy. But theaters were struggling because they had very old-fashioned management. So, I just gathered a team of people who loved opera and who were able to learn and apply new approaches by discovering the best examples from across the world on how to manage art institutions. We were learning from our colleagues, participating in international organizations and initiatives which is very important. We became part of Opera Europa and other programs; we had sponsors who paid for trainings specifically on how to better run an opera house, how to manage it in a modern way, because for decades, the government had been giving money and it didn’t matter whether the production was good or bad, whether the performance was sold out or not, and so on.

But the time came when Latvian National Opera had to also become a modern organization and not just a state institution spending money regardless of its product. Opera theater is not a church: it has to produce quality product. People tend to forget about this. Yerevan, for example, is a beautiful modern city with vivid architecture, bright people, great restaurants – the modern style is everywhere: why then the opera house should be old? In Cascade you have a museum with works of world-famous contemporary artists, and there has to be some reflection of this in the opera also, this modern spirit has to penetrate the scenography and production. The problem with the Armenian opera is that you’ve had little production for a long time. To maintain a working theater, to keep it alive – it is necessary to conduct a minimum of six-seven stagings per year – both opera and ballet. And again, good management is crucial: you have to engage people who are able to apply modern approach to their work.

Latvian National Opera

Latvian National Opera


Speaking of good management, do you think an opera theater – just like any other corporate organization – is able to function without state or sponsor funding?

— No! In no country it is possible. Opera is too expensive because simultaneously it demands work of orchestra, chorus, singers, technical staff, etc. The amount of people who are engaged in production is too big, and governments need to subsidize. In the USA, the model is different: the theaters do not have state support, they rely on private sponsorship. The Metropolitan does fundraising but this is big fundraising: more than $300 million a year.


The names like Bolshoi or Metropolitan are known to the world, but what do you think smaller heaters like Armenian opera theater should do to engage the public?

— It is different culture. You see, opera as genre demands very high quality. A drama theater, for example, can be a very small company. There may exist a big national drama theater, but there can also be smaller, underground ones, performing with big success at festivals. Opera is different: it is a huge institution, demanding resources and skills. The quality here is not an arbitrary notion: there are very strict criteria of good and bad performance; it is not just a matter of taste. So, there must be a skilled team of professionals with not only good education, but also well-shaped styles: that is to say, ability to play different composers who demand very different approaches.


You worked with Armenian opera theater on staging Jules Massenet’s famous “Manon.” How was your experience of working in Armenia?

— Our cooperation started when I met very enthusiastic Constantine Orbelian. He comes from another country and he wants to really help Armenian opera to thrive, and I want to support him. Armenia is a very musical nation with good musical traditions and hence a very good potential of running a successful modern theater. The production can remain classical, but it is crucial that the opera becomes a modern institution structurally – as modern as a bank, if you wish. Somebody needs to reform it, and I wish Constantine Orbelian to have the power and the support of the government to succeed in this.