Financial Storm Clouds Gather around the Sigulda Opera Festival

  • 2015-08-04
  • Michael Mustillo

An outdoor opera inevitably makes its audience nervous. 

Nay-sayers will look ominously to the skies, and expect cold winds and heavy rain. Purists will bicker and moan about the decreased quality of acoustics. 

However, it’s always worth risking bad weather or missing an occasional note to witness an outdoor opera - there’s nothing quite like great music under a night sky.

To find the perfect outdoor opera setting in Latvia, look no further than the beautiful medieval castle in Sigulda. 

In days of yore, it was a stronghold of the Livonian Order. Fast-forward the annals of time, and from the end of July to the beginning of August, it has played host to the Sigulda Opera Festival since 1992.

Located just 50 kilometers North-East from the Latvian capital, Riga, the festival has taken place place in the country’s “Little Switzerland,” a region of outstanding natural beauty.

Despite Sigulda’s fairytale landscape, its opera festival’s financial situation has been far less than idyllic - an issue which neither the Latvian Ministry of Culture, nor the festival’s organizers were keen to discuss.

The 23rd running of the Sigulda Opera Festival was an extravaganza of fireworks and vocals that soared into the night sky. 
Voices from internationally renowned opera performers were interwoven with those of homegrown Latvian artists, to create a unique event for the Baltic States’ opera fans.

The performances during this year’s event had been especially adapted to the Sigulda Castle ruins. The arrangement of live music, freshly cooked food, combined with the experience of outdoor performances and the natural beauty of the national park, were an incredible assault on the senses.

However, has the festival managed to cover its own costs, and who will bail out the festival if it hasn’t?

The Director of the Sigulda Opera Festival, Dainis Kalns, has carried on regardless, spurred on by his deep seated love of the genre. Over the last 23 years, he has built it into a world class event.

“The greatest acknowledgement to my work and to the festival is that the Sigulda Opera Festival has been included in the list of the 20 greatest opera events of the world,” Kalns told the Baltic Times in the run-up to the event. “Renowned journalists from Salzburg have even written about the festival.’’ 

In an acknowledgement to Latvian author Zenta Maurina, Kalns said: “By giving people joy, you serve God. This has been my main purpose in having devoted a large part of my life to this festival. It has been to bring people the joy of opera.”

In 2014, around 8 to 12,000 opera lovers attended the event.This year, when interviewed by the Baltic Times, Kalns was expecting the number of attendees to rise to around 14,000.

The Gathering Storm...

However, expected higher attendance rates and Kalns’ opera passion may not be enough to secure the survival of the event, and he admitted “the future of the festival does not seem too bright.” 

Unsurprisingly, the issue surrounding the opera festival’s survival is funding. Kalns is worried Latvia’s Ministry of Culture is not reaching deep enough into its pockets to secure the event’s future. “The Latvian state provides only minimal support to our operating budget,” he lamented.

Despite the lasting appeal of Sigulda Opera Festival in post-Soviet Latvia, it has not persuaded the Ministry of Culture to open its coffers. Subsequently, the of event has had to fend for itself in terms of finances. 

“Even after 23 years of running the festival,” said Kalns, “each year, it always seems like the first time.”

Despite Kalns’ devotion to culture and opera, any enthusiasm disappeared whenever the subject of finance came up during his interview with The Baltic Times. He sounded heartbreakingly despondent. 

Kalns was also approached for a comment during the Sigulda Opera Festival on August 2. Putting up a icy demeanour, and not uttering a word, he showed no interest in answering any questions, and fled. 

He apparently feared any disclosure of  additional information on the festival’s finances, and its bleak future under its current management structure. 

The matter of support for the festival is not surprising, considering the circumstances. The Latvian Ministry of Culture has in large part left the festival out in the cold, providing only symbolic government support. 

While he stopped short of fully disclosing the matter, Kalns alluded to further financial problems within the festival’s management when it came to fund allocation.

“These problems happen,” lamented Kalns. “You pay people to do something, but then they go bankrupt, or disappear.”

During the interview, Kalns admitted the event faced a number of concerning financial issues. 

Kalns revealed he had to personally borrow money to see the completion of the festival, which leads to the question of how long will the sounds of opera ring out from Sigulda’s hills? 

In the event of bankruptcy, who would bail out this hallowed cultural landmark of the global opera calendar?

Should the festival go into the red, Latvia’s Ministry of Culture has already underlined it will not provide the necessary funding as means of support.

“At present, the Ministry of Culture does not have the funding that would guarantee additional support for private cultural initiatives such as the Sigulda Opera Festival,’’ Dagnija Grinfelde, an advisor to the Latvian Minister of Culture, told the Baltic Times.

This is part of a trend in governmental approaches across Europe, in which the pressure to balance budgets has driven politicians to question the value of public funding for the arts. 

This has led to widespread concern among those working in the arts. 

As the outgoing chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Sir Simon Rattle, recently said during an interview with ABC National Radio in Australia: “I grew up with a generation of politicians who had a hinterland, who’d been through wartime and realised the value of anything that helps the human spirit. Those were different times… We lose arts and culture at our peril.”

Rattle suggested arts event organisers could turn to wealthy private funding — patrons of the arts. Therefore, could Latvia’s prospective patrons of the arts save the Sigulda Opera Festival, should 2015 be its last running?

Kalns explained the Sigulda Opera Festival is already organized by the Sigulda Opera Music Festival society and friends — a community of philanthropic opera aficionados — and not by the Sigulda City Council. 

This year’s festival had a total budget of 250 000 euros, but also received some municipality funding.

The festival’s turnover is around 300,000 euros, of which one third is paid as taxes, meaning it adds 100,000 euros to the local economy.

However, its organisers did not wish to go into its losses, and refused to answer any questions surrounding the matter.  

The figures provided by the festival indicate a 50,000 euro loss.

Another of the biggest challenges for Kalns is also attracting internationally renowned opera singers for each event.. 

Another challenge this year has been daring to performe one of the most beautiful and challenging Latvian operas, The Golden Horse (Zelta Zirgs).

“It has been a challenge as the work is monumental in scale and consists of many scenes,’’ said Kalns. 

The Golden Horse was composed by pianist and composer Arvids Zilinskis in 1964. Zilinskis is also known for having composed some of the first Latvian musical comedies. 

Despite the lack of support, Latvia’s Minister for Culture, Dace Melbarde, believes art festivals have “a positive impact on both the economic growth of their venues and cultural space of Latvia as a whole.’’ 

But what impact would losing the Sigulda Opera Festival have on  Silgulda? 

“First of all it would be the great cultural value which it generates, since culture is the basis for any business and economic activity,’’ said Kalns.

Liga Sausina, Vice Mayor of the Sigulda Municipality Council, added: “By supporting the International Sigulda Opera Festival each year both in terms of financing and organization, Sigulda Municipality underlines the event’s importance.”

This year’s co-financing for the festival was more than 50,000 euros - more than 25% of the event’s total budget. 

Part of the budget, 35,000 euros, was used for performance productions, while the remainder was spent on providing agreement obligations -  for example organisation, and covering technical support, plus performances before and after the main concert at the at the Sigulda Castle.

Would, then, incorporating the Sigulda Opera Festival into the agenda of Latvijas Koncerti be an option in saving the festival?

The organisation currently has a virtual monopoly on music presentation and concert activity in Latvia, due to its substantial budget from the state.

However, the Director of Latvijas Koncerti, Guntars Kirsis, stated the work of Latvijas Koncerti is not highly concentrated on opera, and when asked by the Baltic Times, replied: I advise you to ask these questions to the board of the Latvian National Opera.”

However, the Ministry of Culture believes Latvijas Koncerti’s  classical and contemporary music events do not compete with other cultural events provided by the private sector. 

“Latvijas Koncerti does not hold a monopoly situation on this kind of entrepreneurial activities, explained Baiba Kaulina, a member of the Ministry of Culture’s Public Relations team. 

“If private events of classical and/or contemporary music occur, they are usually sporadic, project-based and because of the expenses and limited audience, the fiscal results are negative. 

“If a private sector company organizes a classical or contemporary music concert, they are entitled to receive state funding by the State Cultural Capital foundation.

“This is an option frequently used by cultural organizations in the private sector.’’  

However, the Sigulda Opera Festival is a private festival, meaning any decision on its future must be adopted by its producer. 

“Currently there hasn’t been an appeal made to the Ministry for incorporation,” continued Kaulina. “[And] for that reason the possibilities have not been evaluated.” 

The subsidy of the Latvian state’s 2015 budget to Latvijas Koncerti, is 2,021,567 euros - a sum that includes basic activities (salaries, concert production, touring, purchase and maintenance of music instruments etc.) for The Latvian Radio Choir, Sinfonietta Riga Chamber Orchestra and Jazz Big Band. 

Within the amount, Latvijas Koncerti,  arranges more than 300 concerts per-year, which including 90 concerts within Latvia, and 40 concerts abroad. 

In the case of Latvijas Koncerti, the state subsidy and project funding constitutes 70% of its total turnover. The rest is their revenue share. 

The total annual turnover including the sales and other commercial income of Latvijas Koncerti, which is not funded by taxpayers, is 4,075,754 euros. 

The income of Latvijas Koncerti constitutes 30% (1,192,240 euros) of the organization's annual turnover.

During the post-Soviet privatization process in the 1990s, any natural or legal person in Latvia was entitled to submit an application to privatise state-owned property or any state-owned company. 

This included a legal option to privatise Latvijas Koncerti and other state-owned cultural institutions.

However, there was no submitted application by any person interested in the privatization of state-owned cultural companies. 

“This is mainly because of the nature of non-commercial activities performed by them and due to the fact that the profit generated by cultural companies is very low,” Kaulina explained once again. “The privatization process is basically over in Latvia.”

Next question: could the Sigulda festival be relocated?

The city’s Vice Mayor Sausina does not agree. “Sigulda is the place where the festival was born,” she affirmed. “We believe it has to continue here into the future, as it is the town’s biggest yearly international cultural event.”

But would the Sigulda Municipality be prepared to bail out the festival, should it run into financial trouble?

In 2014, when Sigulda was the official partner to Riga, the then-European Capital of Culture, the festival was the most ambitious event in terms of both finances and and artistic value.

To attract extra financing for the festival’s organisation, the Sigulda Municipality Council sent an official letter to Latvia’s Ministry of Culture. 

The municipality asked for the event to be supported as a state-level cultural event. 

It also requested the evaluation of the possibility to allocate additional support for Dainis Kalns.

After assessing the budgetary possibilities, the Ministry of Culture allocated 10,000 euros to Sigulda Municipality.  

It was a one-time allocation for a specific purpose – for a production of The Golden Horse during the Year of Rainis and Aspazija. 

In 2015, the state’s funding from the Ministry and the State Culture Capital Foundation was around the same as the last year.

In Latvia  there is a system regarding how the state can support private initiatives, which is the case of the Sigulda Opera Festival, plus many other art and music festivals in Latvia. 

Dagnija Grinfelde, an adviser from the Culture Ministry, noted there are two ways how art in Latvia can be financially backed by the state.  

The Ministry of Culture finances professional art through a tendering process. It then signs a contract with the winners of the tender. This is how the Cesis Concert Hall, the Concert Hall Gors in Rēzekne, the  Rothko Art Centre in Daugavpils and others are funded. 

“Funding for festivals is available through tenders organized by the State Culture Capital Foundation,” said Grinfelde. “This year it assigned 20,000 euros to the Sigulda Opera Festival.”

Whether the Sigulda Opera Festival's future should be decided by conditions created within the market, the Minister of Culture believes the main criteria of any art festival should be high-quality works that can attract both sponsors and an audience. 

In a situation where, alongside the Sigulda Opera Festival, there are many other fhigh quality art festivals throughout Latvia, competition is natural. 

According to Melbarde, "a fair system of equal distribution of available resources is ensured through the tendering process."