A century of Estonian Opera

  • 2006-09-20
  • By Joel Alas

JUDY! JUDY! JUDY! The Estonian National Opera is celebrating its centenary with 'Judith,' an Estonian play first produced in 1924.

TALLINN - Estonia's national opera company is celebrating its centenary anniversary, and it's doing so with a drama production. The juxtaposition of theatrical styles isn't as strange as might be assumed. It has much to do with the opera's tumultuous history in Estonia. It was 100 years ago that the Estonian National Opera shifted from being an amateur society into a professional company that paid its principle performers a wage.

Back then, the company covered all art forms. Its grand opera house was used for drama as much as opera and ballet. In fact, some argue that the theater itself was designed as a drama stage, and remains unsympathetic to the requirements of modern opera productions. It is for this reason that moves are afoot to construct an entirely new opera house with a larger stage and orchestra pit 's although these lofty plans are still years if not decades away from fruition.

The drama actors left the opera company in the late 1920s and constructed their own theater. But drama has always been part of the Estonian National Opera, and its role will be acknowledged as the company commemorates its centennial milestone by producing "Judith," a play by the beloved Estonian author Anton Hansen Tammsaare which premiered in the theater in 1924.
The story, as old as time, was about a woman who kills her lover after being rejected.
A new production of the old play will be performed on Sept. 22, 23 and 24 as "a bow" to the drama actors who helped form the company.

Paul Himma, general manager of the Estonian National Opera, says the company is unique because of its proletariat beginnings. "We have a very exceptional history, because the Estonian National Opera was not founded by the order of some king or ruler, as in other countries, but by the initiative of the common people, from down to up."
He goes on: "It was founded by the Estonian Society, who in those days organized society events. They played cards and drank beer, but they also thought about cultural things as well."

Many members of society mortgaged their own homes to raise the funds to build the opera house.
In many ways, Himma says, the history of the company is intrinsically linked to the history of the republic of Estonia, its subjugation, and its eventual independence. The company was temporarily disbanded in the 1940s when many of its members departed Estonia, either through self-imposed exile to the West or Soviet-imposed deportation to the East.
The grand old building itself was bombed nearly to destruction, like much of Tallinn, but the nation's passion for its arts saw it restored.

"The life of our theater has been a part of the independence fight. The first meeting of the Estonian parliament was held here, as was the Supreme Council of Soviet Estonia. It was here that independent Estonia was first established."
And this Saturday, the Concert Hall will play host to the Electoral College as it seeks to select the nation's president.
"After 100 years, it's a symbolic moment to look back and forward. And I haven't even spoken about the art yet!"
The art also reflects history. In the early days, the schedule was mostly full of German and Russian operettas and dramas. In the 1920s, the first ever Estonian opera was performed.

During Soviet times, the company had to bend to please its political minders, but even then it enjoyed training from a reputed Italian coach who left a love of the operas in his native tongue that remains entrenched in the company today. French operas were the only language scripts that 's due to geography, tradition and history 's never took hold in Estonia. Despite this, "Carmen" remains one of the most popular offerings on the current calendar.
There are also programs in place to encourage more Estonian operas, and at least one a year receives a grand premiere.
With five or six productions across nine months of the year, the opera house is certainly a hard working institution.
"One a year is not bad for a country with just 1.3 million people 's that's about the size of a medium-sized European city," Himma says.

Centennial celebrations began last weekend with a sold-out gala performance, and continue this weekend with "Judith."
It will continue all year with various events and productions, in addition to the already-impressive calendar of well-known operas.
In particular, the Rossini opera "La Cenerentola" will enjoy its Estonian debut in November, and the Verdi classic "La Traviata" will be given another airing.

Estonian National Opera, Sept. 22, 23, 24 at 19.00
Tickets: 60 kroons 's 240 kroons (4 euros-15 euros)
Motr info: www.opera.ee