Top conductor: Opera house discussions mired in cognitive dissonance

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Conductor and National Opera (Rahvusooper) artistic director Arvo Volmer. Source: ERSO

Discussions on the potential extension of the Estonia Theater, home of the National Opera (Rahvusooper) and Ballet so far consist mainly of hot air, while there has been little substantive discussion, the national opera's artistic director, conductor Arvo Volmer, says.

Talking to Klassikaraadio talk show "Delta" Tuesday, Volmer said that he was in principle in favor of an extension, while acknowledging that in his view, the question all comes back to development priorities.

He said: "It's worth considering whether or not this option is currently the best way to develop sustainably our beloved home town."

"I would like a substantive discussion on the issue. It is clear that we are at a unique historical stage where we are striving to rank among the cultural nations, in creating our own musical theater building," he went on.

Finished in 1913 and at the time the largest building in Tallinn, the Estonia Theater has hosted the National Opera throughout that time, and was extensively damaged by a Soviet air raid in 1944.

The building was last renovated in 1997.

Calls to relocate the opera to a more spacious or modern venue – at one point the Linnahall was in the picture – have so far foundered, and a recent application to extend the current building was rejected, partly over concerns it would encroach too much on the adjacent Tammsaare Park.

The arrival of the pandemic brought with it cancellations and postponements of cultural events during lock-down and restricted audiences much of the rest of the time, and a return to relative normalcy has only started through May and June this year.

Building a new theater at another location would be an ambitious plan and one worth considering, in Volmer's view, but would also come with its attendant risks.

"One thing we are afraid of is that if we build a 'Tallinn opera house' somewhere, suddenly the consistency and coherence with what has come before will evaporate; perhaps it would become some sort of impersonal, 'modern' thing," he added.

Funding and how much a new development would cost would also be a concern, he said.

"What worries me is that cultural money constitutes a certain proportion of total social income in any case, and if a certain chunk of that percentage starts to go on concrete, while less and less of artistic content remains, then at some point we would start to lose out on opportunities to create culture."

A lack of public debate on the matter saddened him, he added.

"It seems to me that denial is a very fashionable thing these days. This kind of resistance, where you can't do this and you may not do that, that it's an additional type of stealing, all politicians are pigs etc.," Volmer went on. 

"This kind of dissonance and editing is overshadowing the substance of the matter, about which I hear very little being said."

Nonetheless, a truly musical theater is needed in Estonia, he said.

"We have been striving towards this for over a hundred years, that we can enjoy high-level musical theater together, be it opera, musicals, dance performances or ballet," he said. 

"In this sense, we need to think constructively about how we can attain that. I understand that the construction of an opera house has been talked about in general for around a decade now, but in reality the steps needed for that have not been taken," he went on.

Extending the building remained for him a viable option, rather than relocating to a new site and a newly-built edifice.

"It is clear that there is no point in building a theater somewhere on the periphery, since if we wanted to do that, it should be a memorial to the aspirations of the Estonian people, as all cultural edifices should be," he added, noting that this could not be done easily in the future, nor could a putative new opera house be located on a "landfill" site somewhere outside the immediate center.

An extension between the current building and the Viru Hotel/Viru Center – the other side of Tammsaare Park – is one thing Volmer said he could envisage, with smaller and larger halls to match different kind of events, as well as a concert hall.

The existing building has two roughly equally-size auditoria; one hosts opera and ballet on the stage, the other is a concert hall.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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