Soviet era ceiling mural in Estonian National Opera sparks controversy

The Opera and Ballet House in Tallinn, home of the Estonian National Opera (Rahvusooper).
The Opera and Ballet House in Tallinn, home of the Estonian National Opera (Rahvusooper). Source: Kaupo Kalda/Rahvusooper

The Estonian National Opera (Rahvusooper Estonia) surprised its visitors at the start of the autumn season with a change to the hall's interior, when the Leninist motto "Art belongs to the people" was without much ado covered up. The ERR's weekly TV show "AK. Nädal" inquired about the condition of the ceiling mural in a nearly 110-year-old cultural heritage building.

This year, there has been much discussion regarding the significance of Soviet symbolism in art and public space.

The baroque ceiling mural in the National Opera house "Estonia" in Tallinn was created in 1947 by three artists: Evald Okas, Richard Sagrits and Elmar Kits. The models were contemporary cultural figures and its theme is social realism.

"When a representative theater of Estonia, a symbol of national culture, displays the slogan of a bloody dictator, this raises questions for me. This man [Lenin, ed.] has personally signed the death warrants of tens, hundreds, and thousands of innocent people; and his words are above our stage. The Soviet flags that are used today to invade Ukraine and kill people, are displayed on our ceiling," Ott Maaten, the director general of the Estonian National Opera, said.

The Leninist slogan was covered by the staff of the National Opera with a color to match the surrounding decoration. The ceiling painting has been already a source of controversy in the past, but in 2005 it was restored and preserved. It was also a time of peace.

Evald Okas, Elmar Kits and Richard Sagrits painted the ceiling of the Estonian National Opera in the style of Socialist Realism in In 1947. Source: National Registery of National Monuments

"As an art historian, I would say that one of the issues is that this building is a coherent aesthetic whole, with uniform decorating. Obviously, I understand why some people find red stars, sickles and hammers annoying, but the ceiling doesn't bother me," Krista Kodres, the professor at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture at the Estonian Academy of Arts, said.

"I am not sure whether removing, destroying or hiding them away would help us in any way. It does not help as the past cannot be changed. Moreover, it would deprive the younger generation, which does not have personal recollections of this terrible time from which we all come — the memories that people of my generation and older do have — of the ability to imagine that time," Kodres said.

Ott Maaten also admits that younger Estonians are largely indifferent to the ceiling. Six years ago, conductor Tõnu Kaljuste showed how to make playful use of ceiling murals in a concert performance for the anniversary celebration of the Republic of Estonia. Nowadays, the renowned conductor would rather visit a museum to view Soviet-era paintings.

"I cannot tell which of these options is the best, but I believe the acoustics are the most important aspect of an opera house," he said.

"Acoustics are as necessary to music as water is to swimming pools, and this building has always had this issue; it was designed as a drama theater, so acoustics are a top priority. I am not sure if it's possible to cover up that ceiling mural as they did in the history museum, so that it's technically possible to have the ceiling painting visible on one program and covered on the other, which would also be helpful to acoustics," Kaljuste said.

Kodres went on to say that the state is currently dealing with far more pressing issues than ceiling murals or other historical cultural heritage.

"First and foremost, I believe we should calm down and discuss this, because I'm not so sure how much this current effort to tear everything down and clean everything up resonates with me," Kodres said.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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