The Wagner Hall in Riga

Featured by Deutschlandfunk

Concert halls are a controversial topic in Riga, too. There is a hall there in which the young Richard Wagner conducted operas many years ago: Mozart, Weber, Beethoven. There is a movement calling for the hall to be refurbished. The Wagner brand alone cannot raise the money required. Benjamin Weber tells the story. 

Atmo: The old town.
In autumn 2017, there is little left to see of Wagner’s works in Riga aside from a plaque on the wall of the house at Richard-Wagner-Strasse 4. Wagner conducted here, says the sign in Latvian, but today the facade is peeling and the old, heavy door is closed.
Quote Eva Wagner-Pasquier: “You can only stare in wonder because you know that the master once was here.”

Eva Wagner-Pasquier describes the situation with incisive pithiness: You can’t get into the Wagner Hall. The great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner supports the campaign calling for the restoration of the historic building. It ought to be used again as a concert hall and Wagner museum.
Quote Eva Wagner-Pasquier: “It is an important matter, not only for Riga but also for Wagner, that this centre can come about. I have seen it, too, and it is amazing, all these rooms and this idea that should evolve there.”
Eva Wagner-Pasquier’s enthusiasm is shared only in moderation by the owner of the property, the Latvian state. The Latvian government considers a different project to be at the top of the state’s priority list in cultural matters: Riga desperately needs a modern, acoustic concert hall for major symphonic music. Discussions have been going on for almost twenty years already. Sure: The historical figure of Wagner could attract more tourists to Riga through the hall. But the cultural budget won’t stretch to both projects.
There is a movement, however, that does not want to resign itself to the situation.
Atmo: Flashmob.
A Tuesday evening in October; it’s raining. A strange collection of people can be seen in the Cathedral Square in Riga. Suddenly: Music, played by a brass orchestra in a large tent; the people start to sing the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Eva Wagner-Pasquier is also present. Then the approximately 400 singers set off to Richard-Wagner-Strasse number 4. A wonderfully-staged flashmob to drum up attention for the Wagner Hall.
Quote Maris Gailis: “My name is Maris Gailis. I am a chairman of the Riga Richard Wagner Society.”
He is the man behind the campaign. And he is well-connected. Maris Gailis, a friendly 68-year-old with a little golden stud in his ear, is not only the chairman of the local Wagner Society – he was also prime minister of Latvia in 1994 and 1995. Later he entered business and now he is retired. He has been an advocate of the Wagner Hall for three years.

Quote Maris Gailis: “In Bayreuth I was first time two years ago, and in museum I tried to find where is Riga? Where is Riga mentioned? I didn’t find. Because it is said that in this years, this youth years, Wagner worked as a conductor in few small German cities. That’s it. Hehehe. That’s it about Riga. That means, we have to tell about this from here!”
1837. Richard Wagner comes to Riga as a 24-year-old. He finds a position at the German theatre. For two years, he conducts here, remains somewhat artistically unknown, and finally leaves the city rashly, amongst other reasons because he – once again – gets himself into severe debt.
And yet: Riga has an influence on his work. He wrote parts of Rienzi here, and the architecture of the theatre left behind a lasting impression, namely the orchestra pit, which was situated partly under the stage, and the audience stalls, which ascended amphitheatre-like and in which the lights were dimmed during the performance. These characteristics of the Riga Hall, which were unusual for the time, were used later by Wagner as a template for the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth.
Soon after Wagner left Riga, the German theatre also moved away. The house in Richard-Wagner-Strasse was used for various purposes until, finally, a concert hall for chamber music was established here under the name “Wagner Hall”. It still existed in the Soviet period – strictly speaking it was situated one floor above the historical Wagner Hall – but the house has stood empty since 2007.
With the help of a public-private partnership, Maris Gailis wants to transform the house into a Wagner centre with a concert hall and museum. There has never been anything like this in Latvia on a state level.
Quote Maris Gailis: “What does it mean? Government gives to some company, who of course will be found in tender process, this house for 30 years, 30 or more. This company put own money, rise money from bank, renovate, do all necessary works, then open, and run as a cultural institution: Wagner Museum, and theatre. (…)And government starts to pay little money after everything is finished, and this start to work. (…)I think that its very big cultural touristic potential.”
If everything goes according to plan, it can be opened in four years. Gailis says: The reactions are positive, investors are standing by and even the politicians are basically in favour. The only condition: The plans for the grand concert hall must not be frustrated by the Wagner Hall. A decision is due to be made this year. There has been no official reaction by the government to the campaign so far.
Quote Maris Gailis: No, but everybody knows, everybody knows. We are not Italians, we mostly keep silence, you know.
Author: But they cannot say no?
Maris Gailis: I think its difficult for them - but again as I said all are pro. Prime minister very positive. (...) The public ask it. It’s a very powerful thing.
Atmo: In front of/in the Wagner Hall.
Back in Richard-Wagner-Strasse 4. Former Prime Minister Gailis knows the code for the entry system and takes me inside with him. The old rooms are impressive – and marked by decay. When you see the old, classical masonry, the thick, metre-long cracks, the mould, the peeling paintwork, the massive water damage, it is clear why the advocates of restoration want to draw so much attention right now. In just a few years, the damage in the house may already be too great.
Closing: The dream of Riga as a Wagner pilgrimage site.