Close-Up “There are many myths about Wagner; this is not one of them”

The government building in the centre of Riga’s Old Town once housed one of the most beautiful concert halls in the city. Since 2007, no concerts have been held in the building, erected in 1782. The building has stood empty. Now, that is to change. Eva Wagner-Pasquier, the great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner, spoke with Benjamin Weber. 

It is known that your father was a guest here in Riga and saw some opera performances. Do you also have a personal connection to Riga?

Eva Wagner: My relationship with Riga began with my participation in the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. I had come to audition in Riga for the first time. That was 12 or 13 years ago. After that, I was in Riga regularly, attended performances, saw La Bohème, Götterdämmerung, attended the conservatory and took part in auditions. That’s why I love Riga and it’s fabulous. I always like to come here again.

What do you think of the “Riga period” in Wagner’s life? Do you think that it was negligible or important in his creative development?

No question, the “Riga period” was very important. This is where he found the inspiration for the orchestra pit, lighting and amphitheatre. That is a very important event, though that may not be the best term to describe it. He was a young man, he lived here with his first wife; it was a fantastic time.

Is it true or a myth that Wagner found his inspiration for the Bayreuth Opera House in Riga? What reason is there for that? Had he perhaps seen something similar elsewhere?

It’s not a myth. It’s true. In a conversation, he was asked about Riga and his pathway as a conductor. Wagner listed all the specific solutions for theatres used in the Bayreuth Opera House. There are many, many myths about Wagner; this is not one of them. The premiere of the Flying Dutchman took place in Dresden, but the second performance was in Riga. From this, we can assess that the opera was performed with relatively few musicians. It’s called a chamber orchestra. Should the plans to renovate the Wagner Hall succeed, do you think it would be possible to produce the Flying Dutchman there in the chamber version?

That version is performed in smaller theatres, with six first violins. Yes, that’s like a chamber version. But, to hear that, there are also universities and schools that produce such performances. It is such a well-known piece that you can do practically anything with it; you can even play it on the piano. For example, in a contest of vocalists you don’t need 100 violins. I was just in Oberammergau where 120 choral singers sang almost non-stop, but such events take place when there are 3000 people in the hall.

Now you’re in Riga to receive a medal with the inscription “Wagner-Riga-2021.” Can you tell me more about it? How did it happen?

A few years ago, the former Prime Minister wrote to me that he wanted to come to Bayreuth and discuss something with me. I agreed and he told me all the ideas about the Wagner building, also called the Wagner Hall. This year in June, he came back and asked if I would like to become the director of this project. Hopefully the project will be finished by 2021. I was, of course, enthusiastic and accepted the proposal immediately. That’s why I came here the day before yesterday to walk with the pilgrim’s choir from the cathedral to Wagnerstrasse. It is quite natural to do that because it is important that this centre is opened not only for Riga, but also to commemorate Wagner. I looked at it yesterday. It’s fantastic – so many rooms and what has become of the idea.

What role does the Wagner Hall play in culture here? And what should Germany do to support the renovation of the concert hall?

It must be noted that it is already getting attention in Germany, because Guido Westerwelle was here and looked at the Wagner Hall. Ms Merkel also, I think, saw the building from the outside. But I cannot comment on the processes at a political level because I am simply unfamiliar with them. I do know that one of the Members of the Bundestag was here and is very much in support of the initiative. We can only hope that this place becomes internationally known among the various Wagner societies. People hear about it. I don’t mean Wagner lovers, you don’t have to inform them, and they are also pretty well informed. But I can’t say anything about political influence. One can only hope that the hall will be finished by 2021 and then well-known people will come to the opening. I think that will happen, because Riga is an important city and Wagner is very significant here. It would be rather important in a European context, as well.

Can you briefly describe what it looks like inside? You were there and saw it.

Yes, you have to go through an endless series of rooms. It makes you feel like you’re in a Stanley Kubrick movie, it’s hard to understand – you go up the stairs, then there’s another room, then the Wagner Hall, then the ballroom and a tea room. You can walk through these rooms in a circle. That shouldn’t be left that way. Nothing was done for ten years; you can’t just leave it that way or build a casino or a shopping mall. I think the total area of the building is 5,000 square metres, but you should check that, I may be wrong. This is excellent for the Wagner museum, the centre for people in Riga. That would be a space for presentations by local people and also artists who come from here.

Yesterday, when I was in the building, two large classes were there. I came closer because someone said that Wagner’s great-granddaughter is there and then everyone looked at me. According to plan, they should actually also look at the building. A teacher told them about Wagner. There were pupils from England and Germany. I offered to take a picture, which I don’t normally do, but they were very excited. They saw a plate on the wall that said that Wagner, Liszt, and Schumann had been here. This is a real adventure for them, they just learned about it at school.