Criticism on Fridays: Breaking! Lithuanian Ministry of Culture Is About to Destroy The National Opera

The Five-Year Progress of the LNOBT Is Interrupted By the Questionable Choice of Ministry of Culture

By Polina Lyapustina
(Photo credits Joana Suslavičiūtė)

On February 1, the Ministry of Culture announced that Laima Vilimienė, who is currently a Head of the Klaipėda State Music Theater and previously worked for many years as Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theater’s deputy general director for marketing, won the competition for the position of director of the LNOBT.

The end of the contract of the current General Manager of the LNOBT, Jonas Sakalauskas, fell during a very difficult period (reminiscent of fear and often hysteria) for Lithuania. And according to the law, the contract cannot simply be renewed. A new director is appointed every five years on the basis of competition for projects for the next five years. 

The fairness of the commission’s choice must now be called into question, and many professionals are openly emphasizing the conflict of interest of the commissioners who appointed Vilimienė. 

This vague wording of the law allows the ministry to simply put anyone at the head of the theater who proposes (does not even calculate and implement) a program that is in line with the current Government policy.

Five years ago, this thoughtlessness worked out great, and according to the ideas of liberal and progressive ideas of Lithuania at that time, the young opera baritone with management education and the experience was appointed for this position. And that’s how the period of growth started. 

After five years, the theatre is still on its way. This period is certainly not enough to cement the achievements, but now, I’m afraid, we should think about how not to lose what was gained.

The time when newly appointed director Vilimienė worked at the theatre remains a very dark spot in the memory of employees and the audience as a period of stagnation, repertoire monotony, poor work environment, and corruption. Just five to 10 years ago, LNOBT was a typical rural post-soviet institution. 

Although some may note that the Lithuanian National Opera is still not the brightest star among the European opera houses and carries the difficult heritage of 40 years of Soviet occupation, if we look at what progress has been done in the last five years under the current General Manager Jonas Sakalauskas, you can barely find a theatre in the world that made such significant headway in a such a short term. 

Let’s call out just some of them, those I could see with my own eyes not even being present in Lithuania all the time.

Under Sakalauskas, Sesto Quatrini was appointed as an artistic director. Not only has the Italian conductor dedicated his time and skills to improving the habitual pattern of singing and performances, but together with his manager Francesco Saverio Clemente, he brought many international stars onto the LNOBT stage. 

The theatre successfully presented several international co-productions (together with Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Royal Opera House Muscat, Teatro Real Madrid, Canadian Opera Company, and Grand Opera Huston), and held the world premiere Bob Wilsons‘ “Turandot*.” Not to mention the director’s presence in Vilnius and his iconic meetings with the audience and professionals.

When a young talented Lithuanian conductor Ričardas Šumila was appointed as the new musical director of LNOBT, after working closely with Sesto Quatrini for a few years, he put much effort into improving the orchestra and the results were noticeable almost immediately.

The theatre held frequent auditions for young singers and enriched the ensemble with new names and voices, while the singers (and not only local singers) started to perceive LNOBT as a decent place to work. 

The working environment was improved drastically as an important part of Sakalauskas’ policy – amazing work was done through a personal approach and the presentation of public policies that basically teach old and new workers to value their feelings at the working place.

The worker-oriented approach helped the theatre go through the pandemic with its head held high. Many special activities were held online to keep the staff busy. Psychological help was offered. The wages were saved. 

And once the pandemic restrictions were lifted, loads of time and money were spent on innovative projects like collaboration with Operamania, which gives a chance to numerous young creators to develop and present their modern operas on stage. At the same time, the young directors joined the ranks of theater workers. 

When the war came, the theatre paid (and still does) attention to Ukrainian colleagues, organizing performances and touring the theater companies from Ukraine. 

That said, I must admit that some of Sakalauskas’ decisions were recently directed by politics, not artistry, such as when he decided to cancel all the Russian composers’ performances. If it was a bow to the Minister of Culture Kairys (who actually wants to declare the mental quarantine for all Russian works of culture in Lithuania), it never worked out to save Sakalauskas’ position. 

Eventually, the audience only got more stressed and disappointed. While canceling Prokofiev (who was born in Sontsivka, Ukraine) and Stravinsky (who spent most of his life and worked abroad) made no sense in the matter not to traumatize Ukrainian people in Lithuania, where they, I must note, still speak the Russian language, which I find not a smaller part of Russian culture than the music.

But I do believe, that mistakes happen to all of us. Especially in such difficult times. With Russian composers in the repertoire or without, Sakalauskas is a great chief for his theater and his people. And we can see it from the support the theatre workers show to him on social media. But it’s not enough to change the situation.

That is why Friday night, the workers gathered by the main entrance of the LNOBT to perform an action of “Mourning month. Day One,” the first event of a month-long plan of actions showing workers’ support to their General Manager. And also to protest against the interruption of the program of development and progress that theater followed the last five years, and which the newly appointed director Laima Vilimienė wants to switch to “the more balanced repertoire,” where she “will really pay due attention to the national culture in the broadest sense, both creators and performers.”

With this article, I pay my support to Jonas Sakalauskas and more importantly to the LNOBT, which with ups and downs I could see and write about closely, with which I often disagreed, and yet with which I’m kneeling in respect of truly amazing progress done in just a few years.

I encourage the workers and the audience to not let this go.

*The co-production of the opera “Turandot” was agreed upon during Gintaras Kevisas’ direction, several years before the actual work started and the opera was presented to the Lithuanian audience, previewed by numerous educational events created by Jonas Sakalauskas’s team.