June 11, 2009 / 2:47 PM / in 9 years

Opera distracts Latvians from real life drama

RIGA (Reuters Life!) - Latvia’s opera would seem a natural victim of economic crisis.

Instead, its performances are packed as they offer a respite from the real life drama of the Baltic country’s worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Though the economy is set to drop 20 percent this year, the annual opera festival has sold about 90 percent of its tickets. On other nights too the house is also usually quite full.

Though not a local, Swedish tourist Kerstin Johansson, 56, thinks she knows the reason. “When there is a crisis like this one here, people need a distraction,” she said.

Students, pensioners, tourists and music lovers delighted at this week’s hedonistic rendition of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” set aboard a cruise ship where bedazzled singers danced around deck chairs and proclaimed: “May heaven protect the zealousness of my heart!” and “Let the world fall apart, I feel nothing!”

Standing among champagne-quaffing aficionados during the sold out show’s intermission, Johansson said she was “not necessarily surprised” to see such exuberance on the sidelines of an economic bust that has raised fears of a devaluation of the EU country’s currency.

Three young Latvians in the standing section of the ornate 1,000-seat opera house said during the break that they understood why high culture keeps its appeal in difficult times.

“I think the Latvian people love art,” said Annija Bicule, 17, whose music school was offering free tickets to the show.

Her friend Stephanie Sidorenko, 16, said that she thought her compatriots had become generally “depressed” over the past year, but fellow 16-year-old Laima Ledina was less worried.

“I think people are a little sad right now, but we’ll be okay,” she said, summing up the spirit on display across Riga, where many Latvians who are suddenly poorer than a year ago are carrying on with more modest versions of their boom-time lives.

LESS TO SPEND

Restaurants in Riga’s picturesque Old Town have cut prices to keep attracting customers who have less to spend now that the global credit crunch has dried up the loans which drove up Latvian property prices and made cars and cash easy to come by.

While the city atmosphere remains pleasant, economists have warned that unrest may bubble to the surface in the months ahead when jobless benefits start to run out and the government pares back spending on the scale it had promised the European Union, International Monetary Fund and other donors.

The planned budget cuts amount to 10 percent of Latvia’s gross domestic product over a three-year period, and will push down public sector salaries, slash the minimum wage and drain more money from already struggling schools and hospitals.

Lasma Irsa, who rents out a “PartyBus” nightclub on wheels that once catered to high-flying Latvians and tourists, said that many people are now choosing less costly ways to socialize and see their friends in the capital.

“Yes, unemployment is high, salaries are small ... but at the moment people have adapted or become accustomed, and have accepted changes and already learned how to live (a) plain life,” Irsa said in an e-mail.

The Riga Opera Festival, which runs from June 2 to 14, has sold about 90 percent of its tickets, said Jochen Breiholz, head of international relations for the event. Seats for the festival cost between 5 to 60 lats (about $10 to $120).

One of the performances showcased this year was composed by a Latvian national and sung in Latvian, a source of pride for the small country where many Russian-speakers also live.

Erik Esenvalds’ opera, “Joseph Is A Fruitful Bough,” is darker and far more understated than the Mozart blockbuster. But the biblical tale chronicling love, aspiration and fear in a difficult time seemed to strike a chord with its local audience.

“It is very special,” Regina Eglite, a Latvian woman in her 70s, said during the intermission. She told Reuters that she was listening to the show “not with my ears but with my heart.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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