Latvian-Canadian Composer Janis Kalnins’ Opera “Hamlet” returns to the Latvian National Opera this January

December 14, 2021

Scheduled to open on January 13, 2022, Kalņiņš’ Hamlet will once again be added to the Latvian National Opera and Ballet’s repertoire with performances expected to continue until spring.

Jānis Kalniņš (1904-2000) composed his magnificent Opera based on Shakespeare’s iconic play in 1935 after a very successful collaboration with actor/director Mikhail Chekhov on a production of the play at Latvia’s National Theatre. Chekhov, impressed by Kalniņš incidental music, encouraged him to turn the play into an opera. Using a Latvian translation of Shakespeare’s original text, Kalniņš distilled the play focusing on the story of Palace intrigue, betrayal, murder and revenge. It’s a classic opera plot!

The Opera premièred on February 17,1936 at the LNO in Riga to great critical acclaim. Performed more than 55 times, it was, according to the London Times, destined to find its way on to the stages of Europe’s great Opera houses.

The Second World War put an end to that. After Jānis Kalniņš went into exile, escaping the second Soviet invasion of his homeland in 1944, his music ceased to be performed in occupied Latvia.

Kalniņš spent almost four years as a refugee in Germany before arriving in Canada in 1948. Leaving behind a stellar career in pre-war Europe, he began a new life in Fredericton, New Brunswick. He spent the next 40 years as organist and choirmaster at St. Paul’s United Church, taught at the Provincial Teacher’s College, founded and conducted the Fredericton Civic Orchestra and in 1961 was appointed conductor of the New Brunswick Symphony, all the while continuing to compose. He was honoured by Mount Allison University with an honorary Doctorate in Music in 1981 and received the New Brunswick Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1984.

A simple Google search of his name will provide a more detailed biography.

Since regaining independence in 1991, Latvia is enthusiastically exploring its rich musical heritage performing and recording works by composers who due to world events found themselves living in the diaspora.

It’s worth noting Kalniņš’ opera Hamlet has more links to Canada than just its composer. Tenor Mariss Vētra who sang the title role in both the 1936 and 1943 productions at the LNO and baritone Teodor Brilts also found refuge in Canada after the War. Their successful production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Dalhousie University in 1949 with LNO conductor Alfreds Štrombergs led to the founding of the Nova Scotia Opera Association in 1950. It was the first Opera Company in the Maritimes, founded the same year as the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto!

Štrombergs’ Halifax Symphonette, formed to accompany the Opera Association’s productions, eventually became the basis of the Halifax Symphony. Štrombergs went on to work at the University of Toronto Opera school, the Stratford Festival and in 1972 became the chair of the Vocal Music department at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Jānis Kalniņš is a Canadian Music Centre ( Associate composer. The CMC recently released a new recording of his 1946 Violin Concerto on their Centrediscs label performed by Latvian violinist Laura Zariņa with members of the Canadian Opera Company orchestra conducted by Māris Sirmais. The disc, called Canadian Amber, showcases works by Jānis Kalniņš, Tālivaldis Kenins and Imant Raminsh. All three are recognized as important Canadian composers of Latvian heritage.

Jānis Kalniņš passed away in 2000 and is buried in his family plot in Latvia.