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Visionary and realist: Göran Forsling talks to Aivar Mäe, the new General Manager of the Estonian National Opera (GF)

Aivar Mäe took office as recently as 1 September this year (2009), and I was lucky to meet him just a couple of hours before the first premiere under his aegis. He is tall, dynamic, humorous and has an infectious laughter. Through long corridors he took me into his spacious office, dark, elegant with modern furniture. We slumped down informally at the conference table and I pointed to his CV, which is long and all-embracing and quite stunningly comprehensive for a man not yet fifty.

Does this mean that you are one who never stays for very long?

No, you can’t say that. This is only my second big job and before this I was the General Manager of the State Concert Institute Eesti Kontsert for sixteen years. I started there when I was thirty-three. Eesti Kontsert operates in all parts of the country and right now I still work with them, trying to open a new concert hall in St Petersburg. The construction work will be finished in December and then it will take another ten months to finish the job inside. It is going to be a multi-purpose hall for theatre, for concerts and so on. I will continue the job with the concert hall in St Petersburg until opening. I did in fact apply for the job at the Estonian National Opera once before but this time I didn’t even have to compete. I was asked to start.

Which shows that you had done a good job before?

Yes. And it wasn’t a very long move since Eesti Kontsert resides in this same building. I only had to change side of the house.
What exactly does this new job imply?

First of all there are quite a number of good singers who have moved abroad, and I am going to try to get them back. I don’t know what happened some five years ago. No one wanted them any more. But I’ll try to get them back.
Of course every General Manager’s dream is to get box office hundred per cent. Maybe that’s not possible but we still have very good figures and we are happy about that. And the situation geographically is very good, because a lot of Finnish people are coming, Swedish people too, and that means a lot. Today there are often queues of a hundred persons who can’t get tickets to our performances. That’s a problem. The present house has only 730 seats. And when it opened in 1913 it was a drama theatre, not really meant for opera. And this is a problem. The stage is too small for big ballets and other big productions. So right now I have had a conversation with the government concerning a new opera house. The time schedule at the moment is six to seven years which means we can have a new house in 2015-2016. But land is expensive and we do not have it yet.

Why not do as they did in Oslo - build it in the sea?

Yes, something of the same kind. In Oslo they conceived a brand new area comprising not only the opera house but other cultural institutions as well and a whole new infra-structure. Our problem is that we have no land - but we have sand. And sand is cheaper than the land. It’s cheaper to build the land than to buy it - three times cheaper to build than to buy.
Ballet is important for the Estonian National Opera?

Yes, and the new ballet company will start working in 2010 - the Estonian National Ballet. It doesn’t exist yet, it is part of the National Opera. Right now we have a lot of dancers from the east side, but now we change direction so we are going to have dancers from the west side. They represent different schools.
What s more? Well, looking at the artistic side the orchestra is very good, the ballet is very good. We are looking for good singers…

But you have some very good singers…

Of course. But we do lack some important voices. We don’t have a high coloratura soprano, we lack some Wagner voices. So we would like to open the door for young singers.
Something quite different: In November we are having a meeting for the three Baltic National opera houses, where we will find a concept to rotate our productions. And the same thing is in the pipeline with Finland -Tampere and Helsinki - and Stockholm. So in the end there will be six opera houses involved.

Brilliant idea! I think Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Wallenberg (see review), which has been such a success here in Tallinn, should be seen also in the rest of the Baltic region, especially in Stockholm, since Wallenberg was Swedish.

There are already plans to play Wallenberg in Tampere and Helsinki and also in Moscow or St Petersburg, and after that it will reach Stockholm.

What about your financial situation?

It depends who I am talking to. Talking to you I would say I am very happy, very happy. I know what’s going on in Riga and Vilnius - the financial situation is very bad. But when I’m talking to the governmental people I could always do with more money. But generally speaking right now all the stars are very bright.

And the world wide financial crisis - hasn’t it affected you?

Actually no. And I think the reason is that our ticket prices are quite moderate compared to, say, Helsinki and Stockholm. The highest prices are around 33 euros and the hall is, as I said, rather small. Now we have a very big concert hall just across the street with 1,800 seats.

But they haven’t got stage machinery …

They have, but not much. The stage is 18 meters wide but the depth is only ten meters, and that is not enough for opera productions.

Arvo Volmer (the Artistic Director of the Estonian National Opera) told me that he wanted to do Parsifal there in kind of semi-staged performances.

Yes, we are going to do Parsifal, but not in the new hall. We have found a very good place, which is an old closed down industrial building.

Do you have sponsors?

A lot! And that’s nice. And at present we don’t have the space to find new ones. Everything is full. Inside the house you see a lot of posters everywhere.

What kind of sponsors? Also international/

Yes. We have a Swedish bank, SEB, the costs for transportation are covered by Toyota, we have Altia, the insurance company Ergo, mobile companies - there are lots.

That’s great. Let me change the subject once more. What visions do you have - beyond the new opera house?

First: We are trying to widen the repertoire and not play only some ten-fifteen ‘gold’ operas. But we have to consider what kind of audience we have and be careful. We can’t play like, I don’t know, humbug opera, and lose the audience. The main thing is the classical repertoire but some new ideas should be inside. We are talking of Der Rosenkavalier, which hasn’t been done in Estonia at all. In spite of the financial crisis we talked about we are pushing harder. We will do next year six new premieres. Normally, this year for instance, we only do three. The repertoire should be in balance and also include Estonian repertoire. We have commissioned a new opera for 2013, and at that time we have an anniversary for this building, one hundred years.
Another thing is the ballet. We have a new leader of the ballet company, Toomas Edur, and we are going to expand the company with five dancers every year until we have seventy dancers. Ballet is very popular here. The same thing with the opera company: right now we have twenty singers. They are good singers but some very important voices are absent, so we are looking to that.

You are also playing musicals?

Well, we did My Fair Lady some years ago - it’s still running - but we do operetta. Die Fledermaus is scheduled for next spring and we intend to mount one operetta every year.

Do you believe there is a future for opera?

Yes, I do. Otherwise I wouldn’t be in this business. I mean, people have talked about the death of opera for a hundred years. But the art form is more than four hundred years. This kind of tradition, it will survive - for hundreds of years.

You have been very active musically yourself, as a clarinet player, orchestra conductor, choir conductor etc. How does this new job affect those activities?

I think it works well. When you work as a bureaucrat here, with anything but music, money, you need something else as well, so I still, when I have free time, keep some activities. I have run two hand-bell schools. I’m not active there any more but sometimes, when I have time, I teach there too. And we have a professional hand-bell group here, and I play there. So when I’m off from this bureaucrat job I’ll do some concerts. It’s a way of charging my batteries.

How would you characterize yourself as a person?

What kind of person I am? I think everything should happen fast, like a child: I can’t wait. I normally decide everything very fast. I don’t need two months or two weeks. I need only two minutes or two seconds

Isn’t there a risk that you make the wrong decisions when you do it that fast?

I can change that decision and make another decision very fast. When people say that Estonians are - well, what do they say? - lazy, slow, I don’t know what - then I have to say that I’m not Estonian! So I’m very fast. I’m thinking fast, I’m moving fast.
What else can I say? I’m always very positive. I hate people who are dishonest to me. So from the moment I discover such things I don’t know that person any more, and I will cut him from my name-list. So honesty is very important for me.
I fight for my crew. Everywhere. When I started working here the main thing for me is the Estonian National Opera. And when somebody says bad things about the Estonian National Opera, I will kill him…!
The glint in Aivar Mäe’s eyes and his jolly laughter tells me that this last remark wasn’t meant literally. But the message was clear: He is a fighter - and that is exactly what an institution like the Estonian National Opera needs.

Göran Forsling 

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