As the summer of 1636 was drawing to a close, Vilnius was moved by two particular events. First, Pope Urban VIII declared Saint Kazimieras the patron of Lithuania. On August 14 with an air of festivities in the town and the Cathedral the earthly remains of the Saint were carried in a silver coffin to a magnificent baroque Royal Chapel specially arranged in the Cathedral. Second, on September 4 at Lithuania's Grand Dukes' court theatre of the Lower Castle the first opera in Lithuania was performed. Thus, Vilnius became one of the first European capitals acquainted with the new genre of the baroque art.
There were rich art life traditions in the palace of Lithuania's sovereigns. And, the merit of an early appearance of the opera in Lithuania first of all belongs to Wladislaw Vasa. In 1625 he got acquainted with the opera in the place of its origin, Florence. And after he became a sovereign of the commonwealth, i.e. the Grand Duke of Lithuania and the King of Poland, in 1632 he paid a lot of attention to music and the court theatre. In 1635 in Warsaw two operas were staged. The first opera produced for the capital of Lithuania was "Il ratto di Helena". Later, four more operas were performed in Warsaw, one in Gdansk, and two in Vilnius, "Andromeda" (1644) and "Circe delusa" (1648), specially composed for the stage of Lithuanian capital. The two latter opera performances in April were the last performances of the theatre of Wladislaw Vasa on the whole. On May 20 the sovereign died in Merkinė (his heart urn is in the mausoleum of the Cathedral Basilica). The music of unknown composers did not survive (it is only known, that "Il ratto di Helena" was composed by the leader of the troupe Marco Scacchi); The librettos written by Virgilio Puccitelli have survived. The theatre had a troupe of dancers too.
The centenarian lack of the opera in Lithuania was slightly counterbalanced by school drama performances produced at the Vilnius University since 1570. Some of them were filled with much music, which made them similar to the opera.
The opera and ballet revived in the middle of the 18th century at the court theatres of the residences in the province of the nobles, the great officers of the state Radvilos, Oginskiai, Sapiegos. Some of them existed till the beginning of the 19th century. In 1785 public town theatres started their work in Vilnius and Klaipėda. Up to the World War I the Vilnius audience saw a considerable part of the world repertory, from W. A. Mozart to G. Puccini. The Vilnius troupes also guest performed in Kaunas.
The idea of Lithuanian National Theatre flashed several times in the 19th century and started to come true in the end of the century. In 1895 Maironis wrote the first libretto of Lithuanian opera. Opera music at once became a part of the Lithuanian concert programs, which were put on in Tilsit and St. Petersburg (there already appeared possibilities in the capital of the empire to circumvent the law, which banned the Lithuanian press and the usage of the Lithuanian language in 1864 - 1904). After the ban was lifted, the already public music and theatre movement in Lithuania remarkably developed. On November 6, 1906 at the present Philharmonic Hall the first Lithuanian opera "Birutė" by the playwright Gabrielius Landsbergis - Žemkalnis and composer Mikas Petrauskas was produced. On February 16, 1918 the restoration of an Independent Lithuanian state was declared and the State Council established Theatre committee, the Art Department of the Ministry of Education, and other institutions to take care of the establishment of music and theatre schools and theatres. However, Poland occupied Lithuanian capital and broke off this activity. Lithuanian cultural work was forced to move to a provisional capital Kaunas. There in the end of 1920 the Society of Lithuanian Art Creators founded a theatre, the present National Opera and Ballet Theatre, which produced its first premiere G. Verdi opera "La Traviata" on December 31. On June 16, 1921 during the opening night of A. Rubinstein "Demon" (it was the third premiere of the theatre) three dancers appeared. It was the beginning of the ballet troupe. In June of 1925 the ballet troupe performed a program of ballets in one act and miniatures and on December 4 they showed its first full evening with L. Delibes "Coppelia".
Strong forces of the performers have concentrated in the theatre and its work since the very beginning has been very intensive. The theatre became famous for superb singers, the number of which has quickly increased and induced intentions to make up new troupes.
Up to the Soviet occupation in 1940 61 opera of 41 composer was produced (some of them were staged several times), with Italian opera predominant.
Theatre soloists have guest performed on stages of Riga, Tallinn, Stockholm, Paris, Prague, Rome, and Milan. In 1936 a group of soloists sang at the Colon theatre in Buenos Aires; There P.Oleka produced "Kitezh" by N.Rimsky-Korsakov. In one's turn on the Kaunas stage up to 1940 55 foreign soloists appeared, the performances were conducted and several premieres were produced by 15 foreign conductors.
Till the occupation the ballet troupe produced 36 ballet premieres from 29 composers. In 1935 the ballet troupe toured abroad. In Monte Carlo in January it performed 10, in London (Alhambra theatre) in February - March - 32 ballets. The repertory of the tour included "Giselle", "Coppelia", "The Swan Lake", "Raymonda" (Lithuanian theatre was the first to present to the West this one of the last M.Petipa's masterpieces of choreography), also ballets in one act. On the Kaunas stage 11 foreign ballet soloists, the Polish ballet troupe danced.
The Soviet Occupation of 1940, war, and nazi occupation affected painfully several fates of the theatre's members and that disturbed the work of the theatre. However, these events practically did not change the theatre activity.
The tragedy overtook the theatre, as well as the whole culture, in 1944 with the beginning of the second Soviet occupation. Almost 30 opera soloists, half of the ballet troupe, perfect conductors, chorus masters, stage designers, composers left for the West.
The occupation made harm to the lives of many theatre members. Close ties with European theatres, with centers of vocal pedagogy were lost. Lithuanian culture was as if divided in to two parts: here and abroad. Soviet control has stopped for long the appearance of modern stylistics in the creative work of Lithuanian composers and the appearance of opera and ballet performances from the worldwide repertory, which in 20th century became the classics. In due course, the balance in the repertory was renewed and in the 7th decade more modern operas of S.Prokofiev, G.Gershwin, C.Orff were staged. Ideological control certainly continued. For example, while staging G. Puccini "La Fanciulla del West" the title of the opera was changed into "La Fanciulla del California" (the fear of the west…) The most popular Lithuanian opera V.Klova "Pilėnai" was accepted to produce in 1956 when "ideological moment" was put into it. Rūtenis, the fiance of Eglė, had to be replaced by the Russian knight Danila (the original version was recreated in 1994 in the production of Lithuanian Opera in Chicago). In 1957 due to "ideological lacks" the premiere of J.Juzeliūnas opera "Rebels" was banned (it was performed in 1977). For the same reasons the theatre did not accept F.Bajoras opera "God's Lamb" (it was produced in 1991 at the National Drama Theatre using the records). The situation of the soviet life settled the fact, that the scope of the repertory in the course of over a hundred years has little developed. In 1920 - 1944 64 operas of 43 composers were produced, and in 1945 - 2000 in the playbills 38 new names of composers and 67 operas appeared. The similar situation prevailed while forming the repertory of the ballet too. In 1925 - 1944 31 composer and 38 ballet names, in 1945 - 2000 about 40 new names of composers and 52 new ballets appeared (authors of divertissements are not included). Quite a big part of the repertory development consisted of works of Lithuanian composers - 20 operas of 14 composers and 14 ballets of 10 composers.
Nevertheless, the theatre survived as an important center of national art culture. It has also always been an institution fostering real spiritual values, as it always united people of talent dedicated to the art. In 1974 the theatre moved to a venue, built for a very long time (there are 1142 seats there). Modern technical equipment has also developed the artistic possibilities of productions.
During the occupations the stage of the theatre was one of the more famous stages in the Soviet Union. Superb singers and dancers from other Soviet theatres appeared on that stage. Departments in Moscow would include Vilnius into the plans of foreign guest performers. And thus in Vilnius Edda Moser, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Grace Bumbry, James King, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Louis Quilico, Yvette Chauvire appeared, stars of younger generation from L'Opera National de Paris. Warsaw Chamber Opera and opera troupe from Teatr Wielki, the opera troupe of the Slovakian National Theatre, the Spanish National Ballet, the Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve, New York City Center Joffrey Ballet, Maurice Bejart "XXth Century Ballet", Monte Carlo Ballet, smaller ballet troupes from Sweden, France, USA, Hungary, etc. guest performed on stage of Vilnius.
In the meanwhile, Lithuanian theatre artists had little chances to demonstrate their art across the borders of USSR. Even such stars, worth of the big stages of the world, like Virgilijus Noreika, laureates of prestigious international competitions Irena Milkevičiūtė, Vaclovas Daunoras did not guest perform. Just a few singers and dancers could appear on the stages of the so-called "soviet countries". The whole theatre toured in Moscow (1954, 1963, 1970, 1986), St. Petersburg (1958), Riga (1979). The ballet troupe had more chances to perform on foreign stages. It danced in the towns of Eastern Germany (1969, 1977), Bulgaria (1973), Sweden (1983, 1984), Greece (1983, the festival of Athens), Syria and Turkey (1988).
Changes in the life of the theatre began in 1987. They were extended and influenced by the political changes in the "socialist camp", the activity of Sąjūdis, and the conditions of life in the restored Independent Lithuania. In the autumn of 1987 the last Soviet opera was produced. Relations with Lithuanian musicians revived. In 1989 in the production of Lithuanian Opera of Chicago "Il Travatore" I.Milkevičiūtė sang, and in May in Vilnius The New Opera Company of Chicago directed by Darius Lapinskas guest performed. Next year in the production of Lithuanian Opera of Chicago "L'elisir d'amore" more members of the Vilnius theatres performed, and in 1991 both troupes prepared common A. Ponchielli "I Lituani" production. In 1987 the ballet troupe danced in Kln, Detmold, states of the Central Africa, Cervantino festival in Mexico, ("they danced so nice and brave, that some of the well known troupes should feel ashamed", - wrote Jochen Schmidt in the publication "Aufbr?che. 4 Internationales Tanzfestival NRW9. September - 4. October, 1990), and in 1989 it visited 8 states of Latin America. Finally, in January of 1988 the whole theatre for the first time crossed the boarder of the still existing USSR. On stage of Warsaw Grand Theatre it performed 4 opera and 3 ballet performances (common headings of the reviews are "Lithuanian Artists conquer Warsaw", "Bravo Lithuanian Opera and Ballet Artists"). In January of 1991 Opera Company with 12 performances of "Don Carlos" toured in Heilbronn. There were hardly two weeks after the bloody events of January 13 and the audience and the press related to Lithuania the events referred to in the performance (a fight for freedom of the enslaved Flemish).
Certainly, the western audience met with some kind of distrust the performances of Lithuanian artists forgotten long time ago. The Italian press commented the theater's "Don Carlos" and "Nabucco" performances in the homeland of G. Verdi: "I have always heard bad opinions about these "penal expeditions" of modest East European theatres to Roncole square (…), unable to raise Verdi festivals to high standard (…). But this time National Vilnius Company presented a surprise. We had a feast for real! Everything was presented with high dignity, like real performances at the theatres fostering old traditions (…) - the performance at Verdi's home with Verdi's music was impressive" (Pier Maria Paoletti. Those Assyrians of the Baltic. - Gazzetta di Parma, 24 07 1992).
The restored relation with the world is one of the most important things for the present day theatre. Opera and Ballet troupes leave for touring almost every year. In 1992 Opera Company performed "Don Carlos" in Holland. In 1993 it again appeared with "Don Carlos" there (in Amsterdam, Hague, Maastricht, Groningen, and other cities). Moreover, during the famous Savonlinna festival in Finland it performed "Nabucco" and "Lucia di Lammermoor". In 1995 14 performances of "Lucia di Lammermoor" were performed in Heilbronn and 14 in the towns of Holland. In 1996 performances of "Der Freischütz" were performed in Heilbronn. One of the latest productions of the theatre "Aida" was performed in Holland (1998), Germany and Taiwan (2000). Since 1990 the number of the guest performances of the ballet troupe increased. Then they danced in Veimar and Erfurt. It also took part in the IVth dance festival of North Rhine and Westfalen (Duisburg, Leverkussen), Holland. In 1992 it performed 15 performances of "Giselle" in Heilbronn and 15 performances of "The Swan Lake" in Holland. In 1993 it performed "Giselle" and "Coppelia" in Holland. S.Prokofiev ballet "Romeo and Juliet" won international recognition. It was the ballet staged by the famous dancer and choreographer from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow Vladimir Vasiliev. In 1994 the troupe performed 10 performances of this production in Holland. The production and the performance of "Romeo and Juliet" attracted the attention of the famous violoncellist and conductor, an old friend of Lithuanian musicians Mstislav Rostropovich. In 1994 he conducted "Romeo and Juliet" in Schleswig - Holstein festival in Germany. Moreover, he included it into the program of the celebration of his 70th anniversary. He conducted during the tour of Lithuanian Ballet troupe at Evian festival in France, Greece and Egypt, in 1998 - in Washington, in 1999 in Sardinia, in 2000 in Germany (Ingolstadt festival). Besides, in 1995 in Holland the troupe danced "The Swan Lake", in 1999 at the International Ballet Festival in Lodz it performed "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Carmen" and in Spain (Madrid, Barcelona) it performed "Zorba the Greek" with the appearance of the choreographer of this ballet Lorca Massine.
The regained freedom revealed itself in all the spheres of the activity of the theatre. The repertory of the theatre was remarkably renewed. Operas that have never been included in to the repertory were produced. The most notable of them are V.Bellini "Norma", L. van Beethoven "Fidelio", J.Haydn "Le Pescatrici" (the production for J.Haydn and F.Schubert music festival), G.Verdi "Nabucco" and "Macbeth", C.M. von Weber "Der Freischütz", A. Ponchielli "I Lituani", J.Strauss "Wiener Blut", B.Britten opera for children "Let's Make an Opera!" and finally a new Lithuanian work B.Kutavičius "The Bear". Operas, last time seen only during World War II, also came back to stage. These are Wagner "Tannhäuser", E.Humperdinck "Hänsel und Gretel", G.Verdi "Il Trovatore", W.A. Mozart "Le Nozze di Figaro", operas not performed on the new stage, like W.A. Mozart "Die Entführung aus dem Serail", J.Offenbach "Les Contes d'Hoffmann", P.Tchaikovsky "Queen of Spades". Not only opera directors, like V.Mikštaitė, R.Siparis, E.Domarkas, N.Petrokas, prepared the productions, but drama directors Jonas Vaitkus, Linas Zaikauskas, Jonas Jurašas, guests from abroad Miroslav Fischer (Slovakia, "Macbeth"), Monika Wiesler (Austria, "Wiener Blut" and "Les Contes d'Hoffmann") as well. The opening night of "Tannhäuser" was staged by the guests from Germany - director Manfred Straube, designers Siegfried Bach and Inge Laube. "Le Pescatrici" was prepared by the guests from Austria: conductor Olga Gezcy, director Robert H.Pflanzli and deigner Hinz B.Galle. The premieres of "Der Freischutz" and "Tosca" were prepared by director from Estonia Neeme Kuning and designer Hardi Volmer.
The ballet repertory during the latter decade has been renewed even more. In 1988 Jurijus Smoriginas made his debut with the program of ballets in one act "Four Dramas". After a year he prepared the premieres of O.Balakauskas "Macbeth" and B.Kutavičius "The Last Pagan Rites", later M.Ravel "Daphnis et Chloé". In 1992 Egidijus Domeika made his debut with the productions of "Carmen" (music by G.Bizet - R.Schedrin) and "Calighula" (with music by D.Shostakovich). In 1992 he presented new choreography for E.Balsys ballet "Eglė the Queen of Grass Snakes". However, his work was interrupted by an unexpected death. The choreography for A.Rekašius ballet "Medea" was created in 1996 by its librettist Anželika Cholina. Foreign choreographers created a lot of noteworthy works too. The ballet "A Proba" (with music by J.S. Bach and rock music by G. Presser) in 1989 was staged by Hungarian choreographer Antal Fodor and designers Istvan Szolga and Judit Schaffer. After a year this choreographer and stage designers Patrik Lamoni and Judit Szekulesz prepared the premiere of A. Pfluger ballet "Catharsis". S.Prokofiev "Romeo and Juliet", M.Theodorakis "Zorba the Greek" prepared by Lorca Massine (Italy), ballets in one act choreographed by Krzystof Pastor (Holland) "Carmen" (with music by G.Bizet - R.Schedrin) and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (with music by F. Mendelssohn - Bartholdy) won international recognition. A superb performance was created by choreographer from Germany Xin Peng Wang (2000). It consists of "Contrasts" (a miniature with music by S.Prokofiev) and I.Stravinsky "The Rite of Spring".
Renovation of the repertory has induced quite an immense revival of performing arts of the theatre. Besides H.Ciparis, E.Renter, a lot of works of stage design in opera and ballet were created by artists, who in this sphere have little manifested or just made a debut. Among them are Dalia Mataitienė ("Nabucco", "Eglė the Queen of Grass Snakes"), Vytautas Kalinauskas ("Hänsel und Gretel", "Il Trovatore"), stage designer Adomas Jacovskis and costume designer Aleksandra Jacovskytė (a ballet of O.Balakauskas and G. Verdi opera "Macbeth", "Calighula", "Aida", "The Rite of Spring"). Costumes for several ballets were created by costume designer Juozas Statkevičius.
In the 8th decade a generation of singers appeared who still are the performers of the leading parts. These are sopranos Sofija Jonaitytė, Irena Milkevičiūtė, Romutė Tumuliauskaitė, tenors Bronius Tamašauskas, Česlovas Nausėda, baritones Eugenijus Vasilevskis, Arvydas Markauskas, bass Vladimir Prudnikov. Soon after they were joined by a soprano Sigutė Stonytė, tenor Antanas Tveraga, baritone Arūnas Malikėnas, bass Vytautas Bakula. Soprano Jolanta Čiurilaitė, mezzo-sopranos Aušra Stasiūnaitė and Laima Domeikaitė, tenor Jonas Valuckas created significant parts too. During the latter decade sopranos Alma Buzaitė, Irena Zelenkauskaitė, Regina Šilinskaitė, mezzo-soprano Inesa Linaburgytė, baritone Vytautas Juozapaitis, bass Vladas Bagdonas revealed themselves. New life possibilities influenced the composition of the troupe. Tenor Segej Larin after graduating from Lithuanian Music Academy (he came from Russia to study under the professor V.Noreika) in 1984 made his debut. In 1989 he was invited to perform at the Slovakian National Opera and was soon noted by the other theatres. Now he sings on the most famous stages of the world. After the studies at the theatre La Scala in Milan since 1980 Armenian tenor Geham Grigorian performed the leading parts at the theatre. In 1988 he left for homeland. Now these singers visit the Vilnius theatre as guests. Tenor Zenonas Žemaitis (1953 - 2000) and baritone Sigitas Dirsė started to perform the leading parts and were invited to the theatre in Erfurt. Liudas Norvaišas , who came back home this year, also has been a soloist of the theatre in Erfurt. Baritone Juozas Koreiva has performed at the Rostok and other German theatres. After a several appearances on other stages young bass Almas Švilpa started his career at the Essen theatre. A well-known performer of oratories and masses in Lithuania and abroad Algirdas Janutas came back to the theatre. Vytauatas Kurnickas, a tenor of Klaipėda Music Theatre, was invited to perform the main repertory in 1994. Of late years Eugenija Klivickaitė started to sing the main repertory of the mezzo-soprano. Mezzo-soprano Laima Jonutytė, tenor Audrius Rubežius, baritone Mindaugas Žemaitis, some other young singers have also complemented the troupe. A well-known soloist from Philharmonic Asta Krikščiūnaitė, graduates of Music Academy, just starting their careers, have created a lot of parts in the theatre too. Not only the Opera Company has won international recognition, but also its members.
About the appearance of the ballet troupe at the International Ballet Festival in Lodz the Polish press wrote: "Lithuanian artists, directed by the choreographer K.Pastor, showed masterful classical dance, diversified with the elements of modern dance (…). K.Pastor in the press conference said, that the Lithuanians do not yield in technical mastery to the best foreign companies, with which he happened to work" (Rzeczpospolita, 27 05 1999).
By the time the guest worked with the troupe, L.Bartusevičiūtė, N.Beredina, J.Katakinas, P.Skirmantas had already left the stage. Moreover, the first in the troupe winner of international competitions J.Valeikaitė had already been gone to Germany (she danced at the theatres of Essen, Bonn). However, today the troupe still is a traditional combination of experience and youth. Its members still are the theatre's old residents V.Chlebinskas, A.Semionovas, V.Fadejevas, performers of the leading parts A.Molodovas, the first winner of international competitions E.Smalakys, also A.Gineitytė, R.Maskaliūnas, V.Vološinas, representatives of the younger generation Viltis Algutytė, Ingrida Cvetkovaitė, Asta Charkovaitė. A generation of dancers raised by the Vilnius Choreography School revealed itself during the latter decade and the latter several years and appeared to be of rare talent. The present life of the country granted them a lot of opportunities, which were not available before. The brightest stars of this generation are Eglė Špokaitė, a laureate of four international competitions ("the greatest stages of the world can dream about her", - "Trybuna Lodzka", 27 05 1999) and Rūta Jezerskytė, a winner of three international competitions (just a guest, - as since 1999 she is a soloist of the National Ballet in Amsterdam), laureates of international competitions Živilė Baikštytė, Asta Bazevičiūtė, Miki Hamanaka, also Nelė Beliakaitė (in 1999 she left for the USA), Žavinta Čičelytė, Asta Gailiušaitė, Kristina Kanišauskaitė, Olga Konošenko, Iryna Tsymbal, a laureate of the Baltic Assembly Art Premium Mindaugas Baužys, who is invited to perform on stages in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Copenhgen, Toronto and others, also the performers of the leading parts Aurimas Palauskas and Nerijus Juška, the performer of character parts Aurelijus Daraškevičius. The appearances of the ballet troupe are highly evaluated not only by the Lithuanian, but also by the foreign press (for example, about "Romeo and Juliet" performed at the festival in Evian it was written: "incalculable invitations to the stage, long applause between all the acts, and ovations of the risen audience at the end", - Le Messager, 22 05 1997.)
Today the operas and ballets are also performed by the Kaunas and Klaipėda Music Theatres. Opera and Ballet productions are often included in the programs of different international festivals. The theatre members also take part in them. Opera soloists are invited to sing oratories, masses too. Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre has been a beginner of many creative initiatives and it is a developer of opera and ballet arts in Lithuania. After all the years that have already passed, the Theatre still is the most important center of performing arts in Lithuania.