THE VANEMUINE, named after the old Estonian god of music and poetry in the romantic pseudo-mythology of 19th-century national awakening, is the oldest Estonian theatre. It was born in 1870 within an amateur singing and acting society in the old university centre Tartu, which at present has ca 100,000 inhabitants and is the second-largest city in the country.
The Vanemuine held a leading position during the amateur phase of Estonian theatre, being usually the place where new native plays were first staged. The Vanemuine Cultural Society was founded in Tartu by J. V. Jannsen in 1865 and organized the first Estonian Song Festival in 1869. The Cousin from Saaremaa by Lydia Koidula was staged in 1870 and it marks the birthday of Vanemuine Theatre and Estonian national theatre in general. Preciosa, a play with songs by P.A. Wolff and C.M. Weber, was produced in 1883 and it is considered to be the beginning of Estonian music theatre.
The Vanemuine Society building in Jaama Street was totally destroyed by a fire in 1903. Three years later a new theatre house was inaugurated. Karl Menning became the artistic director, he had studied theology at Tartu University and dramatic art in Berlin as a disciple of Max Reinhardt. In 1906 it was the first Estonian company to turn professional, and its new building, a symbol of national aspirations, was opened with great pomp and circumstance. Karl Menning, its artistic director from 1906 till 1914, formed the new troupe on the then novel principles of ensemble acting and psychological realism.
The Vanemuine Symphony Orchestra exists since 1908. At the beginning of the century the concert season was mostly in summer and the concerts took place in the open-air Summer Garden. During World War One and the Estonian War of Liberty the theatre did not stop its activities.
In the 1920s and 1930s the opera, operetta, and ballet troupes became independent branches of the theatre. The Vikings by Evald Aav, the first original Estonian opera, was produced at Vanemuine in 1935. In 1939 the first dance performance, The Carnival Suite by Tchaikovsky, was staged by Ida Urbel. The first original Estonian ballet, The Goblin by Eduard Tubin, followed in 1943. During the German occupation the theatre continued its work and was extremely popular with the public. In the battles of 1944 the Vanemuine theatre house caught fire from an artillery bomb and burnt down. The company moved into the building of the German Theatre, which now houses its 440-seat small stage.
The Vanemuine is the only Estonian theatre, which has retained this combined music-and-drama character. Indeed, during the almost fifty years of Soviet occupation it was the only theatre of this type in the immense empire: a fact that its long-time (from 1944 till 1985) leader Kaarel Ird cleverly used for creating wide-spread interest in its work. Under his leadership many new Estonian plays, operas and ballets were produced. Vanemuine became famous for its unique repertoire, featuring old masterpieces as well as the latest trends of modern theatre. Ird was also far-sighted enough to support the iconoclastic approaches of the young directors Jaan Tooming and Evald Hermaküla, both working in the Vanemuine of the early 1970s.
In 1967 a new theatre hall with 700 seats was opened and in 1970 a concert hall with 842 seats, where a big organ was installed some years later. In the 1970s Jaan Tooming became the leading drama director and his productions were shown at several international festivals in Europe. Ülo Vilimaa directed several ballets with his own choreography that was highly appreciated by the specialists. In 2001 the Vanemuine acquired an additional 300-seat flexible black-box auditorium in a former river-port building, now called Sadamateater.
The Vanemuine is the only theatre in the Baltics that performs all genres: plays, operas, ballets, operettas and musicals. The current repertoire of the Vanemuine consists of ca 30 productions. The overall managing director is Paavo Nõgene, the drama troupe is led by Urmas Lennuk, the ballet troupe by Mare Tommingas, and the opera troupe by the chief conductor Paul Mägi.