In the UK it is almost obligatory for a culture minister never to have attended an opera. In Latvia, a small country that takes these things very seriously, the newly installed culture minister hasn’t just seen plenty of operas, he’s starred in them. Nauris Puntulis a tenor who also had a successful pop career in his 20s, but is now the craggy, grey-haired minister-from-central-casting in the country’s centre-right coalition government.
Latvia is proud of its musical traditions. Like Finland on the other side of the Baltic Sea, it produces a remarkable number of leading conductors and classical musicians for so small a country. This summer it is launching an annual music festival at the capital’s seaside resort, Jūrmala, designed to be more than just a moment of high culture but something of a rallying point for a country with a delicate historical and geo-political backdrop.
“When we founded our state [after the first world war], culture was a central element,” says Puntulis, “more important in a way than political structures. The only way for us to exist was to nurture our culture.”
Latvia and the other Baltic states had spent centuries as playthings of empires – Swedish, Polish, German and Russian. All it had to sustain itself was its language and a Lutheran choral tradition that remains vibrant and culminates every five years in a huge song and dance festival in Riga at which the combined choir numbered 17,000. The Latvian state lasted only 20 years before the country was occupied successively by the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union once again after the second world war. Latvia has only been independent again since 1991. “It was our folk art culture that kept us alive under the Soviet occupation,” says Puntulis.
There was, though, one beneficial byproduct of that almost 50-year Soviet occupation – the network of free music schools that have helped a country of just 2 million people to produce a battery of international classical music stars: conductors Mariss Jansons and Andris Nelsons; opera singers Elīna Garanča and Kristine Opolais; violinists Gidon Kremer and Baiba Skride; and cellist Mischa Maisky. Grafting Soviet pedagogy on to Latvia’s choral tradition has produced a potent musical mix.
In the UK, music education now relies on parents stumping up for private lessons. But Latvia has a network of 120 music schools, not just in the cities but in the countryside too, and one in 12 children attend them, usually between 3pm and 6pm after their general schooling is over. “The accessibility of the music schools is the pride of our nation,” says Puntulis. “A third of the culture budget goes into education.” Critics argue that it is too expensive and that the system should prioritise excellence over mass participation, but Puntulis is unconvinced. “We’re educating listeners as well as performers.”