Do you also feel uplifted when you know a performance awaits you in the evening? What if it’s also wrapped in the sound of music? This is the feeling that the Kaunas State Musical Theatre evokes for many. It’s a place where the professional art of Lithuanian theatre – drama, opera, and ballet – was born and lived throughout the interwar period of Lithuanian independence.
At the end of the 19th century, the City of Kaunas was the centre of one of the western provinces of the Russian Empire. In 1891, authorities decided to build a theatre to meet the cultural needs of the small provincial city, which Kaunas was at the time. Led by architect Ustinas Golinevičius and contractor G. Puškanceris, the new building was constructed within a year. The theatre was reminiscent of the Neo-Renaissance style typical of palaces and institutional buildings of the time. The two-storey building has a 500-seat hall with two rows of balconies, two lobbies, and auxiliary premises. Special lodges were built for the Governor of Kaunas and the commandant of the fortress. The grand opening of the theatre took place on 9 January 1892.
The theatre building is not far from Laisvės Alley, behind a cosy garden with monuments to composers Mikas Petrauskas (sculptor Bronius Pundzius, 1937), Česlovas Sasnauskas (sculptor Antanas Aleksandravičius, 1925), Juozas Gruodis (sculptor Konstantinas Bogdanas, 1984), Kipras Petrauskas (sculptor Leonas Strioga, 1986), and Stasys Šimkas (sculptor M. Šnipas, 1987). Remains of the old city walls and towers built in 1670–1680 can be found along the outskirts of the theatre. A Catholic cemetery operated in this place until 1833.
During the German occupation of Kaunas in 1916, the stage was enlarged and the actors’ rooms were improved. In May of 1920, when Kaunas became Lithuania’s provisional papital, the Constituent Seimas began its work here.
In 1922-1925, the government allocated funds for the reconstruction of the theatre. A theatre reconstruction commission was formed that entrusted the design and supervision of the work to the most famous architects of that time – Mykolas Songailas and Vladimiras Dubeneckis, assisted by contractor P. Morkūnas. The modernised exterior took on a Neo-Baroque look. Inside, the auditorium was enlarged to 763 seats, was given a horseshoe shape, a third row of balconies, a central lodge and an orchestra pit.
During this reconstruction project, special attention was given to acoustics, which was positively evaluated by all the famous performers who visited the theatre. In the interior of the hall, V. Dubeneckis managed to unite two artistic tendencies – folk forms and monumental architecture. The architect stylised the national motifs of tulips, lilies and sunflowers in the then popular art deco style.
In 1930-1933, under the direction of architect Vytautas Landsbergis-Žemkalnis, the theatre underwent renovations once again – two-storey eastern and western annexes were built, housing decoration workshops, a sewing shop and warehouses. The stage box was raised, the lobby of both floors was expanded, a rolling fabric horizon was installed on the stage, new furniture and oak stair railings were made, and a cooling system was installed. This cooling system prevented the building from collapsing during a fire in 1931 completely. These reconstruction initiatives are characterised by a kind of search for a national style. There were no further changes to the building over the next fifty years.
The theatre was restored again between 1980 and 1984. An underground cloakroom and a rehearsal hall in the eastern courtyard were installed, the stage equipment was upgraded, and the interior created by V. Dubeneckis was renewed. Paintings by contemporary Lithuanian artists Antanas Martinaitis and Ričardas Vaitekūnas adorn the main lobby, together with ceramic tapestries by Stasys and Teresė Petraičiai, tapestries by Birutė Vaitekūnienė, and sculptures by Leonas Strioga.
In 2007, the reconstruction of the Musical Theatre started. The theatre’s production premises were arranged, including decoration production workshops, artist premises, prop warehouses, a sewing shop, and a renovated and fully equipped ballet studio with four-level cushioned floors and a special linoleum top. The renovated theatre was equipped with a ventilation system and fire alarm, which it didn’t have before. The heating and sewerage systems were also renewed. The reconstructed and modernised theatre stage now meets the requirements of contemporary theatre art.
On 15 May 1920, the first sitting of the Constituent Seimas took place in the theatre. The theatre was especially loved by President A. Smetona, who attended performances at least once a week and went to almost all the premieres. Former Lithuanian President Aleksandras Stulginskis also enjoy attending operas at the theatre.
In the mid-1930s, the theatre received the status of State Theatre. The first independent Lithuanian operas, dramas and ballets were born here.
There were no permanent theatre troupes; the performances were staged only by touring artists. Later, reconstructions and extensions of the theatre covered the building’s original facade, but the remains of the old theatre can be seen from its interior. After the Act of Tolerance was announced by the Tsar in 1904, Lithuanian, Polish, Jewish and German communities were able to organise performances in the theatre, which resulted in an uptick of activity. In 1905, the Daina society organised the first Lithuanian evening, which staged a performance of America in the Bathhouse by A. Vilkutaitis Keturakis.
Following the restoration of Lithuanian independence in 1990, the musical theatre remained true to its longstanding tradition of staging performances in all music genres.
Unfortunately, most of the works of art that adorned the theatre during the pre-war period have not survived, except for a small part of the interior furniture, which is now part of the Lithuanian Theatre Film and Music Museum. Otherwise, only two mirrors have survived, and the musical theatre is proud to have an early painting by the artist Vytautas Kasiulis entitled, Before the General Rehearsal. New performances await audiences.