Standing resplendent in the Republic of Croatia Square, its startling golden walls contrasting against brilliant white columns and oxidised-green copper roofing, the Croatian National Theatre (HNK) in Zagreb is a visual highlight that simply must be seen. Its solitude in the middle of the city centre square only adds to the sense of importance it seems to hold.
The home of Croatia's highest performance arts - theatre, opera and ballet - since Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph I unveiled it in 1895, like every other national theatre in Europe, its stage is reserved for the most famous guest contributors and the very best dancers, actors and singers it is possible to assemble. As its name suggests, the performances occurring on its stage represent the very best the country has to offer, in much the same way as a footballer chosen to play for the national team.
But, a closer look at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb enables you to see how this establishment differs from most of its European peers. For, over the course of the last half decade, HNK Zagreb has initiated several innovative moves that have helped position the theatre as one of the most accessible and popular of its kind on the continent.
'When I first came here the theatre was quite closed,' says Dubravka Vrgoč who, after a successful decade as director of the Zagreb Youth Theatre and co-founder of a world theatre festival, assumed the position of HNK Zagreb's general manager in 2014. 'It was a beautiful building with a lot of tourists outside taking pictures and a lot of old people inside, but not a full audience.'
'In the operas, the audiences were aged 60 plus in ballet also 60 plus but with also a few grandchildren and in the drama performances, almost nobody,' laments Vrgoč. 'It was really important for us to get a new audience. Before, if you asked people what they thought an evening at HNK would be like, they would say 'Expensive ticket, you have to wear a really nice outfit, the performances are probably boring'. We needed to change that prejudice. And we did.'
The Day of the Open Square was one of the first initiatives the new regime at HNK Zagreb undertook, the event collaborating with neighbouring institutions like the Academy of Dramatic Arts, Museum of Art & Crafts and the new Academy of Music to bring the arts out onto the open streets.
Croatian National Theatre / © Dario Bajurin
‘We had a small ballet stage on the grass where we performed some of Swan Lake,' remembers Vrgoč, 'we also had the orchestra outside and singers serenading the crowds from the windows.'
Over the course of subsequent years, HNK Zagreb has continued to rewrite the rulebook in order to dispell assumptions and attract new audiences. School programmes have brought the city's youth into the theatre, guided tours have opened up parts of the building only previously seen by those working there. The theatre's drama repertoire now focusses on more contemporary Croatian plays, in turn attracting a more contemporary audience. Of more interest to non-Croatian speaking visitors, because of the absence of a language barrier, are HNK Zagreb's opera and ballet programmes, which now feature performances and guest collaborators of international repute. For example, in its last season HNK Zagreb offered the ballet 'Death In Venice' with renowned choreographer Valentina Turcu directing, which was nominated as one of the five best ballet performances of the year in the European Dance magazine. This season they feature world-famous French director Angelin Preljoçaj and two of his works, 'The Annunciation' and 'La Stravaganza'.
Despite some of the country's best performers vying for stage time (HNK Zagreb unusually housing three separate ensembles for each of its main disciplines), via events like the regular Philosopher's Theatre, the venue has also opened its doors to audiences of students and young people that previously never stepped through its doors, attracted by famous guests like M.I.A, Vanessa Redgrave, Slavoj Žižek, Yanis Varoufakis and Tariq Ali. And, despite punching way above the weight of a 700 capacity venue in regards to the stellar guests it invites, the theatre has continued to keep ticket prices extremely low. There are few national theatres in Europe where you could go and see the highest standard of ballet or opera for a 12 Euro ticket price.
The curtain of the Croatian National Theatre / © Dario Bajurin
The efforts towards accessibility have paid off. In 2018 a report was made for the theatre board which showed its new regime had filled 95 percent of seats for drama productions, 93 for ballet and 90 for opera.
'By European standards, this is very good,' says Vrgoč with a smile. 'I was in Milan last month and even La Scala only had 61 percent.'
If you're visiting Zagreb and have never previously attended the opera or ballet before, HNK Zagreb offers you the perfect opportunity to do so. Zagreb itself is a city on a serious mission to make the arts accessible to all and they're very good at it. Nowhere is this truer than at the city's Croatian National Theatre, its fresh perspective and world-class performances helping to make it one of Europe's most popular.
'I think that our theatre must have a dialogue with its audience, whether that be visitors or the residents of Zagreb,' says Dubravka Vrgoč. 'In our own time, we all need to ask a question of the theatre. At HNK Zagreb we are trying to make sure that there will be an answer.'