Vanemuine being the oldest theatre in Estonia could quite easily be called the heart of cultural Tartu.
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History from the Soviet Union to the independent Estonia.

At hindsight the 1980s are known as stagnation years in the social sense. There were changes also within the Vanemuine. In 1976 Epp Kaidu died, in 1983 Ida Urbel; Jaan Tooming was theatre director of Viljandi Ugala Theatre during 1979-1983 and then returned to the Vanemuine. Evald Hermaküla left in 1983 to the Estonian Drama Theatre. In 1985 Kaarel Ird also finished his life's work at the Vanemuine.

In 1985 Ago-Endrik Kerge became the new drama director; he remained in that position until 1990. The theatre had a high standard and enjoyed a multitude of visitors. Also the drama director added to this with his successful productions in several genres: (A. H. Tammsaare/ A.-E. Kerge's „Aeg tulla, aeg minna“ / Time to Come, Time to Go 1986, J. Kruusvall's „Vaikuse vallamaja“ / The Parish House of Silence 1987; G. Rossini's „The Barber of Seville“ 1981; W. A. Mozart's „The Marriage of Figaro“ 1983; R. Kangro's „Ohver“ / The Victime 1983). Jaan Tooming made spectacular productions: Čapek's „R.U.R.“ 1986, Orff's „The Moon“ 1986, Eliot's „Murder in the Cathedral“ 1989, Ibsen's „The Wild Duck“ 1990, Duncan's „The Rehearsale“ 1990, Priestley's „I Have Been Here Before“ 1991 and others. In 1981 Vassili Medvedjev joined the Vanemuine ballet company who began work as soloist as well as director. Beside his great soloist roles he also directed S. Prokofiev's „Peter and the Wolf“ (1982) and F. Benoist’ / C. Pugni's „Satanilla“ (1984). Ülo Vilimaa too was in top form (L. Auster's „Tiina“, 1984; E. Kapp's „Kalevipoeg“ / Son of Kalev, 1985). During 1987-1999 the head conductor of the Vanemuine was Endel Nõgene. Lehte Mark, Taisto Noor, Jassi Zahharov, Eve Randkivi, Rando Piho, Silvia Vestmann, Henn Pai, Vivian Kallaste, Evald Tordik, Tõnu Kattai excelled among the soloists.

In 1990–1993 the Vanemuine Theatre was managed by Linnar Priimägi who stood out for a fascinating programme-classical choice of repertoire (Goethe's „Faust“, Wilde's „Salome“, Camus’ „Caligula“ and others) but at the same time he is written in the history books as the creator of great contradictions and conflicts within the creative collective. His diagnosis as theatre director that opera theatre in Europe is a declining phenomenon will also remain in history (TMK 1994/4).

In 1994 Jaak Viller became theatre director, together with him the theatre's management system also changed – three artistic director's positions were formed: Jüri Lumiste (1993-1999) started work as drama director, Ülo Vilimaa (1974-1997) continued work as ballet director and Endel Nõgene (1987-1999) as music director. In 1997 Mare Tommingas became the theatre's ballet director. In 1992 she established her own dance studio by the Vanemuine and used her students also in her productions. Her productions: C. Orff's „Carmina Burana“ 1991, D. Farnshawe's „African Sanctus“/ Mercury and Morani's „Barcelona“, 1992, B. Bartok's „The Miraculous Mandarin“ 1994, P. Tchaikovsky's „The Nutcracker“ 1994. Top roles were danced by Aivar Kallaste, Jelena Karpova, Oleg Titov.

During the intervening transition years (the liberation of Estonia, economically instable years) the theatre's situation was very complicated – there was not enough audience and the choice of repertoire was not the most successful. From 1994 the road began to go uphill again. During that period the core of the drama company was formed by Liina Olmaru, Hannes Kaljujärv, Merle Jääger, Aivar Tommingas, Rain Simmul, Raine Loo, Herta Elviste, Lembit Eelmäe, Andres Dvinjaninov, Riho Kütsar. Beside Jaan Tooming new directors emerged such as Ain Mäeots („Susi“ / Wolf 1995; „Beauty Queen of Leenane“ 1999; „Pühak“ / Saint 2001; „Taarka“ 2005) and Tiit Palu. During that period Mati Unt as guest director stood out most strongly – „Iwona, the Princess of Burgundy“ 1994; „Heavenly Love and Earthly Love“ 1995; „Hamlet“ 1997; „Wedding Ceremony“ 2000; „The Master and Margarita“ 2000; „The Cherry Orchard“ 2001 and others. Other successful productions at the theatre were made by Mikk Mikiver – „Twelve Angry Men“ 1997; „War and Peace“ 1999; opera „Tosca“ 1995 and Finn Poulsen (Sweden) – „The Story of the Little Old Man“ 1996; „Twelfth Night“ 1998. Later, many guest directors have visited the theatre: Tiit Ojasoo („Blood Brothers“ 2001; „Roberto Zucco“ 2002; „Ruja“ 2008), Mart Koldits („Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“ 2004; „Jumpers“ 2007), Hendrik Toompere jun. („One Hundred years…“ 2006).

In 2003 when theatre halls began to remain empty again (there were several reasons – the choice of repertoire but also the active onslaught of the entertainment industry), general manager Aivar Mäe came to the Vanemuine who was replaced by Paavo Nõgene in 2007.

In the beginning of the new millennium head conductors have changed frequently: in 1999-2004 Mihkel Kütson, in 2004-2006 Hendrik Vestmann, in 2006-2007 Toomas Vavilov, from 2008 again Mihkel Kütson. In 1993-2016 Lauri Sirp has worked at the theatre as conductor. Besides operas, operettas and concerts the Vanemuine stationary repertoire also contains musicals. Opera soloists who have made spectacular roles are Karmen Puis, Alla Popova, Merle Jalakas, Taisto Noor, Atlan Karp, Märt Jakobson, Valentina Kremen, Rasmus Kull, Pirjo Jonas, Reigo Tamm. Also many guest directors (D. Bertman, I. Roga, A. Siegert, G. Malvius) and soloists have worked at the theatre.

During 1999–2006 the Vanemuine drama was led by Ain Mäeots, 2007-2010 this work is carried on by Sven Karja. Ain Mäeots and Robert Annus work at the theatre as drama directors, later also Tiit Palu, Andres Noormets, Tanel Jonas, directing actors are Jüri Lumiste and Ott Sepp. There has been a lot of movement among actors; in 2010 the company comprises 21 members. There are many guest directors including directors from abroad (Barrie Rutter from England, Aljona Anohhina from Russia) as well as more interesting characters from Estonia (Uku Uusberg, Ingomar Vihmar, Hendrik Toompere jn). Memorable drama roles have been made by Hannes Kaljujärv, Aivar Tommingas, Külliki Saldre, Merle Jääger, Jüri Lumiste, Riho Kütsar.

Since 2004 the Vanemuine ballet company has become very transnational – as the Estonian dance schools could not train enough dancers for the Vanemuine, the doors of the theatre are open to talented dancers from all over the world. In the 2000s many guest choreographers have directed at the theatre: Dmitri Harchenko, Rachid Tika, Matteo Moles, Mai Murdmaa, Toomas Edur, Stanislav Fečo, Vassili Medvedjev, Hugo Fanari, Saša Pepeljajev, Pär Isberg and the Vanemuine people Mare Tommingas, Oleg Titov (member of the Vanemuine until 2004), Ruslan Stepanov, Janek Savolainen and Silas Stubbs.

Paul Mägi has been the music director and chief conductor of Vanemuine Theatre since 2011. Toomas Peterson became the theatre's general manager and Tiit Palu became the theatre's drama director in 2013. Mare Tommingas continues as its ballet director.

As at 2017, the theatre has three stationary venues: the Grand Building, the Small Building and the Harbour Theatre. Additionally, plays for young audiences are performed at the Theatre House in the Tartu Toy Museum.

As at 2017, the theatre employs 363 people. Vanemuine Theatre has a 67-member symphony orchestra, a musical ensemble of nine singers, a 22-member drama troupe, a 33-member ballet troupe and a 33-member opera chorus. Vanemuine continues to be one of Estonia's most popular theatres – in 2016, it had 161,647 visitors.

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