In 1865, the song and drama society “Estonia”was founded in Tallinn. Play-acting was taken up in 1871. The following theatre activites were relatively haphazard, theatre as a tradition really came into being since 1895, when the society began to direct song plays, folk plays and comedies, usually with singing and dancing; however, the start of the XX century already saw more serious drama on the stage.
In 1906, the society became the basis for the professional theatre founded by the directors and actors Paul Pinna and Theodor Altermann called “Estonia”, which remained tied to the society and the Estonian Theatre “Estonia” Limited Liability Company, founded in 1908, until 1940 when they were disbanded with the Soviet rule in Estonia as “the bourgeois remnant” and the theatre was nationalized.
The “Estonia” theatre has had several names during history, but since 1998, it bears the name The Estonian National Opera and operates as a body governed by public law according to the National Opera Law passed in 1997 (and amended in 2002) in the Republic of Estonia.
Since 1918, the drama troupe was led by the actor and director Ants Lauter. Drama plays were staged in “Estonia” until 1949 when the troupe was disbanded and “Estonia” continued as just a musical theatre.
In 1906, the first music director, Otto Hermann, was hired, 1907 saw the first operetta, Hervé’s “Mam’zelle Nitouche”, on stage, 1908 the opera, Kreutzer’s “Das Nachtlager in Granada”; a steady production of operas started in the 1918/19 season.
In 1911, the first Estonian operetta, Adalbert Wirkhaus’ “St. John’s Night” was staged.
1912 saw the founding of the “Estonia” Music Department (EMO), which started organizing concerts, and the EMO mixed choir that was turned by the conductor August Topman into a good oratory choir.
In 1922, the theatre hosted the first full evening ballet performance, Léo Delibes’ “Coppélia”; in 1926, choreographer Rahel Olbrei founded the permanent ballet troupe in the theatre, the ballet became more regular in the 1930s.
In 1928, the first Estonian opera, Evald Aava’s “Vikerlased”, was staged, in 1944 the first Estonian ballet, Eduard Tubin’s “Kratt”.
The chief conductor and music director Otto Hermann was succeeeded by: Adalbert Wirkhaus (1908—1912) Raimund Kull (1912—1942), Juhan Aavik (1925— and 1933), Verner Nerep (1942—1944), Priit Nigula (1942—1951), Kirill Raudsepp (1951—1963), Neeme Järvi (1963—1975), Eri Klas (1975—1994), Paul Mägi (1995—2002, artistic director since 1998), Jüri Alperten (2002—2004), Arvo Volmer (2004—2012). Since autumn 2012 the artistic director and chief conductor of the Estonian National Opera is Vello Pähn.
Operas have been directed by Hanno Kompus (1920—1944 with breaks), Eino Uuli (1937—1951 with a break), Paul Mägi (1954—1961, chief producer since 1958), Udo Väljaots (1961—1979, chief producer since 1977), Arne Mikk (since 1970, chief producer since 1977—1994, artistic director 2002—2004), Neeme Kuningas (since 1985, chief director 1994—2002) and others.
The man behind the “Estonia” operetta’s brilliant image was Agu Lüüdik (operetta director 1927—1946).
Rahel Olbrei (ballet mistress 1925—1944) was followed by the ballet masters and mistresses Anna Ekston (1944—1951), Viktor Päri (1956—1964), Enn Suve (1966—1973, chief ballet master since 1969), Mai Murdmaa (1964—2001, chief ballet mistress since 1974), Tiit Härm (artistic director of the ballet company in 2001-2009). Since 1 August 2009 the artistic director of the ballet company is Toomas Edur.
In 1994—2009 the theater was managed by Paul Himma, from 2009 to 2020 the general manager was Aivar Mäe.