Lend Me a Tenor – or Big Smoke at the Opera in Bukarest

We’re not talking actually about singers here, Lend Me a Tenor was only one of Ken Ludwig’s comedies which was successfully featured for years at the Nottara Theatre in Bucharest and translated into Romanian as Big Smoke at the Opera. My thoughts were that the Romanian translation was relevant for the kind of tabloid recipe: a mixture between indignation and the satisfaction of the readers but not necessarily ballet goers peeping into the wings. If anything, big smoke is the political stage of the country – increasingly tormented, with ministers being appointed and sacked so often that they don’t have the time to grasp the situation which they are supposed to manage and only getting to decide on changes over various topics at their own whim without any public consultation. Once publicised, the changes become mandatory no matter how silly they are. The next minister-to-be, coming possibly from a totally different background, will have totally different opinions and priorities.

Let us take an example. A ballet master without a higher studies degree will be taken on a short-term contract, but if the Opera is happy with his performance, wishes to hire him permanently and has the right vacancy they will not be allowed to do so. This was the case with Francisc Strnad, whom the Romanian National Opera in Iasi had to give up after two years of fruitful collaboration. Strnad graduated from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow in 1978 and has undertaken the courses for ballet masters organized by the Ministry of Culture back in the ’80’s, has had a career as a principal dancer (and coach) with the „Oleg Danovski” Ballet Theatre in Constanta. He also had for several years been a coach with the Ballet School of the Vienna Opera, but as he was not a graduate of a university choreography department, this was not good enough in the eyes of the law for him to be hired. Having a university degree would have been impossible for him since there were no choreography departments in Romania before the ’90’s and this is not the kind of degree one can get remotely later in life. Moreover, he had just turned down an offer of the Novi Sad Theatre in Serbia, who did not have the same bureaucratic requirements, before realising that he could not have a long-lasting contract with the Iasi Opera.
How did this happen? Back in May 2016 Beatrice Rancea was appointed as the interim general manager of the Bucharest National Opera, in an attempt to release the tension caused by the widely covered Cojocaru-Kobborg „big smoke” and the appointing of several successive general managers within a few days. Let me remind you that the „divorce” was due to Kobborg’s resigning and not to his being dismissed. Rancea’s mandate expired in December 2017, by which time the then minister of culture, who was a former owner of low tabloids but a high-ranking member of the ruling Social Democratic Party, decided not to extend her contract and instead, in about three months-time, open a new management projects competition. (This decision triggered the cancellation of the National Opera Theatres Awards gala performance, preventing many artists from receiving acknowledgement of their achievements during the last season and the audience from watching and listening to some world-renowned guest artists.) This minister was replaced after a few weeks but still acts as an adviser for the current one, who is an actor and drama theatre manager. When Beatrice Rancea resumed her position as the general manager of the Iasi National Romanian Opera, she wished to abide by the legal requirements for hiring a ballet master. This position happened to be vacant, as the previous ballet master had not been able to fulfil the requirements himself.

This law has caused injustices and inequalities throughout the ballet companies of Romania. As a consequence, the salary of a principal dancer without a higher diploma but who performs all the major parts can be two or three times lower than that of a corps de ballet artist who holds one. All dancers’ wages were raised in 2017 without the theatres’ budgets being increased accordingly. The result was that it has become almost impossible for certain Opera theatres to hire all the occasional singers/dancers cast in some performances. Temporary artists receive higher wages and are therefore more expensive for the institution, which is rarely permitted to offer permanent positions. A Romanian manager will solve the problem by improvising or simply by abandoning the opera/ballet performances that can no longer be financially sustained. One possible solution is for the theatre to apply to the Ministry of Culture for an exemption, which can take a long time to be issued and, if granted, is usually only for a limited period of time.
Another evidence of the incoherent Romanian laws is that which is currently happening in vocational education. One can enrol in a university choreography department without having graduated from a state subsidized ballet school. This is a good thing as it allows access to higher studies for people coming from other backgrounds such as ballroom dance, folk dance, street dance etc. The downside is that having graduated and got a master’s diploma, they are entitled to teach courses in dance covered by their diploma which are completely unknown to them as they will not have studied them either in high school or during the university years. On the other hand, ballet dancers and teachers who have graduated from ballet high school before 1990 can be rejected, despite their decades of experience. I could name a few more cases.

On the same note, an ephemeral minister of education has decided on his own initiative and without consultation that 4-5 hours of training per week are enough for ballet middle school level. The result is that the study of character dance, folk dance, historic dance, piano etc was removed from the curricula and the basic training was reduced to under 1h/day. Young ballet students and their teachers have protested by dancing in the snow, organising flash-mobs, posting videos on YouTube, sending tons of letters and emails to the Ministry of Education, with no result. The reason given was that students ought to be offered a broader chance in choosing their profession, by having more classes in maths, physics, chemistry, and languages, in case they don’t prove to have a future in dance. The focus appears to be on providing a minimum level of chances for the many, while completely ignoring the high performance of the few.
The general landscape is one of a supposedly social democratic government which not only does not support artists, be they aspiring or already established, but also does its best to deter them by leaving the financial burden of paying for private tuition as well as for attending competitions and workshops abroad on their parents. State education for dance is grossly insufficient. At the same time, all experience and achievements gained before 1990 are ignored. The idea of providing a high quality artistic education by employing only accredited teachers and ballet masters is actually undermined by many flaws in grasping the reality of the field and a superficial tackling with them by legal mending.

by Vivia Săndulescu-Dutton