The Bucharest National Opera has a special significance in my life, because it became a refuge for my mother and me during the two and a half years we were separated from my father.
My father escaped from Romania in 1985, and was immediately declared a traitor. My mother and I were left to suffer the repercussions during the peak years of dictator Nicolae Ceau° escu’s communist regime, until my father managed to get us out of the country.
During those years of oppression, there was hardly anything to do in the evening. My mother and I lived in just one room of our home, since the securitate (the dreaded security militia) had confiscated most of the furniture, and cut off the heat and electricity regularly as a form of terror. To get us out of the house during those freezing, candle-lit evenings, my mother took me to the opera. The opera house opened its doors to us and became a place of refuge, an oasis.
The Bucharest Opera is a simple version of the Garnier Opera, very Parisian in style, echoing Bucharest’s nickname from the 1930s: “little Paris” or “the Paris of the East.” It has about 1,000 seats, and no specified spaces for standing room. During the worst communist years, sets, costumes and funding were scarce, and so was the heating during the winter. People attended the opera wrapped in coats, scarves, and hats—and only took their gloves off to allow the sound of the applause to reach the singers on stage.
Singing under those circumstances was a miracle. The repertoire at that time included the standard works, such as Rigoletto, La traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Magic Flute, all performed in Romanian with the company’s own singers. The occasional guest singers—all from the Eastern Bloc—meant the house would be a little warmer, and there would be toilet paper in the restrooms!
The audience was always generous with their applause, but sometimes in the winter, I wondered if they sincerely expressed their enthusiasm for all singers, even for the comprimarios, or they were simply jumping at every opportunity to warm themselves up by clapping their hands.
During those years of persecution and dictatorship, I had the feeling that the Bucharest Opera became a refuge for many, regardless of their personal situation. Obviously, the opera had to bow to the “supreme leader” and would throw the occasional gala in which the soloists were obliged to sing patriotic songs, hymns to Ceau° escu, and odes to the party. But a subversive undercurrent lived behind those Parisian doors.
I particularly remember a performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio. At the end, when the Pasha Selim decides to allow the lovers to leave freely, the Pasha appeared on stage out of his costume, dressed in a suit and sunglasses, the customary attire of the feared securitate agents. Then he handed a huge passport to Belmonte. Since the text was in Romanian, the singer playing the Pasha role cleverly manipulated the words to parody the practically impossible process of obtaining the much-coveted passport, which allowed access to the West. (Most Romanians did not own a passport.)
In any other venue or institution, or even in private gatherings, people would have been arrested merely for daring to laugh at a subversive joke, much less to ridicule the regime openly. But there it was on the stage, defiance in operatic form, greeted with laughter, applause and a few tears.
Throughout their long history of oppression, Romanians have mastered the ability to laugh at their own woes, and the opera offered them that opportunity.
Another similar moment came in one winter performance of Il trovatore. In the final scene, Manrico asks Azucena if the chilly air of the jail cell doesn’t harm her bones. “No,” she replies, “all I want is to get out of here because I’m suffocating.”
The singers directed their exchange towards the audience, transforming the “chilly air” into a more sarcastic “cooling breeze,” and the unforgettable vision of hundreds of bundled-up, hat and glove-wearing spectators shaking with laughter still lives vividly in my mind.
I remember a performance of Carmen with a special Russian guest in the title role. The rest of the cast was Romanian, while our bullying, Big Brother-Soviet neighbor required that its mezzo sing in Russian. In the cacophony of Romanian and Russian phrases that ensued—which would have made Bizet turn over in his grave—the Romanians did not miss the opportunity for taking another stab at the Iron Curtain. After his entrance aria, Escamillo asks Carmen: “What would you say if I told you that I loved you?” She replies that he shouldn’t love her, to which Escamillo responds, “Your answer is not very tender.”
That evening, when Carmen’s reply came in heavy Russian, Escamillo faced the audience and substituted the “approved” Romanian translation of the French text with: “Your language is poisoning my brain!” The Soviet propaganda-indoctrinated audience exploded in roars of laughter, causing the flabbergasted Russian guest to later return to Leningrad and report the strange behavior of the Romanian audience.
Whenever the Bucharest Opera’s curtain rose, the Iron Curtain seemed to go up with it, and you could allow yourself to think and laugh freely, even if at the end of the performances you returned home to harsh reality. There was a tacit agreement of solidarity and resistance between the audience and the performers that defied the omnipresent fear, suspicions and general paranoia that ruled outside the opera house. The buffet would open every night even if all it could offer were boxes of stale crackers. Hardships notwithstanding, people maintained their opera-going customs dating from 1921, when the first Romanian Opera House opened in Bucharest. Part of these customs included a visit to the buffet for socializing, discussions and champagne or snacks.
Sixty-five years later, the public frequented the buffet in their winter coats, sometimes munching on the sole delicacy of a dubious expiration date, but mostly just feasting on each other’s courage and determination in maintaining their cultural tradition despite the harsh conditions.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Bucharest National Opera underwent a difficult phase. Romanians were intoxicated with the freedom as well as the subsequent Westernization brought on by the 1989 Revolution. Attendance at the opera diminished drastically until the late 1990’s when, after a few changes in administration and marketing resources, there was a surge of interest in the opera. Thanks to privatization, the concept of the sponsor opened a door to opportunities for renovation.
Today, the company’s repertoire still consists of both opera and ballet. The season runs from October to June, with performances starting at 6:30 p.m., and the occasional ballet matinee on Sundays. Each year, BNO offers about 24 opera productions and 10-14 different ballets, with no apparent pattern of repetition. The most expensive ticket costs about $6.
The company still has its own fixed roster of singers, though many more guests appear regularly. Romanian singers established in careers abroad donate their time and give up large fees to perform on the Bucharest stage.
In recent years, a wave of very young singers has had the chance to make their debuts at the National Opera, through the opera’s close collaboration with the Bucharest University of Music. The performances are exciting, brimming with the energy and enthusiasm of outstanding graduates who are grateful to gain experience on the stage.
Through the George Enescu International Festival and with the help of the Vienna State Opera, as well as some Covent Garden productions, the Bucharest Opera has attracted more attention in the past few years. Despite the increase in sponsors, funding is still scarce and the opera can afford only one premiere a year, but there is still a very knowledgeable audience infused by the energy of the new generation of opera goers, eager to discover in the many young voices the next Angela Gheorghiu, Haricleea Darclée, Virginia Zeani, Maria Cebotari, Nicolae Herlea, Alexandru Agache, Leontina Vaduva, Stella Roman, Eugenia Moldoveanu, and so on.
As I watch today’s productions in the top opera houses, I am in awe of their technological prowess, which grows from season to season, striving to outdo itself by developing the visual aspect of opera, sometimes to an extreme. But I often think back to those evenings at the Bucharest Opera, where among the most rudimentary sets and antique productions, I had some of the most thrilling experiences of my entire opera-going life. In the freezing darkness, the voices and the music alone wrapped the audience in beauty, emotion and fantasy. The singing soothed, stirred and seduced until you were madly in love, and became addicted.
That was opera in its purest, most sincere form.