One piece of news caused quite an uproar in Bucharest’s cultural scene yesterday: the Minister of Culture, Vlad Alexandrescu, resigned over a fierce dispute at the Bucharest National Opera.
He declared his resignation in a Facebook post in the afternoon, and a few hours later, a group of people held a spontaneous protest in solidarity with him in front of the government building at Piaţa Victoriei. I stopped by for a few minutes to see for myself what was going on.
At this point, I was still rather clueless about the exact happenings that had led to his decision, since my poor Romanian skills make it difficult for me to follow the local news. So, as I stood there among the 30-40 protesters holding signs with the slogan “I ❤ Vlad“.
One of them told me that the conflict at the National Opera had been caused by the staff there being “nationalistic and narrow-minded”. Another person explained that ballet dancers had complained about a disparity of wages between them and the artistic director, and that this had been the main root of the conflict. But for a minister of culture to resign over something like this? Leaving the protest, I still had the feeling that I was missing the big picture.
But apparently, and luckily in my case, the scandal at the Bucharest National Opera was so big that it even made it into newspapers as far away as the New York Times, and other English-speaking sources like the Guardian and the Romania-Insider.
Piece by piece, I finally worked myself towards a better understanding of what had happened, and I will summarize it for non-Bucharest-based readers: it seems like it all started when Alexandrescu appointed a new manager, Tiberiu Soare, for the National Opera after the previous management had to step down after being indicted for corruption. Soare’s first move as manager was, then, to remove Johan Kobborg, a Danish ballet dancer and choreographer, from his post as artistic director and reduce his position to a mere artist. He resigned later on. According to the New York Times, Kobborg had, together with the renowned Romanian ballerina Alina Cojocaru, led the ballet company of the opera to quite an international reputation. From there on, the conflict quickly escalated: dancers close to Kobborg, including Cojocaru, protested the decision, leading another group of employees to stage a counter-protest in which they lamented Kobborg’s high salary compared to that of the other dancers. But the point of it all seems to lie somewhere else: Kobborg’s work had been focused on reforming the opera towards a more international orientation, and apparently, the way he did that didn’t please everybody. Furthermore, the discussions were partially informed by xenophobic sentiments, for example when employees at said counter-protest uttered statements like “out with foreigners!”. So here’s the nationalistic undertone that some protesters criticized at the rally yesterday evening.
But what was Alexandrescu’s role in all this? As far as I can tell, he has made poor choices and then angered almost all involved parties in the course of his attempts to fix things. Also, some regard his resignation as a ‚dismissal‘ by the prime minister. The protesters yesterday saw this as a wrong choice. They clearly articulated their unhappiness with the way the minister had been made responsible for the fiasco, and it was important to them to stress all the other accomplishments that he achieved during his time in office.
For cultural policy planning, this is indeed bad news. Alexandrescu has been known, so I have been told on several occasions, to be especially dedicated to reforms and he has earned the respect of many for trying to preserve cultural heritage sites. I, personally, can’t comment much on him as a politician, since I haven’t had enough chances to form an opinion of my own. However, all I can speculate is that with no overall cultural strategy implemented so far by the ministry of culture, changes in leadership at this particular moment in time could potentially pose a significant setback to the process.