April, Bloody April

The scandal from the Bucharest National Opera has become the most commented topic in the last few days, once the Minister of Culture resigned. I have followed the events closely, therefore I can summarise them for those who, with good reason, cannot understand what is going on.

We have to stress, from the very beginning, that, as all this is about Opera, the unfolding of the events itself resembles the plot of an opera. Everything is disproportionate, exaggerated, like the overdone make-up of the singers on stage. Life in an opera theatre makes all the participants behave like characters, without half measures. Hate, dignity, beauty and ugliness are all at the maximum level, at 100%. For an outsider, this very contrasting picture seems unreal, but the clearest explanation is given by the most saturnine character of this scandal, the conductor Tiberiu Soare, in an interview he gave me two years ago:

“Both from those who make it and from those who really love it, the Opera has that seed of madness that attracts me like nothing else in the world. It contains a grain of irrationality.  And I think that this grain is exactly like the core of a star – the one that changes hydrogen into helium. When all activity stops in that core, and when hydrogen no longer turns into helium, the star will die. But, in my opinion, for the moment the opera is a very alive genre, that produces devastating passions.”

This is a very useful key to understanding what happened in this Broken April. Let’s see the facts, in a synthetic and clear manner. If you want more details, please click on the links inserted in the text.


In 2013, following a competitive procedure, Răzvan Ioan Dincă becomes the general manager of the BNO. During his tenure, the management of the ballet is trusted to a very great dancer, Johan Kobborg, who was just ending his career at The Royal Ballet (of Covent Garden) and wanted to start a career as manager and choreographer. Judging by the western standards, the BNO offered him the opportunity to build something from scratch. This does not mean that the Romanian ballet had not existed before him, but that it was asynchronous with the world trends in the field. Johan Kobborg’s life and stage partner was (and still is) Alina Cojocaru, the Romanian ballet dancer with the most impressive international career. In May 2015, the general manager is suspended, and Mr George Călin, who was the deputy manager, becomes the interim manager of the BNO.

April 2016

Friday, April 1st – the Minister of Culture, Mr Vlad Alexandrescu, dismisses the interim manager, George Călin, and replaces him with Tiberiu Soare, conductor, an artist representative for the independent sector. Tiberiu Soare quit BNO and the Radio Orchestra, and is at present a guest conductor at philharmonics and operas around the country, but also in concerts funded by local councils, and in Angela Gheorghiu’s recitals, as the conductor of the orchestras accompanying her.

Saturday and Sunday, April 2nd and 3rd – National premiere, at the BNO, of Manon, a famous choreography signed by Kenneth MacMillan, performed for the first time in 1974, at the Covent Garden. Huge success. The next performances with Manon are in the following weekends, and in one of them was cast Alina Cojocaru. At the premiere, the main role is given to a young dancer, Marina Minoiu. Her stage partner is Dawid Trzensimiech, another dancer who came to Bucharest from the Royal Ballet.

The same weekend, Alina Cojocaru tries to obtain an explanation from the Minister of Culture for George Călin’s change. In an interview she later gave for News.ro, she will tell the story of this meeting. Vlad Alexandrescu refuses to talk to the former management and he tells Johan Kobborg (who accompanied Alina Cojocaru to this meeting) that he was not invited to the discussion. Kobborg wants to leave, but Mr Alexandrescu tells him to stay, while continuing the dialogue with Alina Cojocaru in Romanian. Nobody knows exactly the content of this discussion.

Tuesday, April 5th – Tiberiu Soare decides to update the BNO website, and he deletes the name of Johan Kobborg on the page “About us/Management”. The British critic Norman Lebrecht roguishly mentions on his blog: “There’s only one boss now in Bucharest. Just like the old days.” Johan Kobborg does not answer phone calls and simply disappears. Tiberiu Soare meets the ballet team, and a part of the dancers accuse his speech of chauvinism; the conductor rejects this accusation. Some rumours say that, when asked to speak in English, so that foreign dancers understand him too, he would have reacted: “This is Romania, and the official language is Romanian. Tiberiu Soare invites Johan Kobborg to a discussion, but their meeting does not take place. In the declarations he gives to the media, Soare states that the position of artistic director of the ballet does not exist in the staff chart, and that Johan Kobborg „abusively assumed it”. The tensions rise proportionally to this new attack. Johan Kobborg had a management contract with the BNO, for the management of the ballet, and his gross fee was 7300 euros; because of this fee, he had been for a long time the target of a very aggressive media campaign and a version of his contract had been illegally published by an ultra-nationalist website.

Wednesday, April 6th – the Minister of Culture tries to mediate, and invites Johan Kobborg and Tiberiu Soare to the Ministry. Kobborg does not show up and says he did not receive any invitation. Alina Cojocaru states she will not dance at the Bucharest National Opera anymore if Johan Kobborg is dismissed.

Thursday, April 7th – The first consequences of the conflict: the rights for presenting at BNO certain choreographies might be withdrawn, some tours of the ballet company might be cancelled in case Johan Kobborg leaves. Such messages will be more and more numerous in the following days and they put the ballet project at risk of not having any interesting shows to offer. The scandal is now followed by the international artistic community and by the western media. The conflict stays strictly in the artistic area until April 12th, when it goes to the next level.

Alina Cojocaru and Marina Minoiu declare they will not dance in the weekend performance with Manon if the situation does not return to normal.

Friday, April 8th – Tiberiu Soare is dismissed by the Minister of Culture, and the position of interim manager is taken by another conductor, already employed by the BNO, Mr Vlad Conta. Soare is appointed deputy general manager. A new management team seems to appear: Dan Dediu (composer, former rector of the Music Academy of Bucharest) – counsellor in management, Rareș Zaharia (the Minister’s counsellor for opera issues) – artistic director. At first, Johan Kobborg says he wishes to collaborate with the new management, but tensions return when Alina Cojocaru announces she cannot dance in the Manon performance scheduled for Sunday.

Saturday, Sunday, April 9th-10th – New performances with Manon. Because of the tensions, the one on Saturday is less good, but Marina Minoiu obtains a new success in the title role. The one on Sunday does not make full house, as many of the people who wanted to see Alina Cojocaru do not come to the Opera any more. Still, the success is as intense as always, the dancers are overwhelmed with applauses and the public simply do not let them leave the stage. At the same time, information about withdrawing the rights for some choreographies and cancelling some tours continue to spread. It seems that the situation calms down. We have the first conclusions of a hectic week.

Monday, April 11th – Vlad Conta proposes Alina Cojocaru some solutions for communicating on her forfeit, but Kobborg rejects them. It seems Tiberiu Soare’s presence in the team is as important as when he was general manager. Johan Kobborg says that, in these conditions, he does not intend to return to the BNO and he publicly quits the Opera. A meeting is organised for his support, the next day, at 6 pm. Tiberiu Soare’s supporters plan a counter-protest, but then moves it to April 13th. It is the last day when we can smile, as the point of no return will be reached the next day.

Tuesday, April 12th – “The Black Tuesday” of the Opera – In the morning, Vlad Conta accepts Johan Kobborg’s resignation. The soprano Angela Gheorghiu sends a message of support for Tiberiu Soare and his team. The following day, Ileana Iliescu, the former ballet dancer, sends her support message too, marked by xenophobia against Kobborg. It seems this is the end. At 6 pm, Alina Cojocaru comes in front of the BNO, to say good bye to the dancers and to the public that has come to express their gratitude. The moment is very moving. The great ballerina uses a metaphor („All this time, Kobborg gave me only half of his heart. Now I understand where was the other half: it was here. When he leaves Romania, Johan will take only half of his heart.”) that makes the people present burst into tears. Around 30 people come from inside the BNO and start to hurl against the dancers and their supporters. Among the invectives:  “Out from our country!” The incident is covered by the New York Times. The photo with Alina Cojocaru crying together with the dancers is everywhere. “Watch. Weep.” writes Norman Lebrecht on his blog, adding: “It has become abundantly clear that the turmoil at the Bucharest National Opera is about the rise of Romanian chauvinism”. We will later discover that the actions against Alina Cojocaru were not spontaneous, but they had been organised by the lyric artists of the Opera.

Alina Cojocaru in tears, in front of Bucharest National Opera
Alina Cojocaru in tears, in front of Bucharest National Opera (Photo: Eduard Enea/Adevărul)

What started as a simple mouse click which erased Johan Kobborg’s name from a web page became a scandal that now moved to the next level, that of mentalities. At the same time, this is the first escalation of the conflict, that will little by little get to the attention of the entire Romanian society. The reactions in the media are all against Tiberiu Soare, his team and the Minister of Culture.

Wednesday, April 13th – The demonstration of Tiberiu Soare’s supporters. Messages on the boards are moderate, but the speeches of artists who are representative for the BNO are full of resentment and even of a hard to hide chauvinism. They try to hide the incident of the eve by stressing the poverty of the staff, in contrast to the management contract of the ballet boss. Marina Minoiu and Dawid Trzensimiech announce they quit. In the evening, the Minister of Culture gives an interview for RFI, and he tries to minimise the consequences of these days: “Opera will not die because of this”. Alina Cojocaru makes public a letter for the Prime Minister, Mr Dacian Cioloș.

Thursday, April 14th – The Ambassador of the United Kingdom, Mr Paul Brumell, sends a message of concern about the situation at the BNO. Very quickly, we see reactions of delimitation from chauvinism and xenophobia, like mushrooms after rain, from the Prime Minister and the Minister of Culture. The Prime Minister gives a public answer to the open letter sent by Alina Cojocaru. The Minister of Culture radically changes his speech and invites the ballet dancers for negotiations. Waters seem to calm down in the following days.

Saturday, Sunday, April 15th-16th – Two more performances with Manon. The tension of the last two weeks has its influence: they are sold-out and a triumph. The casts for these two performances include Cristina Dijmaru and Mihaela Soare (Tiberiu Soare’s wife), who are against Johan Kobborg, and they both dance very well. The two evenings are very emotional, the audience regrets Johan Kobborg. At the same time, Tiberiu Soare starts to become radical and accuses Kobborg of corruption in a comment made on this blog. The accusations are immediately dismantled, by showing relevant documents.

Monday, April 18th – Vlad Conta announces that he appointed Gigel Ungureanu as chief of the „ballet department”.

Tuessday,  April 19th – the Minister of Culture dismisses Vlad Conta and brings back George Călin as interim general manager. The move is surprising for everybody and proves that the first change did not have a serious reason. In the last day of his mandate, Vlad Conta hires Tiberiu Soare as a permanent conductor at the BNO. The consequences of this appointment will be disastrous for everybody.

Wednesday, April 20th – the Minister of Culture gives up meeting the BNO artists, as he promised the day before. At the Opera, there is an ad-hoc demonstration, and the participants sing Va, pensiero. The agenda of the protest includes the fight against Răzvan Ioan Dincă and George Călin, and it tries to focus the attention on corruption, away from chauvinism and xenophobia. Cătălin Arbore takes part in the protest: he was the general manger of BNO before Răzvan Dincă and he is accused of corruption, too. The performance of that night, with Falstaff, is blocked, and the people who came to see it have to leave. In this context of complete chaos, Angela Gheorghiu sends another message of support for Tiberiu Soare.

Thursday, April 21st – the demonstrations continue, this time BNO artists declare they do not want Kobborg, irrespective of the consequences, and that their favourite is Tiberiu Soare. Another performance with Falstaff is blocked. The Minister is threatened to give up. Late in the evening, Vlad Alexandrescu dismisses George Călin a second time. His counsellor, Rareș Zaharia, quits. From now on, BNO has no management at all. The system crisis at the BNO becomes obvious.

Saturday, April 23rd – All attempts to appoint a new interim manager are refused by the protesters led by Tiberiu Soare. Names like Andrei Șerban or Ioan Holender appear, and they make the pressure group in BNO even more furious. This group is led by Tiberiu Soare, Vlad Conta, Oana Andra, Sorina Munteanu, Irina Iordăchescu. A new performance, the ballet DSCH/The Dream, is blocked. For the first time, the audience fights back and rails against the “revolutionaries”. Tiber Soare tries to give a speech and he is called “a racist” by someone in the hall. The situation gets out of control. Without any media support, the protesters use another website that promotes nationalism and euro-scepticism in order to promote their messages. The offences against Kobborg, started a long time ago, are more and more exaggerated. In an interview, Tiberiu Soare says: “Johan Kobborg is just a dude”.

Sunday, April 24th – Another performance, this time a concert with symphonic music and opera, commemorating 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, is stopped for a period of time by a delegation of the “revolutionaries”, who “unmask” in a stalinist way its organiser, Mr Mihai Cosma, an university professor and well-known musicologist, as a person who was close to the “former regime” of Răzvan Dincă and George Călin.

The situation is so serious that a new escalation takes place: this time, to the political level. Vlad Alexandrescu is replaced at the negotiation table by the deputy prime-minister Vasile Dâncu, who promises to meet the protesters shortly.

Monday, April 25th – While waiting for the meeting with the deputy prime-minister, Mr Constantin Șorop, human resources manager at the BNO, sends a note to the protection service of the institution, that includes 9 persons who are no longer allowed to enter the building. Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru are on the black list.

Tuesday, April 26th – Vasile Dâncu meets the protesters but does not take any decision. He just promises he will send the Control Body of the Prime Minister, without saying what this will research on. Despite efforts of calming down the situation, the Bucharest National Opera becomes the target of accusations in international media (FAZ, ABC News).

Wednesday, April 27th – the Minister of Culture, Vlad Alexandrescu, resigns. The President of Romania, Mr Klaus Iohannis, gives a very direct speech about this: “There are very few imaginable mistakes the Minister of Culture did not make in the scandal at the Opera. Once more, the scandal escalates to the ideological level. The civil society supporters of the Minister demonstrate in the street. Tiberiu Soare’s “revolution” joins their protest, but they are rejected.

Friday, April 29th – Mr Vlad Alexandrescu gives a new interview for RFI, and puts the biggest blame for the disaster at the BNO on his former counsellor, Mr Rareș Zaharia. But later he changes his mind twice about his resignation: 1. he will resign after Easter (May 1st), 2. he will resign only if his successor is Mrs Corina Șuteu (former manager of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, at present secretary of state in the Ministry of Culture).

Saturday, April 30th – Prime Minister Dacian Cioloș publicly dismiss Vlad Alexandrescu.

The scandal at the BNO and the madness specific for the opera seem to move to the governmental level.