Romanian ballet’s opera buffa is no laughing matter

At the Romanian National Opera, the farce continues. Indeed, it’s quickly becoming a tragedy.

Romania’s Minister of Culture Vlad Alexandrescu resigned this morning, citing his failure to solve the ongoing conflict at the opera’s ballet. This follows yesterday’s events, when ballerina Alina Cojocaru (pictured below) and Danish ballet dancer and choreographer Johan Kobborg were told they may only enter the opera building if they are permanently supervised by security.


While the current problems at the opera can be traced back as far as 2013, when the way it is managed and administered was modernised – ever-so-slightly – by then Minister of Culture Daniel Barbu, the recent chaos began when a far-right, ultra-nationalist website (probably tipped off by sympathetic sources within the opera) revealed that the artistic director of the opera’s ballet, Danish dancer Johan Kobborg, was earning more than €7000 per month while Romanian dancers were being paid far less.

Ignoring the fact that directors – particularly talented ones – usually earn far more than the staff, and that in his time at the helm Kobborg had more than succeeded in making the Romanian ballet an internationally-respected institution, the usual suspects began calling for his removal, citing as unacceptable the fact that he (and other foreign dancers at the ballet) were being paid more than locals.

Then, in early in April, the opera’s interim director George Calin (who had held the post on a temporary basis since last year, the previous incumbent having been carted off by the DNA), was replaced by the conductor Tiberiu Soare, appointed director on a permanent basis. Soare’s first act as director (indeed, the very next day) was to sack Kobborg. In fact, what Soare did was claim that Kobborg’s position (artistic director) did not appear in the opera’s official nomenclature of posts. Kobborg was therefore occupying a job which did not, on paper, exist. All well and good perhaps, which is why Kobborg’s salary was being paid by private corporate sponsors, and not the Romanian state which subsidises the opera.

Much (but not all) of the opera’s ballet corp, led by Alina Cojocaru (Romania’s finest ever ballerina and Kobborg’s fiancee) then came out in protest against the Dane’s dismissal. On April 9th Cojocaru refused to take the stage in the premiere of Manon, the current ballet season’s highlight. And that’s when all hell broke loose.

Romanian employees of the opera began counter-protesting against the influence of Kobborg, Cojocaru and other assorted ‘foreigners’. When it was later revealed that Kobborg had made the working language of the ballet English, the nationalists began foaming at the mouth. One even protested that speaking English at the opera is ‘unconstitutional’ as Romanian must be the working language in any state institution. At a meeting called by vice-prime minister Vasile Dancu, Cojocaru – who left Romania to train abroad when she was nine, and speaks Romanian with a slight accent – was accused of not knowing the constitution and of speaking ‘unintelligible’ Romanian.

By now the news of Kobborg’s dismissal had spread far and wide (he is widely regarded as a genius and his dismissal was doing little for the reputation of the Romanian ballet). Soare was replaced by Vlad Conta and Kobborg promptly reinstated. However, when Kobborg learnt that one of Conta’s first acts as boss had been to ask Cojocaru to lie about the reason for her absence from Manon, the newly reinstated Dane resigned.

Are you keeping up at the back of the class?

Vlad Alexandrescu then met with Cojocaru and Kobborg privately, and both agreed that the best course of action would be to reappoint George Calin as interim director until the situation could be resolved permanently.

Alas, the nationalist faction at the opera rejected Calin’s appointment. On Tuesday, the head of the opera’s personnel department responded by issuing the interdiction forbidding Kobborg, Cojocaru and even Calin (still technically the interim boss of the institution) from entering the building alone.

A meeting this evening of all parties, chaired by Vasile Dancu at the vice-prime minister’s office, is likely to resolve very little. Performances will continue to be cancelled.

A few conclusions:

1. Nothing will be settled unless Soare and Conta, or Kobborg and Cojocaru, leave. For the sake of art, it is be hoped that Kobborg and Cojocaru will emerge victorious. We have little hope that this will be the case.

2. Vlad Alexandrescu should never have made Tiberiu Soare boss of the opera in the first place. However, that is his only mistake: he has since then handled a delicate situation as best he, or anyone else, can. He should not have been forced to resign. It is no wonder that civil society (led by artist Emil Perjovschi) will tonight gather in Piata Universitatii to support him.

3. Johan Kobborg is one of the world’s best ballet dancers and artistic directors. He is worth whatever salary he asks for.

4. If Alina Cojocaru agrees to dance for your ballet – for relative peanuts – the last thing you want to do is sack her fiancee. You fall over yourself to make sure her every whim and desire is met, ramp up ticket prices and milk her for all she is worth. You certainly do not mock her for speaking less than perfect Romanian and then kick her out of the theatre.

5. Events at the opera, as we have suggested before, are being driven by a nationalist mindset – afraid of change, and of anything perceived as being remotely foreign – that has infected many aspects of Romanian culture. It is a mindset which fails to see the value of shared experience, of cultural exchange and of art for art’s sake. Saddest of all is that a decade or so ago it had begun, slowly, to disappear. It has been reignited by a new nationalism that now threatens years of progress, and not merely in the world of the Romanian arts.

PS Kit Gillet just filed this for the Guardian on the same subject. Good, but fails to develop the nationalist theme enough.


44 thoughts on “Romanian ballet’s opera buffa is no laughing matter

  1. The lingering effects of the Ceausescu regime are still being played out some 26 years later here in Bucharest. The problem is that the wealth is not spread around like it is in the West. The transition back to capitalism will take at least as long as the 42 years Romania was communist. So we have an easy 16 years or more still while Romania acclimates itself to a market economy and Western (civilized) values. I’d put the Ceausescu bastardization effect as much more than 42 years. He sent Romania to oblivion. It may be more like 60-80 years before Bucharest picks up again as if it was 1935:


    1. We don’t want the Western values of atheism and ignorance. We only want Western money and we’re gonna stay in this shit only as long as Western money comes without much obligations.

      For the first time in history, trust in the European Union descended below 50% in Romania. In 16 years time the EU will disappear and we’re gonna be a sovereign, independent nation again.


      1. Which model is it? I hope it’s not “zâmbetul lui Iliescu”. The first gen 1310 is the nicest, I think. I’ve even seen a few nicely done Dacia 1310 Sport.


      2. It is indeed Iliescu’s smile version. It’s a 2002 Berlina fuel injected. I wanted to get the last model Dacia made as a testament to the effects of Iliescu on Romania. I wanted the ultimate bastardized Dacia. The emissions mediu was 3449 lei at the Sector 1 Fiscal Authority. I bought the car for 3900 lei but have put another 15,000 lei into it (including the mediu). Runs great now!


    2. Oh, like the Iron Guard? Nationalism predates Ceausescu and will outlive him. An educated person like Parmalat who has had some exposure to the world is still a hard-core nationalist. Oh wait, Parmalat did say that Unirii was comparable to the Champs-Elysees… *laff*


      1. Unirii – the section from Piata Unirii to Casa Poporului – is a ghost town. An example of how not to create a city centre.

        The Champs Elysée comparison is laughable.


      2. Unirii is comparable to Champs Elysees.

        In fact Unirii Blvd. is the most attractive retail area in Europe right now. Even New York would love to have such a commercial boulevard.

        The only reason for which Unirii is not like Champs Elysees is because the local economy can’t support a boulevard full of high-end brands and we also don’t have big money tourism to come to Bucharest and shop high-end brands.

        Unirii should be part of a huge luxury development program that should include Vacaresti area too.

        Just imagine the hotels, casinos and restaurants that can be built in the Vacaresti area! It would turn Bucharest into Atlantic City overnight.

        But in order to attract such a huge investment (at least 3-4 billion $ could be poured into Vacaresti and Unirii), first we need to legalize prostitution. So as to give people more reasons to come to Bucharest than gambling and high-end shopping.

        If these things will be done, they will change the face of Bucharest forever.


      3. “and a Bucharest-Danube channel for cruises ”

        Ha! Nobody in their right mind would want to take a cruise through the Wallachian plain.

        “Where shall we go this year, dear? I’m bored of the Rhine and Loire valleys, and the Danube between Vienna and Budapest is just *so* passé”

        “I know, let’s explore the dusty flatlands of Wallachia. You know how much I’ve always loved mile upon mile of maize plants, with no scenery at all”


      4. He was probably heading for the Dubliner. Thought he’d knock out out the Byzantine coins along with some dodgy briefcases and Turkish raincoats marked dry clean only.


      5. I’ll ask the Charlton Heston detective once he’s finished giving the romantic interest what for! No doubt he’ll be up to his knees in Rhino crap?


      6. I was going to reply, “Dear God, don’t do anything to make Bucharest like Atlantic City! The place is dying!”

        Then I got to the end of your comment and realized what you were doing.

        I guess even I am subject to Poe’s Law.


  2. Why doesn’t Koborg just leave? I told him on Twitter to leave, I’m sure he can find a better deal elsewhere.

    Or maybe he’s not that good and nobody is willing to take his 7000 Euro salary?

    Then why should we pay him that salary here in Romania?!


      1. Because he’s not wanted and even if he is put back by force, he won’t be able to do his job anymore.

        The world is full of artistic directors for 7000 Euro a month, but I doubt there are too many dancers for 300 Euro a month.


      2. “Not wanted’ or not appreciated.JK is worth much more than what he is paid! Turning art into currency is a step backwards for Romania. Shame and disgrace on those small minded dancers so focussed on their guaranteed wages. Where is the incentive to exceed when you just have to be there to get paid. This is backward thinking and pushes Romania back to the last century. The hypocritical Romanian dancers who were given the opportunity to dance internationally should be ashamed of themselves. Imagine the outcry if the international ballet community called them foreigners and refused to play while they were performing overseas. They were happy to receive their pay for those performances and now want the foreigners out? They are calling themselves Je Suis Opera and don’t even see the irony of using a foreign phrase to describe their protest.


      3. “JK is worth much more than what he is paid!”

        If he was worth more, he would have left long time ago.

        But clinging to a salary of 7000 Euro when most of his team is paid 3-400 Euro makes me think that he’s worth nothing and couldn’t possibly get another deal anywhere near that.

        When you only have 3-400 a month it’s pretty much obvious that you will be looking to protect your guaranteed income first because you don’t have savings and that you will be frustrated when somebody else in the same team as you are gets paid 7000.

        If Kobborg is worth what some say he is and if he’s got minimum dignity and self respect, he should leave right away.


      4. Apparently the Romanian dancers were paid accordingly when they performed outside Romania but they forgot to mention that . It’s a sad state when art is looked at in terms of dollars. How can you expect the arts to grow when it’s reduced to money. The dancers have no incentive to excel at their art because it’s no longer an art it’s a job where they get paid for being there. Along comes a man with an artistic vision and because they actually have to earn their wage they throw tantrums. I don’t understand the nationalistic pride in a ballet company which yells at foreigners to go home. If they were so full of this pride then why don’t they perform folk dances instead of an international art form? So much hypocrisy.


      5. That’s why it’s called the Romanian National Opera: because it has to display Romania’s best. Like the Romanian National Football team.

        Such transfers of ballerinas without citizenship and naturalization should be forbidden. Every nation should display what it has best, not what it can buy from abroad.


      6. This is why it should not be performing an international art just folk dances. You cant just take the bits uou like from being a member of tbe EU. Its all about collaboration. Xenophobia disgusts me.


      7. Then make a single EU Opera and collaborate as you like. As long as the institution is national, it has to maintain a national representation.

        “You cant just take the bits you like from being a member of the EU”

        That’s why the EU is going to hell. Trust in the European institutions has fallen below 50% in Romania for the first time in history.

        There won’t be an EU anymore in 15 years time.


      1. It means he’s not that good, cause if he were – he would be in contact with the top management from his domain and he would be regarded as a priceless gem in the industry.


  3. Craig, thanks for providing this recap and analysis. Best I’ve seen in English so far.

    (Only little thing I might quibble about: I wish you’d mentioned the corruption allegations against Calin. I gather that’s why there was a staff rebellion when he was reappointed; is that actually the case?)


      1. A progressive mafia, Soros-backed piece of shit.

        Its owner sold children to foreigners back in the early 90s and was arrested for tax evasion and laundering of 18 million € a few days ago.

        That’s the reputation of Adevarul among Romanians.

        Among foreigners – I don’t know…


  4. As a romanian, an artist and an university teacher, my heart is very sad. We appreciate Alina and Johan and it’s a shame that they have to suffer this.

    This said, there is a strong possibility that the media campaign utlises them (AC and JK) to divert the attention from another topic, that is the criminal investigation which accuses the former opera management.

    The media mogul of the trust who mainly attaked the Opera artists was arrested by the anti-organised crime departement. On every TV, now, you can see him in his earlier years, intermediating the selling of babies for adoption (3500-7000 USD) , last part.

    Aswell, the most virulent blogger against the opera artists is in conflict of interests, as shown here:

    The team of the former management are provoking the artists in the Opera camp in a bad way, making them to say unwise thing.

    By instance, Irina Iordachescu, a normal and nice person and a respected artist, was called “that bleating, oversized alleged mezzosoprano who lives off the fat of her father’s reputation”. You can imagine how she feels now.

    I kindly ask you to represent both parts opinion.

    The official release of the opera artists demands their right a correct management, denouncing all form of xenophoby.

    A short precision, Soare and Dinca are ON OPPOSITE sides, not on the same side.


  5. I agree this is an important issue for Romania’s image. and am trying to make sense of the issue with the help of my Romanian wife. You say, Craig, that Kobborg’s fee is being paid by corporate sponsors – but the attempt made on this website to explain the situation seems to suggest different – that the contract was negotiated with the Ministry and hence comes from the Ministry budget. Can you throw more light on this?


    1. It’s illegal for a public worker to be paid from private funds. It’s called judicial conflict of interests in Romania.

      The National State Opera is a public institution, he couldn’t possibly have been paid from outside sources, it’s illegal.

      There could have been some corporate sponsors for the Opera, who appeared as a consequence of having Kobborg as Artistic Director, but those contracts can only be made between the corporate sponsors and the Opera.

      I think the DNA should take over from here because I smell a rat. He was paid 7000 Euro a month from public funds, but that may also have been illegal.

      I think the ones who are pushing this scandal know damn well they have the law on their side.


    2. I know that Kobborg’s salary was indeed paid by private sponsors (have had it confirmed by a source ‘close to the action’, as it were). What I do not know is how this money got to him. It may well be that it went in to the opera as donations and out again as his salary, and not directly to him. That would probably be the most likely scenario.


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