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Romanian Culture Cuts Send Actors, Opera Stars Out To The Streets


A production of Ubu Roi, a play by Alfred Jary, at Bucharest's National Theater Festival in 2015

BUCHAREST -- Many of Romania’s leading actors, opera directors, and museum curators are protesting budget cuts they say will lead to layoffs and force many of the country’s top performances to be cancelled.

In the first public protest by such artists in many years, well-known actors including Victor Rebengiuc and the general manager of the National Theater of Bucharest, Ion Caramitru, attended a demonstration of a few hundred people outside the government offices on Victory Square on June 30.

Caramitru -- who rode a tank in the streets during the bloody 1989 anticommunist uprising and later made a televised address against Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu -- urged the government to scrap the budget cuts it announced in May that will affect productions at the prestigious theater, which staged more than 700 shows last year and employs 80 full-time actors.

Culture Minister Daniel Breaz has instead announced that an audit of the National Theater will be conducted to see how its money is being spent. He said the theater had a budget of 53 million lei ($12.67 million) in 2018, which was increased to 57 million lei ($13.62 million) this year.

Caramitru countered that the theater’s “goods and services” budget had been slashed by 2 million lei ($478,000), meaning the institution couldn’t cover the salaries of its 54 technicians. Payments to contract workers, freelancers, repairs, and utility bills must come from the same budget.

Performances Canceled

The last-minute cuts will lead to the cancelation of a performance of George Orwell’s 1984 “right when we are celebrating 30 years since the end of communism,” Caramitru told RFE/RL, with the fate of other shows uncertain.

Outdoor performances during the summer season have also been shelved.

Breaz also called on the country’s theaters, operas, and museums to cut spending and generate their own income.

But Caramitru said raising ticket prices, for example, is not an option as the theater already has the most expensive seats in the country.

Bucharest's National Theater is one of the city’s most iconic buildings and recently underwent an $82.5 million, four-year revamp.

Its original facade, covered with arches, now has a very modern, distinctly Le Corbusier look to it, with large, smooth curved forms.

Prime Minister Viorica Dancila and Breaz met theater and museum directors on July 2 to discuss the crisis.

The protest also raises difficult questions about the state financing of the arts.

Romanian actors protest in Bucharest on June 30.
Romanian actors protest in Bucharest on June 30.

The Social Democrat-led government, which does count culture among its political priorities, is currently trying to reduce spending to keep the budget deficit under the 3 percent level that the European Union demands for the bloc’s members.

Opera critic Alexandru Pastrașcu says the government has handled the situation badly. “You don’t resolve the financial crisis by [cutting] opera shows,” he said, though added that he thinks opera houses should generate their own revenues.

The Vienna Opera self-finances 45 percent of its budget while Milan’s La Scala generates 65 percent of its finances, Pastrascu said.

But Romanian operas barely cover 5 percent of their own costs, he added.

The director of the Iasi Opera, Beatrice Rancea, said: “You can’t use fewer ballet dancers or musicians just because the ministry has cut the funds.”

One-Hour Museum Strike

Other sectors in the cultural domain are also feeling the pinch. Museum employees around the country took part in a one-hour strike on July 3 urging the government to reconsider the cuts.

National Network of Museums in Romania Director Ciprian Stefan Anghel told RFE/RL on July 5 that “we want a dialogue [with the government] but also concrete action.”

“If you invest in culture, you invest in the economy…we generate jobs and we have a role in education,” he added.

Anghel said he was waiting for a response from the government before deciding whether to hold more protests.

Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, the general manager of Romania’s National History Museum, said the museum was facing 30 percent budget cuts.

“We have too few staff and we rely on freelancers. This will seriously affect us,” he told RFE/RL.

Mihai Constantinescu, the director of the prestigious Enescu classical music festival, which invites foreign orchestras to Bucharest, said organizers were scrambling to find funds to cover costs.

Well-known actor Victor Rebengiuc took part in the protests.
Well-known actor Victor Rebengiuc took part in the protests.

The budget cuts to cultural organizations have even involved the country’s president.

Klaus Iohannis, the centrist rival of the government, has come out in support of the artists and said in a Facebook post that the “disaster in the culture sector was caused by the incompetent government.”

“I support the artists who protest because of drastic cuts in the budgets of cultural institutions. Instead of enjoying this invaluable resource, we are called to defend Romanian culture from bankruptcy," he wrote.

“Culture has now been placed at the bottom of the list, just like many other major Romanian goals. Artists and cultural institutions need our solidarity. They serve and represent our cultural heritage,” concluded Iohannis.

Romania has a long tradition of talented actors and high-quality theatrical productions.

Under communism, theaters were a rare outlet for dissent. Tickets were often sold out and spectators found a refuge in shows and plays that criticized communism using metaphors, double entendres, and other subtle devices that evaded the ever-present censors.

But high culture is today less popular in Romania, something that is true in other European countries facing the same struggles to finance the cultural sphere.

The National Institute for Cultural Research said some three-fourths of Romanians do not take part in cultural events, above the European average of 62 percent.

Well-known actor Mihai Calin said the cuts would affect all the state-funded cultural institutions.

He said without technicians, theaters would be unable to stage shows.

"It's like you, reporters, you do an interview and you don’t have colleagues to film it. We cannot send our message,” he told newz.ro.

Written by Alison Mutler with reporting by RFE/RL’s Romanian Service
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