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  • Scott M Williamson

Romania: Revolution 1989 in 2017


Christmas in Romania, Opera House, Victory Square, Timisoara

What a whirlwind trip last week for the Romania premiere of Aaron Garber's one-act opera, Romania: Revolution 1989 in the beautiful "old world" central European city of Timisoara! The designated 2021 European Capital of Culture was the city which sparked the democratic revolution of 1989, where over the course of little more than a week in mid-December, the brutal and reviled dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown and executed (along with his wife Elena, on Christmas Day, 1989).

Balcony, facade of National Theatre, home of Opera Romana. The balcony was a famous staging ground for speeches.

The opera is based on the memoirs of the composer's brother-in-law, who was one of the hundred thousand-plus protestors who gathered in Victory Square. After several days of riots, national uprisings, widespread violence and anarchy, students, locals, members of the police, military and the notorious "secret service" (securitate) held a prayer vigil between the imposing Neo-classical facade of the Opera House and the stunning Romanian Orthodox Cathedral, in the heart of this beautiful medieval university town; a small city known for its liberal, cosmopolitan culture and society.

Romanian Orthodox Cathedral, from Christmas Market at Victory Square,

It was an honor to sing in the Romanian premiere of this one-act I've already been privileged to bring to life, thanks to the generous support of our friends in Amherst, AGAR. Lynn and Ned Kable and Father James Hubbard have become great friends since they commissioned the premiere of Aaron's work in the spring of 2015. Representing the local Salem Rotary club was past-president (and past RSO board chair) Joe Ferguson. Originally, I was invited to join them on this trip as a cultural "ambassador" to foster an exchange between Opera Roanoke and the Rotary Opera of Timisoara, our hosts and producers of this "local" premiere. When a Romanian tenor was not available, I was asked to reprise the role of the narrator, Sorin (based on Aaron's brother-in-law, Emil, who was present).

Proscenium and lip of dome, Opera Romana

I have never been so honored, nor can I remember ever being so nervous or pumped-up before a performance (the jet leg necessitated a certain high-concentrate dose of adrenalin). As those "with ears to hear" affirmed, my "money" note was a few fries short of a happy meal, but I believe the passion and expression made up for any jet-lag-induced vocal fatigue or nerve-producing tightness. Regardless, the performance was well-received, we took several curtain calls, and were the humble toast of the party for several hours afterwards. It was one of the most special performances in which I've had the pleasure of being a professional participant. Though I didn't travel beyond North America until my 25th year (1996), I have been incredibly fortunate since then to have had professional engagements, studies and travels in special places I most likely would not have had the privilege of experiencing, like Romania, Croatia, or Montenegro. I feel so lucky to have performed in beautiful halls like the National Theatre (here), the Tartini Theatre in Slovenia, the Archeological Museum in Naples, and among other unforgettable, "how'd-I-get-so-lucky" experiences, Bayreuth's Stadthalle and Yamaha Hall in Tokyo. Right now, I'm also grateful for the engendered adrenalin rush from the trip... the so-called "fumes" which carry you beyond so special an experience...

The beautiful house of the National Theatre Opera Romana

Llike Roanoke, it's difficult to travel internationally to parts of Romania. I flew from ROA to LGA, spent a night in NYC (and caught up with my friend Steven White on the latest operatic drama in the US) before flying overnight from JFK via Moscow (on Aeroflot / Russian Air) to Bucharest, where I changed to Ryan Air for the short flight to Timisoara, the center of the western district of Banat, bordering Hungary, Serbia, and at the region's northernmost tip, Ukraine.

After arriving Monday evening in Timisoara, where we had a great welcome dinner in our "home" at the charming B&B-style "Casa del Sole." Thanks to our generous host, Corinna, who owns the hotel and restaurant and is a leader in the Rotary Club. We were comfortable and well-fed, and look forward to returning the favor in Roanoke when we can arrange an exchange visit.

We met our Romanian colleagues, faculty from the University of the West on Tuesday, following a brief walking tour of the city, including a special guided tour of the Memorial to the Revolution of 1989, managed by an association run by one of its heroes and (gun-shot victims), Dr Orban.

Dr Orban, wounded hero of 1989 Revolution, in front of photo; composer Aaron Garber in background

It was special to meet Dr Orban and hear of his experiences day-to-day as the Revolution fomented from protests to police and military violence to government forces laying down arms, joining the rebels and turning the tide at the above-mentioned vigil held between the imposing Neo-classical Central European Opera House and the Moldovian-style Romanian Orthodox Cathedral.

What an experience to feel like you're directly in touch with so momentous an occasion. It was particularly memorable, and though I am a "whatever gig I'm working on is my favorite" kind of person, this trip was particularly special. It had much to do with the great people, who were warm, welcoming, intelligent, generous, interesting, and just as easy to work with professionally as they were fun to socialize with (Multumesc to our new friends in Timisoara for speaking more English than our collective Romanian!)

First course at Timisoareana Brew Factory for trad. Romanian holiday dinner

In between meetings, rehearsals, and our culminating performance on Dec 13 at the Opera House, we were wined and dined with overflowing flair, including a traditional Romanian Holiday Dinner, a central-European "roasting of the pig" feast with a 7-piece folk band, dancing of various Horas and merriment all around. There were of course, cameos by singing guests, and thus it was I had the chance to sing again with my new young tenor friends, Ramon, Justin, Josue and Emanuelle.

Traditional Romanian folk band

The "Four tenors" (3 pictured below) are all fabulous first-year students at the University of the West, located on Liberty Square in Timisoara, where we rehearsed our one and only day to put this show together. (For inquiring minds: We arrived Monday evening, rehearsed Tues, performed Wed, had meetings Thursday, and departed early Friday morning. I arrived in NYC early Saturday morning and returned to Roanoke Sunday afternoon for an Apprentice dress rehearsal for a performance in Roanoke tonight!)

With my dashing young Romanian tenor friends, L to R. Josue, Justin, and Ramon

I am so excited at the prospect of returning next Spring (April 2018, we hope!?!) to work with these students and work with their faculty on starting a new Young Artists Academy. What a great honor and opportunity for Roanoke and our Opera company. In addition to collaborating with them on the Academy and fostering an exchange with OR Apprentice Artists, we want to launch their program to participate in Aaron's full-length opera premiere (slated for Dec 2019, the Revolution's 30th anniversary), and gear them up for the Cultural Capital Year of 2021. They are interested in collaborating with as many international artists as they can arrange, as they want their students exposed to the styles and traditions of as many cultures as possible. I am honored they have asked us here at OR to participate in this joint venture, and look forward to where we might go, and what new opportunities we might create for our students, young artists, and communities.

Rehearsing Aaron's opera, Bogdan singing the baritone "villain" dictator, Melia and Melitta piano 4 hands, composer conducting

I could say much more about Romania, Timisoara, our new friends, the 2 Claudius, Violeta, Marianna, Dan, Mihai, Mercia, Carmen, Lilliana, Longin, and of course all the others, our musician, student and new "family" friends. Noroc! Cheers! Happy Holidays!

Liberty Square, Public art trees out of repurposed bottle caps (fore.) and beer bottle labels (back.); Univ of West facade in background

Multumesc, Romania, for a wonderful trip!

Curtain call after opera, Bogdan, SMW, Melia, Melitta, Aaron

Berlin gave a part of its famed wall to the Memorial to the Revolution


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