The story of the opera, “Romania: Revolution 1989,” composed by Aaron Garber,
a composer and conductor from Roanoke, Virginia
How it all began…
In August 2007, Aaron Garber invited Lynn and Ned Kable, officers of Amherst Glebe Arts Response, Inc., (AGAR) to join a group he was leading from Salem Choral Society and College Lutheran Church in Salem, VA, to visit Romania. In the beautiful city of Timișoara, the group heard from people who had lived there in 1989 about how an uprising that began on December 15, 1989, had resulted ten days later in the overthrow and execution of Romanian Communist Dictator and President Nicolae Ceaușescu. They heard stories of students running from police and security forces in the streets, saw bullet holes from shots fired at those students still visible in building walls, visited the cemetery where those killed in the revolution are buried, and saw the Memorialul Revolutiei, the memorial museum.
After this visit, AGAR president Lynn Kable urged Aaron to compose a work that would tell about the 1989 Romanian Revolution. “It’s such an amazing story!” she said. “If you don’t do it, someone else certainly will!” Aaron agreed, and in 2014 AGAR applied successfully for grants from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts/Art Works, and the Greater Lynchburg Community Trust to commission Aaron to create a chamber opera about the Timișoara uprising and the overthrow of the Ceaușescus.
The Romanian Revolution of 1989 was brief and violent. Followers of dissident Hungarian Reformed Church Pastor László Tőkés had gathered outside his church in the evening after Advent services on December 15, 1989. They had heard Tőkés was to be exiled from the city to a remote location because of his criticism of Ceaușescu and his government. A peaceful crowd gathered in support, but police and security forces soon came to disperse the group. The next day, a larger crowd of Timișoara citizens gathered, many of them students. Thus, began a ten-day uprising. Communist Dictator and President Ceaușescu ordered that no more than two people could gather and speak. Yet, crowds in Romania’s cities crew larger. In Timișoara, people gathered in the main town square, between the Romanian Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Romanian Opera Timișoara (Opera Naţională Română din Timişoara). The Securitate (secret police), the police, and the military were on the side of the Government. Civilians, including students, were shot as they stood or sat on the steps of the Timișoara Romanian Orthodox Cathedral. Revolutionaries went to the National Opera House balcony to hang banners and form a new government. President Ceaușescu made speeches, civilians knelt in front of the cathedral and prayed. A crackdown by the military ensued.
The Minister of Defense, who tried to soften Ceaușescu’s approach, died under mysterious circumstances. Reported at the time as a “suicide,” he was reputedly murdered by the government. On December 21st, Ceaușescu made a speech in Bucharest, at Palace Square, now called Revolution Square. A large crowd was bussed to hear the speech and cheer; instead they began to “boo” Ceaușescu and chanted, “Timișoara!” Most military switched sides, stopping shooting and joining the protesters. Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, the Deputy Prime Minister Elena, tried to escape but were captured, put on trial, condemned and finally shot in front of a firing squad on December 25, 1989.
And now, the rest of the story…
In 2015, AGAR presented four Virginia performances of Aaron’s chamber work that he conducted. The world premiere was at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Clifford, with subsequent performances in Sydnor Hall at the University of Lynchburg, Trinity Ecumenical Parish in Moneta, and Heights Community Church in Roanoke. The chamber work was performed by two Virginia singers: Scott Williamson, tenor and stage director, who sang the role of a student caught up in the uprising; and Philip Bouknight, a bass-baritone, who sang the role of Ceaușescu. Two Romanian-born pianists, Melia Garber and Noémi Szigeti Lee, both now U.S. citizens, accompanied the singers as four-hand pianists. The opera was beloved.
Friends in Romania shared a DVD of a Virginia performance with members of the Rotary Club of Opera Timișoara and the faculty at West University Timișoara. They were familiar with Aaron because he had composed the 2011-2012 theme song for Rotary International and had performed the premiere of the song at the international meeting in San Diego in 2011. These groups invited Aaron, Scott Williamson, Melia Garber, Lynn and Ned Kable of AGAR, and Virginia Rotary members Joe Ferguson of Salem Rotary and Fr. James Hubbard of Amherst Rotary, to come to Timișoara in December 2017, and present a European premiere of the short chamber opera of “Romania: Revolution 1989.
Lynn Kable of AGAR worked with Deirdre Serio in Virginia to create an historically accurate slideshow of photographs about the revolution with research help from Rotary Club of Opera Timișoara, from Memorialul Revolutiei 1989, the Timișoara Museum about the 1989 Revolution; and photographs by Emanuel Tanjala and Emil Toader. Rotary Club of Opera Timișoara provided subtitles for the Romanian performance which was co-produced with West University. AGAR raised money for the artists’ travel and performance in Romania. Rotary Opera sponsor Corina Macri of Casa del Sole contributed lodging and food for the artists.
While visiting Timișoara in 2017, we were able to spend more time at the Memorialul Revolutiei (Memorial Museum), which is dedicated to the uprising that led to the fall of the communist system. We were able to further research the Timișoara uprising from December 15, when the vigil at the Pastor’s home began, to December 25, 1989, the day that Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed. The museum exhibits included military and militia uniforms from those times, as well as testimonies of those who witnessed the Revolution, films about the uprising, personal and official documents, and collections of newspapers and photographs. Dr. Traian Orban, president of the museum, was most helpful to our research. Lynn Kable and Fr. Hubbard were interviewed for Timișoara television news about their reaction as Americans to the Memorial Museum because they were at the museum on the anniversary of the day the uprising began.
On December 21, 2017, the European premiere of “Romania: Revolution 1989” took place at the Romanian National Opera Timișoara as part of an Opera Rotary and West University special event to announce an Academy of Musical Theatre of which AGAR was a co-producer. Aaron conducted his chamber opera, featuring tenor Scott Williamson, bass-baritone Bogdan Sărăcin, and pianists Melia Garber and Melita Botezatu. It was an evening of great meaning.
The following week, Aaron was asked by the Rotarians and University to consider writing a full-length version of his opera, an idea to which he enthusiastically agreed. AGAR said we would help co-produce the longer work and agreed to help raise money. Scott Williamson agreed to work on directing the opera in 2019. And in late spring 2018 Scott and Aaron returned to Timișoara for successful casting sessions for the new, longer opera, held at the School of Music of West University.
The full-length opera also takes place in Timișoara and Bucharest. Major characters in Timișoara include Pastor László Tőkés; the mayor; police officers; Liliana, a young woman; and a family whose twin daughters were killed standing on the steps of the Romanian Orthodox Cathedral and whose son, Mihai, becomes a hero of the uprising. In Bucharest, major characters are Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu, the Minister of Defense, a general, and other members of the Communist government. And, of course, the People of Romania, who are represented by the chorus.
On Sunday, June 2, 2019, Scott directed a workshop version of “Romania: Revolution 1989” at Temple Emanuel Synagogue, Roanoke, VA, with young artists singing the major roles. A fundraising home event featuring Aaron, Scott, and soprano Asherah Capellaro was sponsored by Joseph and Marianne Ferguson, Rotarians from Salem. Finally, another workshop performance of the music featuring Philip Bouknight, Tara Bouknight, Asherah and Scott in the major roles, took place one evening at Trinity Ecumenical Parish, Moneta, VA.
Scott will return to Timișoara to take up his Fulbright grant at West University in October 2019. There, he will work on the production of Aaron’s opera. Rotary Club of Opera Timișoara and West University will produce the full-length “Romania: Revolution 1989” at the Romanian Opera House Timisoara. The world premiere of Aaron Garber’s two-hour opera “Romania: Revolution 1989,” will take place 7 p.m. Sunday, December 15, 2019, and includes 24 singing characters, and an orchestra and chorus.
If you would like to make a donation to AGAR
to support the state-side costs of this project, including the composer’s commission and local production expenses, we are seeking $20,000 for these purposes. You can make a check to Amherst Glebe Arts Response, Inc. (AGAR) and mail to PO Box 117 Clifford, VA 24521 and please put “Romania Opera” in the memo section. Or, click button below to go to GoFundMe to donate using credit card.
Amherst Glebe Arts Response, Inc. (AGAR) has been determined
to be a tax-exempt public charity by the Internal Revenue Service
under section 501(c)(3) of the Code.