Forty-four years ago, in dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania, my grandfather produced an opera that could have landed him on the wrong side of the Communists.
When World War II ended, Romania emerged from the conflict under Soviet occupation. The Russian troops left in 1958, but Communism remained; in 1965, Ceausescu seized power and imposed a brutal totalitarian regime that didn’t end until the bloody revolution of 1989. There was a brief window between 1960 and 1970 when Romania seemed open to the West, but in 1971, Ceausescu delivered his infamous July Theses, denouncing Western culture. The speech ushered in the return to socialist realism, a movement that limited artistic expression to realistic celebrations of the state’s communist values. From then on, dissidents were persecuted and culture once again became little more than a vehicle for propaganda.
To be an artist in Communist Romania meant either to conform to the Romanian interpretation of socialist realism or to use subterfuge to subvert it. Performance art had marginally more wriggle room to bypass censorship than less abstract forms of film or literature, but, by Western standards, artistic freedom simply did not exist in any media.
It was in this inhospitable context that my grandfather, Gheorghe Codrea, came of age as an artist. He was born in 1928 in Sighet, a town in northern Romania on the Ukrainian border famous for its political prison. He moved to Cluj, Romania’s second city and a long-established cultural hub, in 1949 to study at its prestigious art and design school. Shortly before arriving there, his brother was imprisoned in a hard-labor camp for taking part in an anti-Communist rally, and Codrea lived in fear that the school would discover the relation and kick him out. Around this same time, his girlfriend, who would become his wife and my late grandmother, had been expelled from university because her father was an Orthodox priest.
In 1956, my grandfather became the set designer for the Romanian National Opera, in Cluj. Landing the role was an honor, but taking it would mean submitting to the state’s censorship. Otherwise, he’d risk falling out of favor with the authorities, to grave consequences: Artists who publicly disavowed the communist regime faced the disbarment of their materials from school curricula, prohibition from producing new works, and imprisonment. Some would just disappear.
I grew up seeing my grandfather’s paintings and sketches hanging on the walls of our home in London. In the summers, I used to visit my grandparents in Cluj, where I’d spend hours in his art studio playing with the models he’d kept years after their production. But it was only recently that I became aware of their significance: when my grandfather told me that a major gallery in Cluj was inaugurating its reopening with an exhibition of his set designs, it dawned on me that these pieces weren’t just backdrops to my childhood but part of the canon of Romanian communist art.
Recently, I flew to Romania to attend the opening night of my grandfather’s retrospective. I wanted to see the work he had spent a career making, work for which I had never appreciated how much he had risked.
I sat with my grandfather in his apartment in Cluj, where the walls were adorned with the abstract oil paintings of the Romanian countryside he made after his retirement from the opera. He told me that he spent most of his life with a constant burden. “You walked around with a weight balanced on the top of your head, which you had to keep in perfect balance,” he said.
“You were afraid of your neighbor, that they would say something about you that could land you in jail.” The Securitate, the secret police force in Romania, encouraged snitching to weed out anti-government sentiment. It was common for neighbors to turn on each other.
“There only had to be a rumor that you told a joke and this could condemn you in some way,” Codrea said. “It was a permanent terror.”
Many of the design sketches, models, and paintings on display originate from productions my grandfather coproduced with the opera director, Ilie Balea. One piece in particular is the highlight of the show: the 1973 production of Liviu Glodeanu’s obscure opera, Zamolxe.
Zamolxe tells the story of a pagan prophet who preaches a new religion to a group of ancient people understood to be Romania’s original inhabitants. Zamolxe grows his following, but in doing so, he angers the incumbent spiritual leader, who then tricks Zamolxe’s own followers into stoning him to death. Together with Balea, my grandfather managed to get this nihilistic performance about religious exile past the Communist Party’s censorship committee, and premiered it for the first time to the Romanian public.
Upon reading the libretto, my grandfather quickly realized that Zamoxle would be relatively palatable to censors—in fact, the bones of its story conformed neatly to communist sensibilities. From one angle, Zamolxe could be read as a nationalist myth with a pagan figure at its center, a myth that played perfectly into the party’s affinity for stories that celebrated Romanian heritage over Christian ones.
A closer reading of the text, however, reveals a dense philosophical meditation on freedom, philosophy, and rejecting the status quo. That was the interpretation my grandfather embraced: after reading it and spending time in discussion with Balea, he set to work conjuring his visual concept for the performance.
“It flowed out of me like water,” he told me. “I’m not even sure where it came from.”
Wandering around the Quadro gallery, I was struck by how cosmic so many of the images seemed—one of the set-design sketches features three extraterrestrial-like figures gawping at a psychedelic explosion. Presuming my grandfather wasn’t getting hold of bootlegged copies of Pink Floyd albums, I asked him where this inspiration had come from.
“Those are my inventions,” he told me. “The elements are from original documentation from the time, but the color and composition is my interpretation and concept.”
My grandfather found photographs of ceramics from around 1400 B.C., roughly the period when Zamolxe is said to have lived, and used them as a starting point for the symbols and imagery he would employ throughout the opera.
It’s there, in one of the central images of the production, that you could see a flouting of communist values hidden in plain sight. What at first glance looked like a benign, albeit peculiar-looking, figure, revealed itself, upon closer inspection, to be a crucifix.
“Yes, the cross appears,” my grandfather told me. “Of course it was intentional.”
Zamolxe was subject to the same vetting process that all public productions went through then: prior to the public premiere, the opera hosted a viewing of the production for representatives from the Romanian Communist Party’s cultural department. They were there solely to assess whether the production adhered to the party’s propaganda and if it needed censoring.
“Usually the changes weren’t to the music—they were made if there were quirks in the text or imagery,” my grandfather told me. “If there was an allusion to something, it had to be changed. It had to toe the party line.”
My grandfather was prepared to argue that the cross didn’t exist, that the figure was merely a graphic interpretation of a historical relic. But it didn’t come to that: the cross went unnoticed. The figure even ended up on the sleeve of the opera’s soundtrack, rare copies of which are still floating around the Internet.
The threat of state supervision became, through its constancy, a sort of bureaucratic banality.
“In the back of our minds, we were permanently on alert to not flagrantly disregard the party line,” he told me. “It was almost involuntary—it became part of the job.”
The one place he could be open was in his collaboration with the opera’s director.
“With Balea, I could talk to him openly and felt completely safe,” Codrea told me. “We could tell jokes in each other’s company. In our conversations, we forgot about the censorship, and we just talked about the creative subject. We didn’t think about how the party could intervene. It didn’t stop our thought process.”
But at some point in the 1970s—my grandfather couldn’t remember exactly when—Balea fled the country, seeking asylum in France. He died before the revolution, having never returned to Romania.
Walking around the exhibition, I felt that camaraderie between the director and stage designer come alive in their collaborations. In one of the scenes in Zamolxe, the floor is painted with an optical illusion that makes its surface appear wavy. My grandfather told me that the ballerinas were so disoriented by it that they had trouble finding their footing.
This staging technique is a poetic encapsulation of what it was like to work as an artist in Communist Romania. Throughout my childhood, my grandparents alluded to what life was like for them, but I never fully grasped what they were trying to tell me. Looking at that dizzying stage, I finally understood the lingering uncertainty, the inability to trust even my own senses.
Anna Codrea-Rado is a writer based in London.