Luminita Arvunescu: The Art of Opera and Radio Broadcasting from Bucharest to New York

I had the pleasure of meeting radio host and producer Luminita Arvunescu in Bucharest and then seeing her again at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as she produced and hosted several live broadcasts of performances from the Met to her enthusiastic home audience in Romania. An expert on radio culture and a true ambassador of opera at home and abroad, Luminita brings her vast cultural knowledge, engaging personality, and innovative ideas in service of educating and expanding classical music radio audiences and building international bridges of communication and collaboration. It was a delight to speak with her about her remarkable accomplishments, her collaboration with the Met, the state of opera, the art of radio broadcasting, and more. 

First of all, how are you? I know that you have kept active during the pandemic, especially with your Zoom series of interviews with opera stars, titled “A Virus Called Opera.” What has this series meant for you, for the artists, for listeners?

The series was among the first initiatives to pose the question: what does an opera singer do when all the theatres in the world close their doors? I am happy to have had the opportunity to offer 21 internationally acclaimed Romanian operatic artists—such as Anita Hartig, Ioan Hotea, Adela Zaharia, Ruxandra Donose—the chance to express their opinions about this dark time. My idea was that these dialogues should present a counterpoint to the general state of panic we all felt in April-June 2020. I tried to keep them upbeat even though we discussed the worries that all performing artists felt, not only Romanian ones. I planned this series in collaboration with the Association of Music, Art, and Culture and Radio Romania Music Station (RRM), the institution where I work. These online encounters with the artists induced a state of well-being as we all related to each other with the same problems, same thoughts, maybe at times in somewhat depressed moods. Sharing all these feelings and wishes to emerge was beneficial for all of us. 

Luminita Arvunescu in the Radio Romania Music Station studio with Ioan Holender, former director of the Vienna State Opera

All of the singers were in their homes with locations ranging from Athens to Madrid, from Vienna to Munich. They let us enter their private space and showed us photos, mementos, furniture. Each of them sang for us, either a cappella or accompanied. This meant a lot for the public since everyone was stuck at home and in a state of panic. The series was shown on the social media sites of both institutions I mentioned and then uploaded to YouTube. Maybe, many years from now they will be considered historical dialogues. The conversations were friendly and casual, different than on my radio show, An Evening at the Opera with Luminita Arvunescu, a show that I have been producing and hosting for over two decades. For those special editions, I usually have guests with whom we speak in a more specialized language when we discuss music and opera.

Personally, the isolation was even more challenging because my family was spread throughout the world: my children in Switzerland, my husband working in Germany, my brother in Los Angeles, my father in another city in Romania. I had to take the risk to travel to reunite with my family and managed to do that in the summer. I also couldn’t do my usual live shows. Once the Metropolitan Opera shut down, I couldn’t do my live Met broadcasts every Saturday, which I used to do from December to May. So, I had to reconfigure my own shows and do them virtually as dialogues on Zoom, and then broadcast them. 

Luminita Arvunescu in a Metropolitan Opera International Radio broadcast booth, 2012

Recently, you have been elected President of Romania’s Union of Music Critics, Editors, and Producers. How do you see this honor? What responsibilities do you have?

I see this as a great duty. It’s a professional union and I think that what is hardest is to win the trust and admiration of colleagues. The Union has an extremely valuable history. It was founded in 1990 by one of the most respected and prolific Romanian musicologists, Grigore Constantinescu, together with other noted music critics in Romania. In January last year, Mr. Constantinescu passed away and the Union remained without a leader so, the Board elected me unanimously. My first responsibilities are to build on what has been accomplished in the past thirty years, to maintain the Union’s presence in the collective consciousness as an especially active organization in the shaping and guidance of the young generation of critics and musicologists, and to continue to develop relationships with national as well as international organizations. Grigore Constantinescu already created a series of festivals and competitions that I want to keep active, despite the hardships caused by the pandemic. Annually, the Union rewards excellence at every level, so I am thinking of how we can do an awards gala this year too. I also hope that more young people will gravitate towards us, for instance, young radio and TV producers—there aren’t that many because classical music is becoming increasingly marginalized, especially on public television. But I would like to work with them much more closely. We can do so many projects together. I have so many ideas…

Luminita Arvunescu attending a performance at the Metropolitan Opera

Your PhD dissertation offers an analytical investigation of music and radio culture. Please share with us some of your ideas. What did you discover in the relationship between music and radio broadcasting? 

I began from the idea that there have been composers in the 1950s and 1960s who created specifically for this medium: radio. For example: Stockhausen at WDRundfunk Köln, Pierre Schaeffer at Radio France or Luc Ferrari at RAI, who treated radio and magnetic tape as musical instruments and composed scores for them. They were fascinated by this new mode of communication and its possibilities. In those years, almost all public European radio stations had opened studios for electroacoustic research.

On the other hand, my main interest was discovering how one can be successful with a classical music radio station. I analyzed program grids from the United States, from New York where you have WQXR for example, and from Europe. Comparing American with European radiophony, I found that for American radio, success is measured by the market share that a radio station is able to achieve, while for European radio, success is measured by notoriety. In the U.S., opinion surveys shape programming and radio’s educational function is not as important, whereas in Europe the general opinion is that radio should be, above all, educational, even now. Radio specialists believe that opinion surveys devalue cultural behaviors that are not necessarily understood by the public at large. In my studies I discovered a radio station I fell in love with: Classic FM from London, a station that’s totally independent and has around 5.7 million listeners, which is fantastic! What is interesting is that it managed to gain such an audience without breaking with radiophonic tradition and diminish the values of classical music. Obviously, I dedicated a special large chapter to the analysis of the Music Station (RRM) from Radio Romania. Everything I learned through this research work for my doctoral thesis I applied to my own radio program.

The recipe for success in radio works in the same way as for a chef with an aim to be refined, inventive, but also practical—this is what Classic FM does. I was inspired by them for my own shows. I broadcast opera performances which can be unappealing to a more general public, and the audience for these is relatively small. But I think that by giving my shows an accessible and pleasant introduction with many connections, comparisons, and references to other cultural elements, I can make them attractive, and I’ve seen an increase in my audience. A simple but not simplistic, direct, respectful approach is best. For that, you need to have ample knowledge of music and to establish a dialogue with the guest that offers a mix between specialized language and candid discussions about life and personal issues. 

Luminita Arvunescu with star soprano Diana Damrau backstage at the Metropolitan Opera

I’m thinking about the art of listening to a radio show or to a long piece of music without having to “see” or do anything, especially as we get so many distractions through everything that the internet offers. So, in a world where we receive stimulation, especially visual, from so many sources which can fragment our attention and diminish our capacity to concentrate, why do you think is it important to keep alive the art of listening?

I think this has a lot with both our upbringing and our inner being. Today, not every young person has the internal resources that might naturally lead to introspection, and the act of listening is an introspective state—to concentrate on sound without images. The true perception of music can be achieved only through listening. Of course, when we speak about opera, the visual is important too. But many spectators prefer to close their eyes when the staging is horrible. 

So, what do you think of the Live in HD transmission of opera in movie theaters? 

If we go back to its origins, opera was the most democratic genre. It started as an accessible form of expression; it could be sung on the street. What Peter Gelb did at the Met was to redemocratize opera, which offered access backstage with interviews as soon as the artists got off the stage. I was delighted by this initiative and I saw performances in movie theatres. But now after some time, it’s not that appealing to me anymore. I prefer to be a spectator in an actual opera house and not to know too much about what goes into staging a show or the singers’ efforts during performing. Because in the theatre, as a spectator, I am not interested in their thoughts on how they just sang. I am interested solely in their performance and their artistic messages. I want to remain immersed in the story, in the singing, in the music.

Exploring the Metropolitan Opera House: Luminita Arvunescu with a portrait of Maria Callas

You were the first Romanian music journalist and radio host to broadcast live from the studio of a foreign radio station, specifically from the Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network broadcast studio in New York. Please tell us about this experience. 

I started these live broadcasts from the Met in 1997. Every season I would do at least ten broadcasts. The first one, from my own studio in Bucharest, was on the occasion of Romanian baritone Alexandru Agache’s debut at the Met in the title role of Simon Boccanegra. But it was hard to broadcast performances from an opera house where I had never been. At least, with the broadcasts from the State Theatres in Vienna and Munich, I already knew those venues; I’d seen performances there. 

In 2011 I came to the Met for the first time; an initiative of the Radio Romania Music Station encouraged by Metropolitan Opera International Radio. I worked, at first, with producer Ellen Godfrey who retired, then with Mia Bongiovanni, Director of Media and, of course, with the “voice” of the Met Opera broadcasts, the amazing Margaret Juntwait who welcomed me with open arms. Margaret was such lovely person; she always gave me a lot of information. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2015. I was devastated. 

The difficulty of the first broadcast was primarily technical. I was nervous because I didn’t know if the sound trajectory and all the circuits would work as planned. It had to go through satellite once we had our own satellite station; our circuits passed through Euroradio in Geneva and then reached us in Bucharest. The Met’s sound engineer, Ed Hartley, helped my colleague Marius Toghina a great deal. 

Everything worked well, and the entire experience was fantastic. Since the studio is housed at the Met, you are “inside” the show. You can see when the audience arrives. During the performance I would run backstage to watch. It was incredible to be able to see what is happening onstage, of course, returning quickly to the broadcast booth during intermissions to comment and offer live information. These broadcasts were highly successful. They remain some of the most beautiful broadcasts I ever did because I was able to immerse myself into that atmosphere of operatic passion and fever. I did them for four years in a row, and they even gave us a special studio. During that time, Vlad Iftinca, who is now a conductor at the Stuttgart Opera House and director of the opera studio there, worked as pianist and coach at the Met. He guided me around the huge opera house and showed me everything. I was also able to interview Piotr Beczala, Diana Damrau, Karita Mattila, Brian Zeger. So now whenever I do the broadcasts from the Met from my Bucharest studio, it’s different because I know this opera house.

Luminita Arvunescu in the Radio Romania Music Station studio with baritone George Petean

Opera and classical music used to be more mainstream in Romania than in the United States; is that still the case?

True, opera is not in the mainstream, especially in the United States. The pandemic showed us that: American opera theaters were the first that closed their doors. I never imagined that an opera house like the Met would shut down, which told me that opera is not “useful” to the public so we can get rid of it, at least for a while, hopefully not for good. This did not happen so much in Europe. There was more of an effort to keep opera houses open; they studied the ideal distancing to keep them open. As things got worse, yes, they also closed. In Romania too, only now they are allowed to open to a 30 percent capacity. Most opera houses did virtual performances, which, in my opinion, is somewhat tricky. Yes, these performances show that artists still exist and want to sing, but the artistic and musical result is not a high-quality one. It’s obvious that there is no audience; their creative energy is not the same. Streaming performances is more comfortable for both audience and artists, but the artists are doing their profession incompletely without the physical presence of the public. 

Things have changed in Romania too. It used to be a given that a child would take piano lessons and French lessons. But the new generation of parents prefers to send their kids to do sports and technology-related activities. Few think of educating their kids in a humanistic spirit. I think that, to attract young people to the opera, it is essential to keep a high standard of quality in every opera house. I do see teenagers in our opera houses. But in order for them to want to come back they need to experience a really great performance. This applies to radio as well; how do you attract new listeners? By trusting that, out of curiosity, people might come across your radio show so you have to offer high quality all the time. All this entails cultural investment and politics. 

There is also a monopoly at the top of the opera world by certain people who are no longer at their best or sing roles for which they are totally unsuited and charge exorbitant fees. They are heavily promoted and don’t leave much room for the new, up-and-coming singers to get greater exposure. So, if young people unfamiliar with opera decide to attend a performance and, by chance, come across caricatures of what should be good singing and interpretation, they could get disenchanted right away and never come back. 

The responsibility for all this lies with the theatre and casting directors. This is on their conscience. I saw such a thing happen in Europe in a certain period during the pandemic when singers were still performing. Top opera stars, most of them living in the United States, migrated to Europe, and basically monopolized all the available roles. I talked about this issue with our young singers too. The less promoted and younger singers were left out while theaters were still open, and performances were sung by the same five or six people. That’s the star system! 

But what happens when some of these “stars” no longer deliver high-quality performances?

Well, this is also part of a vicious cycle, because if you ask the general managers, they will say that they hire huge stars because those names sell the most tickets, so why should they invest in promoting an unknown? It’s the same issue with the radio programs and shows, and each producer has to confront the question: is your mission to promote value and young people or is your mission to constantly showcase the big names for commercial reasons? In the commercial sense, the big names are always a safer bet. But you also need to define what success means for your show and for the radio station. I believe that high quality has the best chance to attract new audiences. 

Top photo Luminita Arvunescu by Aurel Virlan
All other photos, courtesy of Luminita Arvunescu

About Maria-Cristina Necula (84 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and three poetry collections. Her articles and interviews have appeared in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically-trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Discover more about her work at www.mariacristinanecula.com.