Interview with Ana Maria Mihăescu, president of the Salbek Castle Association

A few days before the first edition of the International Salbek Opera Masterclass commenced, the president of the Salbek Association, Ana Maria Mihăescu, laid out the challenges she has faced on her journey from purchasing an abandoned castle to establishing an opera masterclass on the estate and the eventual realisation of an International Opera Festival there, of the kind held in the United Kingdom.


What was behind your decision to purchase and develop Salbek Castle?

The preservation and renovation of a Grade A historic monument, which, without urgent restoration, would have been lost. Green restoration can only occur if it is a rural regeneration project that has a social and cultural impact on the whole community.


What made you choose this place for the International Salbek Opera Masterclass and how do you see the impact it will have on the local community?

Petriș village is where composer Sabin Drăgoi was born, it’s a dream destination, a Nature 2000 site, whose landscapes are similar to the English parks that have developed summer opera festivals: Glyndebourne, Garsington, Grange Park.


To transform a historic castle into a cultural and wellness centre is a remarkable undertaking. Can you tell us a little more about your vision for this space and its potential contribution to the culture, tourism, and local development sectors?

Salbek castle is located on the Royal Road that links Săvîrșin and the Vața de Jos Baths. Modernisation of the road is expected to increase the number of tourists who travel from the Banat to Crișana and to foster a greater familiarity with the still-living folk traditions to be found all along the Pietriș Valley. The wellbeing centre at Salbek is part of this trend. The inclusion of cultural programmes, and above all the Opera Festival and Masterclasses, will augment the number of visitors by attracting those in search of such experiences, as well as capitalising on cultural heritage.

The estate will also host an annual contemporary sculpture exhibition for graduates of universities in the region, as well as established sculptors. Every year, the Association will purchase a sculpture for the park.


How do you think that the International Salbek Opera Masterclass aligns with the wider aim of community development and cultural enrichment?

The educational and cultural programme and the masterclasses continue local traditions, as evidenced by the memoirs of travellers from past centuries.


Can you say more about the process of preparing and organising an international event like the Opera Masterclass in a setting such as Salbek Castle?

It’s a lengthy process, which involves a large number of specialists, who have worked together for the last nine months.


What unique features of the Salbek Estate do you think will enhance the experience for participants and contribute to the overall atmosphere of the event?

The Salbek Estate lies within one of the Nature 2000 sites, it’s a fairy-tale landscape with a biodiversity that has been lost in most of the rest of Europe, and with customs preserved for centuries and a delicious cuisine.


The involvement of the community is vital to such projects. How do you plan to involve the local community in the activities and initiatives that are taking place at Salbek Castle?

The way we see it, developing the Salbek Estate is organically linked with the economic, social, and cultural development of the local area. In concrete terms, this means job creation, the need for local services and produce, particularly produce from the Nature 2000 site, and the recovery and preservation of specifically local customs. We are working with young people from the village to create the economic infrastructure needed for development of the project.


Managing an event of this size entails various challenges. Can you share a few of the most satisfying moments and maybe some of the obstacles you’ve faced during the preparatory phase?

I’ve been impressed by the support and involvement on the part of local people and the local authorities, the support we’ve received from the United Kingdom on the part of similar foundations, and the level of professionalism shown by consultants from Romania. Our partner in the cultural project is BCR Erste, which has an exceptional department working to develop social projects with a cultural impact.

Their eagerness to play a part in saving this historical heritage proves that they are a responsible funding partner and an active member of the local community.


Looking to the future, what are your hopes for the International Salbek Opera Masterclass, the Salbek Opera Festival, and the wider impact of Salbek Castle on the community, for local villages and for Romania as a whole?

From 2024 onwards, we want to hold an annual International Opera Festival that will involve regional Romanian theatres, as well as theatres from abroad, and, of course, to continue the masterclasses. In the late-nineteenth century, Arad was part of the cultural life of Central Europe, and through this festival we hope to make a significant contribution to restoring it to this status, for the community of which we’re now part.