Romani opera singer Miro Bartoš: You can't save the world, but you can help individuals
Miro Bartoš and his sister Bohunka are among the few Romani people who have managed to escape an environment that did not give them much of a chance. Both siblings have graduated from music conservatories.
Miro has graduated with a teaching certificate and fulfilled his dream of becoming a teaching singer, while Bohunka has graduated from the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava, Slovakia. Both have now become choral members of the Josef Kajetán Tyl Theater in Plzeň, Czech Republic.
In addition to her work, Bohunka is taking care of her family while Miro is continuing his studies in management at the prestigious Newton College in Brno, Czech Republic. "They said to us 'Hey, you've got talent, let's try it'," Miro says of his beginnings. News server Romea.cz has interviewed him:
Q: You and your sister didn't have an easy childhood. How did your story begin?
A: We grew up in the the village of Heřmanová Hut' near Plzeň. Our parents divorced, and because our mother gave up custody of us, we grew up with our father. After some time he found a new girlfriend with whom he had two more sons. Our relationships at home were sometimes very complicated and tense. Ultimately we ended up living with our grandfather and grandmother in Plzeň. I don't really want to talk much about what we experienced at home, but what was essential was that children from the Domino orphanage went to primary school with us in Plzeň, and we saw that their lives were a bit different. They were treated differently, they had free time, hobbies. We made friends with them and visited them at the orphanage, we knew their "aunties" and "uncles". We really liked it there, and we prayed to be able to live there too.
Q: You succeeded.
A: Yes. It was a specific impulse, things were oppressive at home for some reason, and Dad wanted us to leave Plzeň and move back to Heřmanová Hut' with him. We didn't want to. We didn't want to change our school and our firends. We were afraid of what would happen to us at home, and my sister found the courage to make the big decision. We ran away from home and broke into the school. When they found us there in the morning, they took really good care of us. They made us breakfast and were really nice to us, but we couldn't move into the orphanage right away because it was full. They could have put us somewhere else, but we didn't want that, so we had to go back home for a while. Those were rather hard moments, but today I remember it all with a smile and I'm glad it happened. Bohunka and I moved into the orphanage on 21 March, the first day of spring 1995. Ever since we have celebrated that day every year.
Q: Would you say you were lucky in the people you met outside your family?
A: Definitely. When we were still living at home we were part of the school choir, today it's called the Mariella choir. We had to help out at home a lot, they wouldn't let us go to rehearsals, we had to go in secret. When they found out, we got a spanking. Today when we talk with children from the choir and see what their approach to it is, if they don't like it or if someone is forcing them to go, we tell them we used to cry because we couldn't go sing. The director, Mr Petr Pavel, was brilliant, he negotiated our participation in the choir even after we moved to the orphanage. He was the one who directed us toward a musical career - him, the governesses, the aunties, and Ms Marie Nováková, the choirmistress of Mariella.
Q: So it wasn't your childhood dream to get into the theater and sing?
A: Not at all. It never even occurred to us. I wanted to become a chef or a waiter, or to make musical instruments, and my sister originally got into a training course as a confectioner. Neither one of us wanted to be a singer back then. They said to us "Hey, you've got talent, let's try it." I must say that in my case I was helped by affirmative action, they took me because of my story, because I was from an orphanage, I was a Romani child who needed an opportunity - and time would tell. What was important was that someone believed in us and stood up for us.
Q: Have you ever encountered discrimination because you are Romani?
A: Not as an individual. When I go out by myself everything is fine, but when I go out with other Romani friends, it usually happens that they won't let us in anywhere. Recently they wouldn't let us, a group of Romani people, including [Romani activist] David Tišer, into a club in Prague, but David responded brilliantly, he squashed the bouncer with his arguments, his knowledge of the law, and his personal attitude to such a degree that they were all but bowing to us by the time we left. That was very inspirational for me.
Q: What do you think this sorry situation is all about, this intolerance in society of Romani people?
A: I believe everything is greatly dependent on economics and politics, and many people are frustrated somehow. There is high unemployment, people don't have jobs - or they have poorly paid ones. Some just want a way to vent, they need to point the finger at someone and say things aren't working for this and that reason. They can vent at the Roma, so they do. I understand that some Romani people sometimes don't give us a good image, but the principle of collective blame does not exist. I don't understand at all why this is happening in general at this time, why this race is being defamed and reproached. We've already been through all this in the past. Many people don't even personally know anyone Romani, they just pick up these opinions and use a lot of buzzwords. Whenever I talk about this with a group of non-Roma here, they say: "Well, yeah, but we know you and we like you." That seems explicitly stupid to me, terribly insincere and superficial, but that's how it is. On the other hand, Romani people themselves should be active, they should be venting their side of the story. I really like the fact that the Ministry of Human Rights is now working under Mr Dienstbier, I like how he is working on creating a positive ethnic Romani face, a positive media image.
Q: You worked at the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry?
A: Yes, I was an advisor to the Deputy Minister for Romani Education and Inclusion. I still collaborate with the ministry, we are preparing a project on educating Romani children in Plzeň that aims to develop their natural talents, motivate them, and provide them with assistants who will work with each of them individually and steer them in the right direction. When a child has homework to do and the parents are unable to help, or don't motivate the child to continue his or her education, it's sometimes hard. That's why aid from outside is so important. I am very enthusistic about the fact that today there are already many examples of good practice here, many people have made progress, I think it's improving overall - I don't believe, as many claim, that this country is completely ignoring the Romani issue.
Q: The situation with continuing education is slowly improving, but it's not yet completely commonplace for Romani people to continue their studies.
A: That is an even more complex problem. Many young Romani people start continuing their educations and never finish. There's more than one reason for this. Often money plays a role - the family cannot afford the children commuting long-term and the parents want them to get jobs as soon as possible and contribute to the family budget. They aren't planning for the future, they don't realize that if a child wants to go study, then he or she will one day have a salary that is twice or even three times what he or she can make without an education - but we're talking about this on a theoretical basis, in reality it's not so crystal-clear or straightforward. I graduated from high school, I am studying at college, I have many acquaintances and a certain position, but I only make around CZK 13 000 (EUR 475) a month in the theater. How is that motivating? I am motivated because I love it, because I live and breathe the theater, but I also experience tough times where I have to decide whether to pay the gas first or the rent. We're talking about an educated person here who knows what to do, but how is someone whose conditions are much more complicated supposed to work? Everyone says "Let's get educated", but then there has to be a connection so these people can get work and make their living. These times are different, "Study and you'll get a good job" no longer unfailingly applies. However, I'm an optimist and I believe times will improve. Also, not everyone is a materialist - what about those whose values lie elsewhere? There will always be a group of Romani people who explicitly integrate, who have goals, who want to build something, and there are some who want to link all that to their personal assets. Many Romani people honor their families more than they do accumulating wealth, they live modestly, but they are satisfied. Who should judge them? Nothing is only bad or only good, you can't have a top without a bottom in this world, there are two sides to every coin.
Q: There are two different streams of opinion here. One says Romani people who manage to establish themselves should aid other Romani people, and the other says that a Rom who has established himself has no responsibility to support someone else just because he is also a Rom. What do you think?
A: It depends on how that person feels. The principle of providing aid is ultimately correct, basically. It's all the same whether you help non-Roma or Roma, what's important is that you try to assist someone, that you have empathy for others. You can find many people, including Romani people, who conceal a business behind the notion of helping, who make money on that topic, but this definitely isn't about inventing something to help everyone all at once. This is individual work.
You can't save the world, no one can, but if you aid some specific people, then they will assist others - and that's how it branches out. The orphanage helped my sister and I a great deal. Currently the Erudikon Foundation has long been aiding me with mentoring and support, and during my studies I am assisted by the Tereza Maxová Foundation and the club of the friends of the orphanage. My sister and I are basically grateful for the difficulties we lived through in our childhood. Thanks to those difficulies, almost nothing embarrasses us today.
Q: Which of your successes to date do you value most?
A: Probably the competition in Montreal. A female contestant and I won the first round of an international competition here in the Czech Republic and made it to the finals in Canada. I believe more successes await me. There's a lot in store for me, I hope.
Q: What does music give you, what does it mean to you?
A: Singing is my profession, my work. When I remember the little, nice, terrified boy I was back home, it's hard to believe I would have ever made a living through music. I have specific aims ahead of me, the opportunity to perform in concert or in the theater with my sister - and I really enjoy it all. Right now we are planning the premiere of the opera "Žvanivý slimejš" (The Chattering Snail) for children in the new studio theater of the Nové divadlo in Plzeň at the end September.
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