Romanian drama: the mayor, the soprano and the champion

BUCHAREST, Romania — Romania is gripped by a political soap opera featuring French Open tennis champion Simona Halep, a world-famous soprano and the mayor of Bucharest.

Following Halep's win in Paris this weekend, Bucharest Mayor Gabriela Firea — a key member of the country's ruling Social Democratic Party — held a grand ceremony at a sports arena to give Halep the keys to the city.

Thousands cheered Halep, but when the mayor began to speak, she was booed.

Firea retorted that groups allied to Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros had conspired to "compromise the event."

The left-wing government has faced regular protests since it came to power in December 2016 over moves to introduce new laws that critics say would make it harder to punish high-level corruption. The Social Democrats have claimed that non-governmental organizations allegedly sponsored by Soros are behind the protests.

Critics said Firea was trying to cash in on Halep's victory, and soprano Angela Gheorghiu added her voice to the fracas, claiming the mayor had done the same thing to her in the past.

Irate opponents flooded Firea's Facebook page with messages, prompting her to shut it down several times.

By Thursday, her Facebook page had no posts or images of the event with Halep where she was booed.

"Now Simona has the keys to Bucharest, maybe she'll lock Firea out," wrote one protester, Corin Chiriac.

Halep, who looked visibly embarrassed when Firea was jeered, posted live coverage of the moment on her Facebook page, but has not commented since. She appeared in public on Wednesday to support a Save the Children campaign to help premature babies.

Adding fuel to the flames, a social media campaign orchestrated by the Social Democrats claimed it was Halep who had been booed, not the mayor.

Party leader Liviu Dragnea fired the campaign coordinator late Wednesday.

Responding to Gheorghiu's claims, Firea volleyed back that the soprano had received an honorarium of 145,000 euros ($171,000) for a concert in December 2017 sponsored by the city hall.

She also claimed that Gheorghiu, who has twice sung Puccini's "Tosca" at the Royal Opera House in London, had asked her to intervene with local tax authorities to cancel a debt.

Gheorghiu denied she owed money to tax authorities, or had requested the mayor's help.

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