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Off-stage drama

February 6, 2010

Scandalous tales of fraud, deception and attempted suicide are coming out of Salzburg. What sounds like a Wagner opera is in fact real life as the directors of the city's Easter festival face criminal charges.

Miniature Mozart busts at a souvenir shop in Salzburg
Heads are rolling in SalzburgImage: DW

When the curtain falls on Richard Wagner's "Goetterdaemmerung," conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, in Salzburg at the end of March, the audience will be released into a dark world of greed and trickery.

After what's been going on behind the scenes ahead of the opening of the Salzburg Easter Festival, Wagner will seem like deja vu.

Since the festival's executive director Michael Dewitte was dismissed indefinitely in December following accusations of fraud, the organization's efforts to save face have become increasingly difficult.

Dewitte was allegedly involved in rerouting sponsors' funds to a secret foreign bank account, cheating on expense accounts and paying for services that may not have been rendered to the festival.

According to Audit Services Austria, the financial damage caused by Dewitte could amount to as much as 2 million euros (nearly $2.8 million). In one particular case, he is accused of siphoning 300,000 euros from a donation and transferring it to an apparently non-existent Caribbean-based company with a bank account in northern Cyprus.

Gabi Burgstaller
Burgstaller had harsh words for the festival directorsImage: AP

Possible suicide attempt

Suspicion has also fallen on long-time technical director Klaus Kretschmer, who has been relieved of his duties. Earlier this week he was found under a bridge near Salzburg, severely injured. Austrian media speculated that Kretschmer, who is now recovering in the hospital, had attempted suicide.

Both Kretschmer and Dewitte have denied all the allegations of fraud brought against them.

In a press conference earlier this week, Gabi Burgstaller, president of the festival and governor of the Austrian state of Salzburg, condemned the criminal activity, before commenting ironically that the organization had become a "self-service" shop.

She said Dewitte, who supposedly embezzled five percent of funds donated to the festival on a regular basis, was the main player but that several others were involved in covering up the alleged crimes.

Herbert von Karajan, pictured in 1980
Festival founder Herbert von Karajan was born in SalzburgImage: AP

"Someone will have to take the responsibility and pay for the damages," insisted Burgstaller. "The next step is for the authorities to look for incriminating evidence. This won't be easy, considering everything we know, and will certainly take months," she added.

Everyone claims ignorance

Burgstaller's surprise is itself surprising, commented Austria's Der Standard on Friday: "After all, she is the president of the Easter festival, but the politician claims to have known nothing because she relied on okays given by the controller and two auditing firms."

The auditing firms in question, Deloitte and Ernst & Young, issued statements on Thursday and Friday respectively. Deloitte claimed it had only compiled annual reports for the festival and had not conducted a detailed audit. Ernst & Young says it audited several of the festival's annual reports, but not the festival's books themselves.

But even if the controller and auditors were completely unaware of the embezzlement, someone in the organization should have had suspicions, contended the Austrian paper: "Someone should have noticed that festival director Dewitte's wife was on the payroll and that something must be going on when the expense report says a taxi ride from downtown to the Salzburg airport costs 585 euros."

Shadow cast on summer festival

The Easter festival, smaller than Salzburg's world-famous summer festival, was founded in 1967 by legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan.

The two Salzburg events are technically independent, but the current scandal at the Easter festival won't leave the summer festival untouched, since both Ketschmer and the controller worked for both festivals.

Sir Simon Rattle, conducting
Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic are to perform at the Salzburg festivalImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Considering the sums of money at stake the Easter festival is not extensive. Aside from two performances of "Goetterdaemmerung" - a co-production with Festival d’Art lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence - three chamber music concerts and three concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle are planned. The festival runs from March 27 to April 5.

Author: Kate Bowen

Editor: Ben Knight