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Salzburg Festival director: 'Arts are indispensable'

Rick Fulker
September 1, 2020

Markus Hinterhäuser made the festival possible in the pandemic, but would find another such season difficult to imagine. He told DW why it was all still worth it.

Actors Tobias Moretti (Jedermann), Caroline Peters (Buhlschaft) on stage performing in front of a giant pink cake with candles
Performed over 700 times in the past century, 'Everyman' is a classic at the Salzburg Festival — and this year tooImage: SF/Matthias Horn

The internationally celebrated pianist Markus Hinterhäuser has served as director of the Salzburg Festival since October 2016.

Its 100th season came amidst the coronavirus pandemic. There weren't any buffets or receptions to celebrate, yet despite restrictions, the renowned festival managed to stage two opera productions, three plays and several concert series with top-echelon musicians.

The announcement in early summer that it would take place at all raised eyebrows. At the end of the month-long festival in August, Hinterhäuser summed up the experience in conversation with DW. 

Salzburg Festival director Markus Hinterhäuser
Salzburg Festival director Markus HinterhäuserImage: picture-alliance/F. Neumayr

Deutsche Welle: In light of the pandemic, you told us before the festival began, "We're walking on thin ice." Did it hold?

Markus Hinterhäuser: It has up to now. I think that in weeks of innumerable discussions with ministries and authorities, we came up with safety precautions that placed a certain demand on artists and audiences, but didn't ask too much of them. And they accepted it.

It was about showing the world that one can experience live concert music in a group again. Artists need a stage and an audience. And visitors were glad and relieved to partake in the communal experience we made possible.

The Salzburg audience tends to be a more highly educated one, and with that, one would think, more careful and responsible. Is that in fact your observation?

Festival guests do come here of their own volition, for the joy of experiencing the arts live, and free choice implies a sense of responsibility. At first, people might have held back somewhat, but our safety precautions soon became second nature with the artists and audiences. That was a highly interesting and gratifying experience this summer: People took the situation very seriously.

After the — absolutely justified — total shutdown in the spring, we set to work planning, enabling and implementing. And we've learned a lot these past weeks; so have the health authorities. What, why and how we do things have been very closely watched. But we need to keep in mind that this virus won't just go away tomorrow. The experiment will continue.

Ursina Lardi next to a ghetto box before a black background
Along with the venerable tradition of staging the play 'Everyman,' a new piece was introduced this year: 'Everywoman,' with a single protagonist: actress Ursina LardiImage: picture-alliance/picturedesk/F. Neumayr

Did any infections occur that can be traced to the festival season here?

Up to now, none. In early July, an intern working in administration tested positive. Safety protocols snapped into place, and there were no further consequences, neither in the organization nor among the artists. Regular testing has gone on the whole time. But we'll need a further eight to ten days after the festival is over to really lay the issue to rest.

The Salzburg Festival has a reputation of being a meeting place of the rich and famous. This year, the international jet set was less in attendance that usual. Did attention shift to the festival's original idea?

I did in fact experience a public this summer that was much more focused on the arts. Before and during the concerts, it was absolutely quiet — apart from the fact that nobody dared to cough. We were touched by this devotion and concentration, by the feeling that one is partaking in something out of the ordinary, something none of us could have predicted a few short months ago. And suddenly: Here we are.

Fenced in, seated audience watches a big screen in an outdoor setting with Salzburg's famous architectural landmarks in the background
The Siemens Festival Night was an outdoor event for 'everyman'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Neumayr

The Salzburg Festival truly is a festival of the arts. Salzburg has changed a lot. It's more open and accessible. And we should dispense with the idea that Salzburg is only for the rich. Fifty percent of the available tickets cost less than €100 ($120), and a large share of these cost less than half of that: €15, €20 or €30.

So after a successful season, has the crisis passed?  

This summer many people were unable to travel because of the coronavirus. Before the shutdown in mid-March, we'd sold well over 180,000 tickets. After downsizing the playbill, there were 80,000 remaining. You don't have to be Albert Einstein to see that of the profound forces at play here, business is not one of them. We proved to ourselves and to the world that a communal experience of opera and music is possible. We need that experience too, because we will be forced to live with the virus in the weeks and months to come.

Every area of life has its right to existence, be it air travel or riding on a train. Borders are open, people are traveling, going to restaurants, staying at hotels. Industry, offices and ministries are open for business.

But some schools, universities and cultural establishments are still shut down or have reduced operations. That's not only a horrible state of affairs, it's dangerous. Humanistic education and culture are being treated as though they were superfluous — not just the Salzburg Festival, but also the mid-sized, small and smallest cultural entities.

Man declaims something with chicken features flying all around
Peter Handke's play 'Zdenek Adamec' was also on the playbillImage: picture-alliance/dpa/APA/B. Gindl

It should be clear that an arts experience is the human experience. These incredibly great gifts to mankind: a Mozart, a Schubert, a Shakespeare! — we have to be cognizant what it means if we treat them negligently or find them dispensable. The arts are indispensable! Lose them, and you lose them forever. That's the danger we face.

Would the festival survive a second coronavirus season, or at least be able to maintain standards?

I think it would be very difficult to make another such summer possible. This one was difficult enough. But long-term, it's nearly impossible. The festival is an organization that depends on ticket sales. Less than one-fourth of the budget is covered by public funds. In a normal year, more than 70% of our budgetary needs are brought in through ticket sales. This year, we wanted to make a statement. We always knew that there would be absolutely no financial advantage to it.

As you said, everything you did has been closely watched. Have you recorded and documented it all?

Yes, everything has been written down and collected. This summer with its 76,500 visitors will go down in Salzburg Festival history. It will all be documented, maybe in two, three or five years.

Markus Hinterhäuser spoke with Rick Fulker.