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Salzburg Festival to be held despite COVID-19 restrictions

June 10, 2020

The famous festival celebrates its 100th anniversary. It is actually going to take place, and even if it has been shortened a bit due to the coronavirus restrictions, its program features more events than expected.

Österreich Salzburg Festspielpause in der Hofstallgasse
Image: picture-alliance/F. Pritz

The music and theater world has been closely watching developments in Austria where, unlike so many other festivals worldwide, the 100th Salzburg Festival was not canceled as a result of the coronavirus lockdowns.

The team surrounding artistic director Markus Hinterhäuser and president Helga Rabl-Stadler has now presented the program for the prestigious festival's 100th edition.

Throughout the month of August, a total of 110 performances on 30 festival days have been scheduled, including two operas, three theater productions and 53 concerts, as well as other supporting events — way more shows than expected.

"We have all experienced these last weeks and months — a really depressing, melancholic standstill, where nobody really knew what prospects we could offer," Hinterhäuser told DW. But once the Austrian government had announced the new regulations, he said, the festival team decided that, after all, they were "here to invite people to experience music, opera and drama!"

Salzburg festival organizers: Lukas Crepaz, Helga Rabl-Stadler and Markus Hinterhäuser
The festival organizers: Lukas Crepaz, Helga Rabl-Stadler and Markus HinterhäuserImage: SF/Neumayr/Leo

"I never doubted for a minute that we would be performing this summer," Helga Rabl-Stadler told reporters at a press conference during which the program was revealed.

During the presentation, Rabl-Stadler quoted late conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who was firmly convinced that if the artists are good, "people leave a performance in a different set of mind than before." That is the experience the festival organizers want to give visitors this year, she added.

In the festival's anniversary year, that experience includes the opera Elektra by festival founder Richard Strauss, and, quite unexpectedly, a new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, featuring conductor Joana Mallwitz and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on August 2, as well as French opera singer Marianne Crebassa as Dorabella. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg in 1756.

The ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kent Nagano, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with its founder Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under chief conductor Kirill Petrenko are listed in the Guest Orchestras series. On the occasion of Ludwig van Beethoven's 250th birthday, his works are part of all the concert series, culminating in a Beethoven cycle with Igor Levit, who will perform 32 piano sonatas on eight evenings.

Peter Handke
Literature Nobel Prize winner Peter HandkeImage: picture-alliance/TT NYHETSBYRÅN

More festival highlights

Theater performances include two world premieres. Zdenek Adamec by controversial writer and Nobel Literature laureate Peter Handke is based on a real-life incident: In March 2003, 18-year-old Adamec publicly set himself on fire on Wenceslas Square in Prague to protest against the state of the world.

Another world premiere, Everywoman by Milo Rau and Ursina Lardi, is about the transience of life. The classical motif of world literature, the "everyman" who takes a hard look at his life when faced with death, served as a model for the play.

The traditional morality play that is always performed at the Salzburg Festival, Jedermann (Everyman) by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a play that was in fact performed when the festival was first launched 100 years ago, is about the same subjects.

Österreich Jedermann - Salzburger Festspiele 2019
Tobias Moretti is 'Everyman' again in 2020, while death (Peter Lohmeyer) peers over his shoulder Image: picture-alliance/APA/picturedesk/K. Schöndorfer

'Everyman' might be hit by the coronavirus

The organizers felt that the Everyman: The Play of the Rich Man's Death open-air spectacle staged right on the square in front of Salzburg Cathedral is a must these days. In times of the pandemic, the existential question of "Jedermann" — what happens when death enters our lives — is more acute than ever, the organizers said.

Following the old tradition of the mystery plays in Salzburg, the "modern" play was first performed on August 22, 1920 under the direction of Max Reinhardt. It is about faith, the devil, good works, money and death — a play written in simple language for a diverse audience. The actor and director Tobias Moretti plays the Jedermann character again this year, with actress Caroline Peters cast as the "Buhlschaft," his lover.

A cycle of "speeches about the century" is a new addition to the festival program. Holocaust survivor and musician Anita Lasker-Wallfisch is one of the participants in this section.

Good news from Austria

The Salzburg Festival is to go ahead despite the pandemic, but it has been cut back somewhat. Instead of the originally planned 200 events over 44 days, there will be more than 100 over the course of 30 days. 242,000 tickets were to be sold, which has dwindled to about 80,000. However, the fact that the festival is taking place at all, unlike numerous other European festivals, including the Bayreuth Festival and the Beethovenfest Bonn, is a breakthrough into a new era.

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

The Festival's Board of Trustees announced the good news on May 25, 2020. "The fact that we waited to decide the fate of the a festival was a mixture of hope, dreams and perhaps also intuition that the number of cases of the pandemic could develop in a direction that would make it possible for people to come together," Hinterhäuser told reporters.

New regulations presented by Austrian Health Minister Rudolf Anschober and Andrea Mayerk, a senior culture official, on May 25 enabled the organizers to announce they were going ahead with the Salzburg Festival. Under the motto "things are looking up in the cultural sector," they presented a timetable aimed at relaxing distancing rules. As of May 29, events with an audience of 100 people have been permitted, the auditorium can hold up to 250 people beginning July 1 and from August 1, there can be an audience of 500 and even up to 1,000 people "with a special permit." The Festspielhaus theater in Salzburg has such a special permit, which means, as commercial director Lukas Crepaz explained, people must wear face masks, the number of seats sold has been reduced, and distancing rules must be observed.

View of Salzburg
The backdrop for this festival is breathtaking Image: picture alliance/dpa/F.Pritz

Influential lobby

Up to 1,250 people are allowed to gather for outdoor events — that includes the play Everyman — beginning on August 1, provided there are "allocated fixed seats." Austria's basic rule to keep a distance of one meter still applies, except on stage, which has made the performances as well as the rehearsals possible in the first place.

Observers suspect the influential lobby of the Salzburg Festival, with President Helga Rabl-Stadler at the helm, is behind these timely new rules. The entrepreneur and music lover confidently presents herself as the "icebreaker of the industry."

All productions that are not performed this year have been moved to 2021. "The program celebrating the 100th anniversary begins with the opening of the National Exhibition at the end of July 2020 and runs through August 31, 2021," the festival management announced.