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The Salzburg Festival was never canceled

Anastassia Boutsko
May 19, 2021

The Austrian music festival was one of the rare major festivals held with a live audience last year. With its Whitsun event, this is now year two of the "miracle of Salzburg."

Two women wearing face masks cleaning orange theater chairs
Getting the Mozart theater ready for the festivalImage: Barbara Gindl/APA/AFP/Getty Images

From May 21 to 24, the Salzburg Festival is putting on four opera evenings and four concerts, plus a film program for its event, held over Whitsun or Pentecost.

All events will take place indoors, in concert halls filled at half capacity. Seating will be in a checkerboard pattern and medical FFP2 face masks are compulsory for the audience at all times, even during the performance. In addition to a personalized ticket, visitors must present a valid, negative COVID-19 test certificate or proof of vaccination.

Yet none of these COVID-19 protection measures can dampen the joy of the organizers: "We are finally playing in front of an audience again!" cheered festival director Cecilia Bartoli. "We can be on stage and perform again, it's a historic moment."

Bartoli, too, will be performing in the oratorio Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph and Time and Disillusion). Directed by Robert Carsen and conducted by Gianluca Capuano, the premiere of George Frideric Handel's masterpiece kicks off the festival's Whitsun program on May 21.

The work reflects perfectly well the current zeitgeist, said Carson. After all, Handel's work is "about beauty, about time, about pleasure — but also about rethinking our own lives, which the pandemic has forced us all to do," the director said.

Two women wearing face masks cleaning orange theater chairs
Getting the Mozart theater ready for the festivalImage: Barbara Gindl/APA/AFP/Getty Images

Audiences can look forward to Giacomo Puccini's Tosca and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's La clemenza di Tito. Stars include tenor Jonas Kaufmann and conductor Zubin Mehta, who recently celebrated his 85th birthday.

So, the same as usual — almost. Which begs the question, why is such an event doable in Austria, but not yet in Germany?

Helpful connections

First of all, according to Jan Brachmann — a renowned German music critic and editor at the German daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung — the epidemiological situation in Austria is slightly more relaxed than in Germany.

The second reason is political, Brachmann said, and essentially linked to the festival's president, Helga Rabl-Stadler.

For years, Rabl-Stadler was a politician for the ÖVP party, Brachmann pointed out: "I believe that her political connections have been very helpful in getting the festival to take place."

Thirdly, there is the economy. "The share of tourism in Austria's gross domestic product is almost twice as high as in Germany," Brachmann told DW. "In 2019, it was 3.9% in Germany compared to 7.3% in Austria. The festival boosts tourism tremendously, especially in the province of Salzburg."

Cecilia Bartoli on stage
Cecilia Bartoli on stage in 2020: The Italian mezzo-soprano heads the Salzburg Whitsun Festival until 2026Image: Marco Borrelli/SF

'Break a leg' in 2021

Last year as well, the main program of the Salzburg Festival, which takes place at the end of the summer, was a great exception, as one of the only major European music festivals held as an audience event.

The festival was slimmed down, with a strict hygiene concept supervised by medical experts. All staff and artists were tested daily, the program and ensembles were downsized, and the Vienna Philharmonic was the only orchestra allowed to play. "We are skating on thin ice," Salzburg artistic director Markus Hinterhäuser told DW at that time. The ice held: There was not a single case of COVID-19 found to have spread among the festival's 76,500 visitors.

Downtown pedestrain street in Salzburg, pedestrians
Salzburg's famed Getreidegasse during the 2020 festival Image: DW/R. Fulker

So this is year two for the "miracle of Salzburg." The Whitsun overture is to be followed by the main festival, which runs from mid-July to the end of August.

Over 46 days, 168 performances are planned — including the greatly anticipated premiere of Mozart's Don Giovanni in a production by Romeo Castellucci with Teodor Currentzis on the podium, which was postponed to this year; then there's Puccini's Tosca with Anna Netrebko in the title role.

Meanwhile, German classical music festivals are still pondering various possibilities. The Bach Festival in Leipzig in June is set to be digital only — while major summer festivals, including the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth or the Beethovenfest in Bonn, are considering different hybrid forms. The plans will be adapted to the situation as needed.

This article was translated from German.