WHEN IT RAINS IN SALZBURG, IT pours. Schnurlregen–rain not in sheets but in strings–is what the locals call those chill, soggy trials by precipitation, falling straight down for days at a time. Then the clouds break, the sun streams down on the newly whitewashed mountaintop citadel, on me twisting saints of the baroque cathedral facade, on the bustle of the tourists filing past the house where Mozart was born on Getreidegasse, and suddenly, you’re in heaven.
For eight decades now, to be in Salzburg from late July to the end of August has been the dream of music lovers around the world. The reason is not the sheer beauty of the town and environs–so ravishingly featured in the film The Sound of Music that “Sound of Music” tours have outstripped Mozart as the region’s most profitable attraction–but the Salzburg Festival. For the happy few with the means and the pull to land tickets to the top-echelon operas and concerts, it has become a habit, even a cult.
“The Salzburg Festival is high-octane,” says (Gilbert E. Kaplan, the founder of Institutional Investor, who has built a flourishing second career as a globe-circling conductor of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, the only piece of music he has ever conducted–including once in 1996 for the opening of the Salzburg Festival. (It’s as if an actor were to play a single role in his life, and that role was Hamlet.) “The ambitious opera productions and the riveting performances, spiced with daily reports of backstage intrigues, lure the most discerning music lover,” Kaplan continues. “It may be the glittery social scene that gets the media’s attention, but Salzburg is much more a cauldron bubbling with nonstop–and remarkably well-informed– discussions, or should I say battles, about the music.”
But don’t forget the parties. Last summer, after a gripping concert performance of Mussorgsky’s political chronicle Khovanshchina by the visiting Kirov Opera of St. Petersburg, the company’s charismatic conductor Valery Gergiev (always last out the theater door) motored out to the country with family and friends to join Bianca Jagger, Eliette yon Karajan (widow of Herbert), and their sparkling ilk at a midnight banquet.
The Salzburg Festival’s lineage is distinguished, to say the least. The theatrical genius Max Reinhardt, the composer Richard Strauss and the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss’ librettist for Der Rosenkavalier and most of the best of his other operas, top the list of its founding fathers. In the mid-1930s, the conductors Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwangler, antithetical titans, set the tone. Festivities virtually ceased, of course, for the war years. The colossus of the postwar period, until a year before his death in 1989, was the aristocratic (not to mention autocratic) Salzburg native Herbert von Karajan, a maestro whose appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic, and whose opera productions (some of which he also staged) and recordings (always in state-of-the-art technology), set his stamp on the age. On his watch, the perfectionist aesthetic was the Salzburg hallmark. Salzburg was simply the top of the mountain. Riccardo Muti, Jessye Norman, Placido Domingo and Anne-Sophie Mutter hung out there, idolized by an audience that knew music, had titles to burn and dressed to the nines, dripping jewels.
“Karajan told me, `I feel like the director of a museum,'” George Sgalitzer of Seattle recalls. Sgalitzer, a native of Vienna, has been attending the festival steadily since its inaugural performance in 1920, when he was a boy of eight. In his measured view, Karajan’s successor, the Belgian Gerard Mortier, has done well in his decade at the helm (to end in 2001). A baker’s son from Ghent, trained in the law, Mortier has made his entire career as an impresario. Under his aegis, the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie, in Brussels, became a hot spot for opera lovers all over Europe and beyond. Then Salzburg called. No musician, Mortier was unequipped to take up Karajan’s multitasking baton. But then, says Sgalitzer, it was definitely time for a change.
“Mortier is trying to bring new ideas and give everybody a chance. It would have been impossible to get Messiaen’s opera St. Francois d’Assise under Karajan; it was too recent. But Mortier had Peter Sellars stage it, which was wonderful. Karajan was a tremendous conductor, a great man. Sold-out performances were guaranteed every time he conducted. He insisted on good casts. But Mortier has brought many young singers we had never heard of and given them a chance to show the public what they can do.”
Inevitably, Mortier soon found himself under attack by factions of festival regulars and a press politicized to the point of hysteria. But he loves a good fight; polemics are part and parcel of his agenda. Last summer’s big dustups revolved around a marathon adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays, briefly banned to minors for violence and nudity, and the reactionary rumblings of Thomas Klestil, the president of Austria, no fan of Mortier’s spicier fare.
As Karajan did, Mortier stands for excellence, indeed for elitism. But Karajan the “museum director” viewed art through the prism of a fixed canon. His realm was the eternal. Mortier’s arena is the here and now–tradition counting for nothing unless rekindled by the flame of present passion. There were fears initially that the established Salzburg audience would stay away in droves (and that no one would replace them), but Mortier’s media savvy and showmanship prevailed. Mortier has expanded from the festival’s traditional venues–three halls within the Festspielhaus, plus historic sites around the city–into many new ones.
He put epic-scale drama into a former salt factory an hour outside town, on an island in Salzach River. Last summer, a convention hall was drafted into service for a sold-out, big-ticket transfer of Achim Freyer’s carnival-style mounting of The Magic Flute. There is more to choose from than ever before, and attendance is soaring. Mortier’s shock tactics have attracted a lot of new, young faces. The habitues in jewels now jostle kids in jeans and leather. Remember the lyric from 42nd Street, “Where the underworld can meet the elite”? Salzburg can feel that way now.
If fluff is what you’re after, look elsewhere. In line with his convictions, Mortier has championed the least compromising composers of this century (Janacek, Messiaen, Berio, Saariaho, Boulez) and conductors dedicated to those composers’ visions (Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kent Nagano, not to mention Boulez himself). He has subjected the classics to the rigorous reappraisal of such scholar-performers as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Maurizio Pollini. He has thrown open the gates to a whole new generation. Last summer, a contemporary music cycle called Zeitfluss (“The Flow of Time”) amounted to an avant-garde festival within a festival. Film and popular entertainment (not always at popular prices) have gained a toehold, too. Mortier’s programming has cast a long shadow. Carnegie Hall’s ambitious “Perspectives” series of recent seasons –risky business–often seem carbon copies of Salzburg attractions.
“Salzburg is the richest venue I know of anywhere in the world,” says Alberto Vilar, founder and president of Amerindo Investment Advisors (whose Amerindo Technology was ranked the No. 1 mutual fund of 1999), and the single patron every serious music institution most hopes to attract. “I also think it’s the best. Their budget for the summer is on a par with Carnegie Hall’s for a year. Every opera has two or three worldranked singers. Salzburg gets the names! Every summer they have five, six, seven, eight world-class conductors.” Vilar, a great Mortier champion, puts his own money where his mouth is. Last summer, each program at the festival carried an insert announcing his gift of more than $6 million.
Now that the world has accustomed itself to Mortier’s formula, Mortier himself is making ready to leave, citing frustration at the lack of official support. In truth, he announced from the start that his tenure would last no more than ten years. His successor, named in December, is the Composer Peter Ruzicka, who comes to Salzburg from the Munich Biennale (a festival of contemporary music). Neither Ruzicka’s prior experience–a decade running the Hamburg State Opera–nor his Munich appointment suggests the mix of toughness and charisma the position requires. But a fellow festival director in Germany who has worked closely with Ruzicka says privately to be of good cheer: “Peter knows exactly what is needed. He’ll cater to the old guard with stars and big productions, which will support the untested things that excite the real connoisseurs.”
Under the circumstances, nostalgia for the best of what Mortier hath wrought may well be in play, but with respect to opera, the brochure for the summer of 2000 looks to be his finest ever. Karita Mattila, a Finnish diva who combines lustrous singing and incandescent involvement with supermodel glamour, leads an all-star lineup in a new production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. Still with Mozart, the newly cast revival of last year’s inert Don Giovanni features the remarkable American soprano Renee Fleming as Donna Anna and the peerless German bass Rene Pape as the hero’s long-suffering sidekick Leporello. Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s rhapsody of love too consuming for this world, receives a deluxe new staging starring Waltraud Meier and Ben Heppner, with Claudio Abbado leading the glorious Vienna Philharmonic.
Most exciting of all is the prismatic cluster of four new productions of operas based on legends of Troy, one of the richest chronicles in Western civilization: Gluck’s noble Iphigenie en Tauride; Mozart’s Idomeneo, ablaze with the ardor of youth; Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens, which could anchor a festival all by itself; and Offenbach’s cheeky operetta La belle Helene. From tragedy to satire, this selection encompasses a universe. Whether each and every production will be to the individual viewer’s liking is doubtful, since Mortier’s chosen directors are a highly individualistic crew. But audiences will have lots to dress up for and fight about. Not to mention all those stars–onstage and out front.