SALZBURG, Austria - Budget problems and widely publicised management disputes: the Salzburg Festival, one of the world’s top opera events which kicked off this weekend, has seen almost as much drama behind the scenes as on stage in recent years.
For the next month, the Austrian city and birthplace of Mozart will again welcome the cream of the music world, with singers like Anna Netrebko and Placido Domingo, pianist Lang Lang and conductors Zubin Mehta and Sir Simon Rattle performing a rich programme of opera, theatre and concerts.
But the festival’s internal problems have made just as many headlines ever since the arrival in 2012 of artistic director Alexander Pereira, who will now leave after just three stormy years at the helm. The Austrian - who now heads to Milan’s La Scala - greatly expanded the festival’s programme, but also leaves a serious financial gap in his wake.
Under the 66-year-old Pereira, the festival gained a two-week ‘Ouverture Spirituelle’, dedicated to religious music from around the world, ahead of the main opera programme. The number of performances rose and so did the number of visitors - Pereira insisted this was necessary to renew a festival that was becoming ‘increasingly inconspicuous’. Behind the scenes however, there was increased grumbling among artists and staff about the crowded programme, which looks to be reduced once Pereira is gone.
From the beginning of his reign, the Austrian butted heads with local and regional authorities over funding for the festival, which draws over a fifth of its budget - which stands at about 61 million euros ($82 million) this year - from public funds. His premature departure before his five-year contract was up also caused friction. While costs have risen, public funding levels have remained almost unchanged over the past few years, organisers have complained.
A string of new productions ordered by Pereira only made the budget hole bigger, despite record attendance. A deficit of 1.6 million euros as feared by festival director Helga Rabl-Stadler last year could be avoided. But the organisers had to seriously dip into the festival’s budget reserves, leaving little to fill any future budget gap. In a recent interview, Rabl-Stadler already announced that the budget for the coming years would be revised downwards and that the festival would start recycling productions rather than presenting new ones as was the custom under Pereira, in an effort to save money.
For the 94th edition of the Salzburg Festival, music lovers will still be treated to 270 performances in 45 days, including five opera premieres. Among them is the eagerly awaited ‘Charlotte Salomon’ - a new creation directed by Luc Bondy and conducted by Marc-Andre Dalbavie - based on the life of artist and Holocaust victim Charlotte Salomon.
In commemoration of the start of World War I 100 years ago, this year’s theme is ‘war’. Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’, which will open the festival on Sunday, has thus been reinterpreted and set in late 1930s Spain under Franco’s regime. Richard Strauss’s ‘Der Rosenkavalier’, Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore’ with Netrebko and Domingo, and Franz Schubert’s ‘Fierrabras’ will follow, with only Gioacchino Rossini’s ‘La Cenerentola’ with Cecilia Bartoli reprised from a previous production. The programme also includes Karl Kraus’s play ‘The Last Days of Mankind’, a new creation by British playwright Duncan Macmillan ‘The Forbidden Zone’, and the world premiere of ‘Golem’, a co-production with London’s Young Vic and Paris’s Theatre de la Ville.
Concerts will range from Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Anton Bruckner, to new contemporary pieces. After tributes to Buddhist and Jewish music, this year’s ‘Ouverture Spirituelle’ has focussed on Islam with a Sufi group from Cairo and new works by Egyptian and Palestinian composers. Last year, over 287,000 people attended the festival - a new record. This year’s event - with tickets starting at six euros for certain concerts and going up to 420 euros for the operas - runs until August 31.