Salzburg Festival Eyes Life After Karajan : Music: New directors promise to enliven the annual event with bolder programming--next year. Mozart stays as a festival pillar but greater emphasis is to be placed on contemporary works.


The opening days of this summer’s Salzburg Festival have followed their habitual stately pattern with little sign that one of Europe’s most venerable cultural events stands on the brink of dramatic change.

Opera fans take their seats in the cavernous Festival Hall most evenings and applaud the standard fare with repeated delight. After decorous jubilation of the stellar lineup, the pampered audience bolts for late-night suppers. Critics take their leave to compose paeans to the musical quality, grumbling all the while about the opulent but dull, decorative productions.

Marking the bicentennial of the death of Salzburg’s most celebrated native son, all seven of the festival’s operas are by Mozart. His works also dominate the concert series, arranged several years ago when the late Herbert von Karajan still dictated the programming. Premieres are few this year, and the offerings at the 71st annual festival add up to a curtain call for a bygone era.


Sir Georg Solti conducted the Vienna Philharmonic at the opening of the sole new operatic production, “Die Zauberflote.” Director Johannes Schaaf and set designer Rolf Glittenberg gave the fairy-tale realms of night and day an Egyptian-Asiatic look that strayed little from the conservative aesthetic prevalent in the summer musical realm of Karajan.

A perfunctory nod toward the modern is provided with a dance version of Mozart’s Requiem performed by the Hamburg Ballet under John Neumeier’s direction. Otherwise, as Karajan’s unseen hand pulls the strings here for the last time, a familiar star-studded team has been assembled for the 160 performances at the festival running through the end of August.

The autocratic conductor, who controlled the Salzburg scene for three decades until his death in 1989, retains an undeniable presence. Next month, the city will pause from its Mozart commemorations to rename a major square after the maestro. The words “Herbert von Karajan--His Legacy for Home Video” are emblazoned in ads on city buses. Posters featuring the conductor in a haughty pose hang in shop windows, alongside anything from Mozart perfume to underwear.

Karajan’s legacy may hold sway for some time to come on video screens. On the Salzburg stage, however, it is set to be swept aside by new management. The new festival leadership took center stage a week ago to detail plans for its break with the past. Karajan’s successor as artistic director, iconoclastic former Brussels opera supremo Gerard Mortier, used the occasion to spell out his hope for a renewal of the festival’s original lofty ideals.

Theater director Max Reinhardt and poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who founded the festival in 1920, envisioned it as promoting European rejuvenation in a continent ripped apart by the World War I. Salzburg, Reinhardt wrote, had “a calling to become a place of pilgrimage for the countless people who long to be redeemed through art from the bloody horror of our time.” A fund-raising appeal for the first festival urged, “Help build a mountain of the Grail for the most genuine and great art!”

In the sense that nearly every great 20th-Century musician and singer has performed at Salzburg, the mission has been fulfilled. But aspects of the festival that can still claim to be unique from performances being offered year-round in major cities have long been in retreat.


Any notion of broader cultural mission was lost under Karajan’s direction, which critics saw as amassing a money-driven fiefdom closely tied to the music recording industry. The major classical labels now view the festival as an annual trade fair and set up temporary summer headquarters here. Sony even built what it bills as the world’s largest compact disc factory in Anif, the village where Karajan lived just outside the festival city. A second factory is to open in nearby Thalgau this month.

Mortier is bent on restoring some of the early inspiration and turning the festival into a magnet for the intellectual as well as social elite.

“The cultural event has been sinking into consumption,” he told a news conference held before the carved stone arches of the Felsenreitschule, one of the festival’s signature performance settings.

“Goethe always said art should not only be devoted to the beautiful but also the true and the good. And I always say that fashion is forever devoted to the beautiful but rarely the true. . . . The festival must carefully watch this trend towards the consumption of art and do everything to ensure that the festival is not only consumed but also experienced.”

Mortier also vowed to put an end to the festival’s cultivation of star egos. “The vanities of the stars must vanish,” he said, adding that he wished to stress instead the “fundamental ideals of European culture.” Practical considerations remain. The extraordinarily high ticket prices will change little next year, with top opera seats still going for $300 each. But, in a bid to attract a younger audience, more seats are to be made available in lower price categories, as are 3,000 tickets for about $35 apiece to be designated for students.

In contrast to this year’s well-mannered opening opera production, the 1992 festival opera season will kick off with Leos Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead.” Set in a prison camp, the radically unconventional work will be staged by Klaus Michael Gruber, one of a collection of innovative figures being brought in to regenerate the repertoire.


Mozart stays as a festival pillar, along with Richard Strauss, but much greater emphasis is to be placed on contemporary works. “Salzburg does not have the task of being an avant-garde festival,” said festival board member Hans Landesmann, who nonetheless went on to underscore a commitment to modern music.

Together with the later Janacek work, three Mozart operas will be set off against Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten” and “Salome,” and Olivier Messiaen’s “Saint Francois d’Assise.” The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra will perform in the pit for Messiaen’s three-act work, with Jose van Dam in the title role. Peter Sellars will direct and Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct.

Regarded by Mortier as a key element in the 20th-Century musical canon, the Messiaen opera is not a traditional biography of a saint; rather it concerns aspects of mercy on his soul. It runs six hours--including two intermissions, one planned as a dinner break--and incorporates bird song, on which Messiaen has frequently based his exotic compositions. The Los Angeles orchestra is due to perform at three additional festival concerts, two under the direction of Salonen and one with Pierre Boulez.

Despite Mortier’s declared intention to abolish Salzburg’s star cult, singers like Jessye Norman, Margaret Price and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau will remain regulars as will pianists Alfred Brendel and Maurizio Pollini.

Several artists previously barred from Salzburg because of Karajan’s opprobrium, including conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, will make their festival debuts next year. Boulez will become a composer in residence and the young Austrian Herbert Willi has been commissioned to compose a work to be performed under Christoph von Dohnanyi.

The 1992 direction also plans to restore theater to its place of prominence, making clear that Salzburg is not purely a celebration of music. The longtime director of the Berliner Schaubuhne, Peter Stein, has been engaged to oversee this. Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” will be performed in the open air in the Felsenreitschule, Polish film director Andrzej Wajda will stage the German-language premiere of “Wesele” (The Wedding) by his 19th-Century compatriot Stanislaw Wyspianski and Hofmannsthal’s “Jedermann,” a cautionary tale of a rich man’s attempt to get into heaven, will remain a centerpiece of the festival, performed before the Salzburg Cathedral’s baroque facade.


Whether Mortier’s ambitious programming concept can keep on drawing sell-out crowds at such high ticket prices is open to question. The glamour, not to mention the huge luxury trade, which mushroomed in Salzburg in the Karajan years, could fade if wealthy, conservative ticket buyers are driven away.

“There are anxieties,” said Thaddeus Ropac, a prominent art dealer whose gallery has profited from the presence of wealthy music lovers. “Some of my clients may not return.”

On the other hand, commented Sigrid Loeffler, cultural editor of the Austrian news weekly Profil: “Now people who would not have dreamed of going to Salzburg before may decide to come. It is a risk, but one worth taking.”

* BLOC PARTY: Groups from Eastern Europe will highlight an intriguing program at the Edinburgh International Festival.F6