Salzburg festival hall, a world temple in the sound of music

Many of opera's most celebrated voices have soared and resonated in its highly acclaimed acoustics, yet the creation of the historic auditorium at the Salzburg Festival was a tall order 60 years ago.

Salzburg festival hall, a world temple in the sound of music
A photo taken on June 23rd, 2021 shows the stage with auditorium of the Large Festival Hall (Grosses Festpielhaus) of the Salzburg Festival in Salzburg, Austria. ALEX HALADA / AFP

Only just free of the post-World War II occupying forces that left in 1955 and still in ruins, Austria set its sights firmly on culture, turning former episcopal stables into the Large Festival Hall (“Grosses Festspielhaus”) as a symbol of renewal.

Since then, the stage has seen the likes of Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, but festival president Helga Rabl-Stadler said: “It’s a pure miracle however that this hall saw the light of day.”

President of the Salzburg Festival Helga Rabl-Stadler poses in the Large Festival Hall (Grosses Festpielhaus) of the Salzburg Festival in Salzburg, Austria, on June 23rd, 2021. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

On the sidelines of rehearsals for “Don Giovanni” topping the line-up at the prestigious annual summer event this year, Rabl-Stadler said that the Austrian state had managed to stump up “an enormous sum” in 1956 to get the flagship initiative off the ground.

At the time, the city’s music and theatre festival, established in 1920 as a peace project in the aftermath of World War I, was held in more modest neighbourhoods that backed onto the steep cliffs that overlook the old town.

Workers had to dynamite 50,000 cubic metres (around 1.7 million cubic feet) of rock in order to erect the new hall’s 100-metre-wide (330-foot) stage, while the auditorium holds more than 2,000 people.

Five imposing bronze doors provide street-level entry into a foyer and hall adorned with wood panelling, frescoes, mosaics, sculptures and tapestries.

A marble sculpture of Tragedy and Comedy theatre masks is seen outside the Large Festival Hall (Grosses Festpielhaus) of the Salzburg Festival in Salzburg, Austria, on June 23rd, 2021. Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

‘Intimidating, yet intimate’ 
But it is “its truly wonderful acoustics” that give the Large Festival Hall its special aura, says Austrian maestro Franz Welser-Möst, who is conducting another of this year’s five opera productions, Richard Strauss’ “Elektra”.

“Going on stage, it feels like a place of intimidating proportions, and yet it allows for an incredible sound intimacy,” he added.

“The softest sounds travel in a way that allows even the farthest away listener to experience them very directly.”
Rabl-Stadler said the technical director of Paris’ famed Bastille Opera had remarked with surprise that such good acoustics had been possible in the 1960s.

So, it is not without some trepidation that newcomers take their place in the festival hall spotlight, conscious of all the great names who have gone before them, as was the case for Welser-Möst who admitted he’d been “very nervous” on his first appearance as conductor there in 1989.

The passion and anticipation among Salzburg Festival audiences, he said, made it feel like participating in the Olympic Games for performers.

“You’re pitting yourself against the best of the best,” he told AFP in an interview.
But the role of the festival is also to look ahead and help the talents set to shape the music of the future to blossom, stressed artistic director Markus Hinterhäuser.

And this year’s performance of the “Everyman” play, written by one of the festival’s original founders Hugo von Hofmannsthal and staged every year here
since, will be in high heels, as it questions the identity of gender.

Director of the Salzburg Festival Markus Hinterhäuser in the Large Festival Hall of the Salzburg Festival in Salzburg, Austria, on June 23rd, 2021. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

‘Transcending nations’ 
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, some 220,000 tickets for the Salzburg Festival, which runs until August 31st, have been sold, costing anywhere between five and 445 euros (six and 524 dollars) — although half were under 105 euros.

With a 60-million-euro budget, a quarter of which is state funding, more than 150 events are planned over nearly seven weeks.

Months of work has gone into crafting the masks for “Don Giovanni”, the opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart being staged in the composer’s home town by Italian director Romeo Castellucci.

Milliners have created the headwear and costume makers carried out umpteen fittings.

“Striving for a common goal, all these people coming from different continents, is an immense task,” said Rabl-Stadler, who is due to bow out as president later this year after more than 25 years.

“In 1920, the founders planned a world artistic centre on Austrian soil transcending nations,” she said.
“Maybe that’s what we’ve done, a little bit.”

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Music, drama and controversy: What can you expect at the Salzburg Festival?

The annual Salzburger Festspiele - Salzburg Festival - is already hitting the headlines due its Russian connections, but there is more to the event than politics. Here’s what to expect at the 2022 edition of the festival.

Music, drama and controversy: What can you expect at the Salzburg Festival?

As the Salzburg Festival kicks off on Tuesday July 26th with a keynote address by Vienna-based author Ilija Trojanow, all eyes on this year’s theme of war and peace.

The title of Ilija’s speech is Der Ton des Krieges, die Tonarten des Friedens (The Tone of War, the Tonalities of Peace) – something that, according to ORF, has placed the festival “under scrutiny” as the war continues in Ukraine.

The Kronen Zeitung also reports that Trojanow – who fled Bulgaria in 1971 for Germany – is expected to reference Russian funding of the festival and the turbulence of current times.

Trojanow said: “Markus Hinterhäuser [Salzburg Festival Artistic Director] knows me, he knows my work. He knows that he will get a politically dedicated, but also poetic-musical speech from me.”

Meanwhile, a large security operation is underway at Salzburg’s Festspielhause and across the city’s festival sites ahead of a speech by Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen as part of the opening ceremony on Tuesday.

Police Chief Inspector Hans Wolfgruber said: “The maximum level of security will be provided, but there will be minimum restrictions for the people of Salzburg.” 

With the festival programme set to run until August 31st, here’s what you need to know about the 2022 Salzburg Festival.

What is the Salzburg Festival?

The Salzburg Festival is an annual celebration of art and culture in the historic city of Salzburg, in the west of Austria.

It has been described as one of the most important festivals in the world for opera, classical music and drama, and the organisers sell over 200,000 tickets each year.

The event was officially established in August 1920 by Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal in a bid to promote peace following World War I and to support the creation of a new Austrian identity following the fall of the Habsburg empire.

Today, the festival programme still includes an annual performance of Jedermann, a mystery play written by Hofmannsthal, in honour of the founder.

Anything controversial about this year?

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, many organisations and institutions have come under fire for their associations with Russia – including the Salzburg Festival.

Last week, the festival organisers justified its decision not to cancel a performance by Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis, who is scheduled to open the festival with his orchestra musicAeterna.

The Guardian reports that musicAeterna is funded by VTB Bank, which is currently under western sanctions and is often referred to as Vladimir Putin’s “private bank”.

Other venues in Munich, Vienna and Paris have already cancelled performances by Currentzis and musicAeterna, but Salzburg Festival Director Hinterhäuser has defended his decision by describing the conductor as a “counter model” to Putin.

In further criticism, the festival is also reportedly receiving funding in the form of sponsorship from a foundation run by oligarch Leonid Mikhelson who has been sanctioned by the UK and Canada, although not the EU.

But Salzburg Festival organisers have severed ties this year with two Russian performers – Anna Netrebko and Valery Gergiev – over their connections to Putin.

What are the highlights this year?

The opening ceremony will take place in the Felsenreitschule (a theatre) on Tuesday. Attendees will include Austria’s President Alexander van der Bellan, Salzburg’s Governor Wilfried Haslauer, Secretary of State for the Arts Andrea Mayer and Salzburg Festival President Kristina Hammer.

The keynote speech by Trojanow will be broadcast live on ORF 2, which will be followed by a performance by Currentzis and musicAeterna.

Other highlights during the festival include classical music performances by the Vienna Philharmonic, opera productions of Aida and Bluebeard’s Castle, and a youth programme titled Jung & Jede*r.

The full festival programme can be found here.

Performances and events take place at venues across the city, including the Schauspielhaus Salzburg, Kollegienkirche, Dom Platz and the Festspielhaus.

Tickets should be booked in advance and prices range from €5 to €445, although some key events, such as drama performances of Jedermann and Reigen, are already sold out.