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Interview with Markus Hinterhäuser

M. Hinterhäuser (© Franz Neumayr)

2020 should have been a banner year for the Salzburg Festival. This is 100 years ago that it was created by Richard Strauss, Max Reinhart and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The Festival had hopes for an even more ambitious program than usual with works by Strauss, Mozart but also Puccini, Mussorgsky and Nono as well as many concerts.

The pandemic made all these irrelevant. The Pentecost festival had to be scrapped and it is only at the last minute that sanitary regulations allowed a revised slimmed-down program to be assembled.

Strict guidelines for the audience have been put in place. Tickets are nominative and audience must show an id so that they could be contacted in case of an outbreak. Programs are reduced in length with no interval. One seat out of two are blocked to ensure that social distancing could be maintained. A recorded message before every performance summarizes of the directives to be followed. It was made by local speakers and the message in English reminds us of the accent of Christoph Waltz in Tarantino movies...

But audiences and artists are accepting to abide by the rules and at the end of the first week of the festival, the tremendous significant efforts are paying off.

Markus Hinterhäuser, the artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, took some of busy time to speak, at two meters one from each other, with ConcertoNet.

How did you decided to go forward with the Festival?
First, there was a very unexpected situation which nobody had experience with which was the lockdown. It started in Austria the first week of March. Lockdown meant that nothing, nothing was possible. It was severe in Austria and much more severe in other countries like France or Italy. But, in this moment, when nobody was allowed to go to work anymore. We were only allowed to go one time per day at the supermarket and everything was closed. The whole city was totally empty.

We decided in the Festival that we must have a kind of a plan. We have two festivals: Pentecost and Summer. The first deadline was the 15th April for Pentecost with Cecilia Bartoli and May 30 to see if we could do the festival in Summer.

We were also very realistic that the lockdown would have consequences. You cannot lockdown everything, close borders, restaurants, shops, daily life without consequences. Beginning of May, the numbers went down, and things became calmer and stabler. In this situation, the Austrian government gave back parts to daily life. It was possible again to go into shops and into restaurants. This process was there but culture was excluded. And then, there was a great pressure from the side of the culture into politics. We, who are responsible for cultural institutions, we have the right to do something.

This was not really easy I must say. We from the Festival were very involved in these communications but we were not the only ones. There was great pressure from the whole cultural world here in Austria.

And on May 25th, five days before our deadline, there was a Press Conference from the minister of culture. They acknowledged being aware of the situation and wanted to make things possible, step by step. In June, it became possible to do concerts for hundred spectators. In July for 250 and then 500 and you can go for 1000 in August if you have a very well-defined, severe, and clear health system.

Then it went very fast. We worked incredibly hard on the health protocol. It was clear we had to make the situation as safe as possible and we worked a lot on that.

We had a program planned for the 100th anniversary of the Festival and it was pretty clear what we could not do it. One element of our health system was that we had to avoid intervals as it is very difficult to control the movement of the audience. I could not do Don Giovanni because for weeks and months, the mechanisms of the process were interrupted. I could not do Boris Godunov because it is really a choir opera. Same reason for Intolleranza 1960 from Liugi Nono.

So, what I could do was Elektra which was planned. There is no interval. There are few protagonists on stage. There is a big, a really big orchestra in the pit but we are allowed to do that, this is not the problem in Austria at the moment. The Vienna Philharmonic members are constantly tested.

And this is very important, we are only doing things we are allowed to do.

Così fan tutte was a spontaneous idea with stage director Christof Loy and me. He was supposed to do Boris Godunov. We spoke and it was clear that doing the 100th anniversary of the Salzburg Festival without a Mozart opera would have been a sad thing, not really imaginable.

Così is staged in the Grosses Festpielhaus. This is not as natural a place for Mozart opera as the Haus für Mozart. Was this to scope this overall work among Festival staff?
We have a reduced number of people working at the Festival, so we have had to reduce everything. The Grosses Festpielhaus is maybe not a first glance an ideal venue for Così fan tutte. But we spoke very intensively on how the sets should be. Christof Loy is a fantastic stage opera director who knows the Grosses Festpielhaus very well.

Also, we could not do it elsewhere: Felsenreitschule is for Elektra and Haus für Mozart is for concerts. Everything we thought we would do in Mozarteum is done in the Haus für Mozart. So, there was no other possibility than the Grosses Festpielhaus for Così fan tutte.

But I am very happy we have done this there. It was done very cleverly with the sets going nearly into the orchestra. The acoustics work really well, and Christof Loy brings all the intimacy of Così fan tutte in a magnificent way. It is full of knowledge and of elegance. He does not need anything beyond these fantastic singers.

How could you find them at the last minute? They are wonderful young, credible, and well-matched.
The only “gift” we got from Corona is that these fantastic young singers were free and available. And unbelievably happy and grateful to be able to do this. I could assemble all the cast in just five days. Normally, I need three years or so. I called Marianne Crebassa, Elsa Dreisig, Lea Desandre... They were so enthusiastic when they realized they could do Così.

There is such a need for artists to have a stage and to be able to perform for an audience. Artists are there for performing and not for streaming. There was incredible happiness. It was so joyful. This was also the same atmosphere at the rehearsals. I have never seen this, and this is not my first opera. No pressure, just the pure joy of the miracle of Mozart.

It is such a great work.
It is, really. A miracle. I remember when they were all there and I went to the first rehearsals. We had not heard live music and they were singing “Soave sia il vento”. It was a moment where every cell of your body says thank you.

This is what we all felt yesterday at the Elektra. We have been deprived of the physical thrust of the live sound and to hear a work like Elektra.
And you hear the massive dramatic chords at the beginning [he sings...]

You know this is my third Elektra in Salzburg and there used to be a time when it would have been difficult to get all the personalities: conductors, producers, singers... working together as they do now. From what we can see, you have the Vienna Philharmonic, Franz Welser-Möst, Krzysztof Warlikowski, the singers, they are all working together.
Yes, and it was the same the previous years with the Salome with Romeo Castellucci. You no longer need to have these super-super stars. But what we have now are artists that work and grow together.

Let me move to another topic. Are you concerned on the age of the typical Salzburg Festival audience and also, why are there no standing places at the Grosses Festpielhaus as you have in the Haus für Mozart and the Felsenreitschule?
First on my side, everybody is welcome. I do not care if they are 25 or 75 years old.

This is fair but some other find it easier to come and attend than others.
Whoever finds it not affordable should look carefully at the offerings of the Festival. More than 50% of the tickets are under € 100. Entry tickets are at € 15 to 25 for every performance. If you compare to rock and pop concerts, the cheapest are at € 180. It is true that the best tickets are expensive, but we have a lot of affordable tickets for everyone, but you have to look at it. This is cliché that all our tickets are not affordable.

It is also important to look at what happens for our concerts for contemporary music. They are packed with normal people.

As for standing seats, it is due to the architecture whereas we can have these for the Haus für Mozart and the Felsenreitschule. They did not think of this when they build it. And in the Grosses Festpielhaus not only do you have tickets for € 15 but you can seat!

What will happen of the productions you could not play this year?
We will also have to consider the consequences of the Coronavirus. There may not be the same amount of funding available next year so we will have to be clever with that.

Intolleranza 1960 and Don Giovanni will be performed next year. Everything I can keep, I will keep. We already planned for this in March of April. It is a question of respect for the artists as well as to all those who work in our houses on the sets and the costumes... I have trust in these productions, and we will do them.

The quasi totality of the Salzburg Festival performances can be streamed at Arte Concert

[Interview with Antoine Lévy-Leboyer]



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