n photographs and postcards, Salzburg owns all the characteristics of a beautiful but somehow still nondescript European town. A river that slices across the old and the new towns with several footbridges that connect the two; cathedrals dotting cobblestone alleys that twist and turn in every direction, gushing fountains at the centre of open-air plazas. It’s scenic, for sure. But for 10 months of the year, this small city is not a whole lot more exciting than this.
But this is also the birthplace of Mozart, the home of Europe’s oldest restaurant (Stiftskeller St Peter, which claims to have been in operation since 803 AD) and backdrop to the movie The Sound of Music. And, fittingly, the hills that are set sternly around the town do very much appear to be alive each summer – during the 41-day Salzburg Festival.
For years, the Austrian classical music festival has drawn performers of the highest calibre, staging over 190 performances in 11 venues each summer and attracting an enthusiastic, upper-class crowd who make the event an annual pilgrimage and an opportunity to play dress up for an evening or two.
Classical music is a way of life for Salzburgians; there’s a large concentration of performing arts and music schools in the city, and violinists and singers perform to their heart’s desire on street corners, under beautiful baroque archways or even just casually lying on a bed of grass along the river.
The genre has a slightly more bourgeois reputation elsewhere around the world, and hence, the festival itself has gained a rather highbrow status. It has been criticised for being elitist, with tickets to a single concert often going for as much as €400 (HK$3,500); limiting access to locals and music lovers without a bankroll. But, despite the bourgeois light casted upon the festival, this small Austrian city has enjoyed a prestigious status as an annual summer holiday destination for rich Europeans to air their ball gowns and tuxes.
Dr Helga Rabl-stadler, president of the Salzburg Festival, acknowledges this issue of accessibility, but she notes the formal tone had always been intended to be a part of the festival experience. “The festival was founded in 1920 by Friedrich Gehmacher and Heinrich Damisch, who always felt people should dress up for the occasion and that going to concerts should be an experience,” she says. “The festival continues to bring together royals, dignitaries and celebrities, making it one of the rare events where you might see the King of Sweden and Angela Merkel sitting alongside Karl Lagerfeld.”
But Rabl-stadler is also very much in tune with the changing demographics of the audience and notes that significant percentage of tickets are priced between €5 and €105. Free outdoor concerts are also staged throughout the duration of the festival, bringing the
music to a wider audience. It’s all a part of her effort to bring more diversity to the event. The president credits this largely to sponsors that she’s cultivated over the years since she took on the role of president in 1995.
Among the most successful partnerships the festival shares is that which it has with Rolex. The collaboration, Rabl- Stadler explains, was brought about by one of the most respected divas of this generation – mezzo-soprano singer Cecilia Bartoli.
“Several years ago, Cecilia approached me with an idea to stage an opera at the festival. She had some brilliant ideas but we did not have the funds. So Cecilia, who was a Rolex Arts Testimonee, came up with the idea to get the brand involved,” Rabl-stadler recalls.
This partnership has lead to the expansion of the Salzburg Festival; Bartoli founded and took on the role of artistic director of a sub-event, the Whitsun Festival. Beginning in May 2012, the same year the festival kickstarted its partnership with Rolex, Whitsun Festival became the first stage where Bartoli’s operas are staged. The diva and the rest of the cast then reprise their roles in additional performances during the main festival in August. This allows more people to enjoy the performances, while ultimately upping the profits of each production.
It’s partnerships like these, Rabl-stadler explains, which has made less-than-conventional performances, such as this year’s opera adaptation of the Leonard Berstein Broadway musical West Side Story, possible.
Accompanied by the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, the production required tremendous
“THE FESTIVAL IS ONE OF THE RARE EVENTS WHERE YOU MIGHT SEE THE KING OF SWEDEN AND ANGELA MERKEL SITTING ALONGSIDE KARL LAGERFELD”
– Dr Helga Rabl-stadler
funding, from transportation and accommodation costs of the orchestra and cast, to building a set that can adapt to the temperamental Felsenreitschule stage; set within a former horse riding school that was built into the side of the Mönchsberg mountain in 1963.
And with only €16million of its €60million budget subsidised by the Austrian government, it’s up to Rabl- Stadler to continue to reach out to like-minded sponsors. “We only want global players, and they have to be known for their quality and share a similar ideology for excellence,” she says with assurance.
On top of that, sponsors have to give the festival close to free reign over how sponsorship funds are used. “Just like we’re not going to tell Rolex how to make a watch, they shouldn’t tell us how to stage concerts and operas,” Rabl- Stadler says.
The festival is set to approach its 100th anniversary in 2020, and Rabl- Stadler believes the founders’ message to the world is as pertinent today as ever. “The founders were convinced that culture is the only thing that will bring people together; to bring peace to the world,” she says. “It doesn’t matter which programme, what matters is the quality, the freedom of choice of opera or theatre – the only thing that matters is that we bring the best to the festival.”
The unconventional decision to bring West Side Story onto the Salzburg Festival stage is a clear indication the near century-old event is increasingly about much more than symphonies and sonatas. As Rabl-stadler puts it: “Productions like these will change the future of the Salzburg Festival.”