Arts and Entertainment

Waiting for Jedermann

A review of the Salzburg Festival’s history and reopening during the pandemic.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

You may be an obsessed Bartók fanatic or someone who can’t run out of the room fast enough when you hear the first few notes of a Beethoven symphony, but whether you appreciate classical music or not, you’re probably curious about what’s going on in concert halls and theaters around the world. The answer? Depends on where you are. Artistic organizations in NYC aren’t doing so hot, but what about across the Atlantic?

The Salzburg Festival in Austria has performed concerts, operas, ballets, and dramas for five weeks every summer since 1920. The festival was established on the heels of World War I by five founders, including composer Richard Strauss, who aimed to provide entertainment for thousands of tourists and locals.

This year, the Salzburg Festival celebrates its hundredth anniversary. A stellar program, including Mozart operas and performances by the Vienna Philharmonic, had been planned for this year's festival. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, all performances of the festival were canceled or postponed in early April. The organizers of the festival, President Helga Rabl-Stadler and Artistic Director Markus Hinterhäuser, however, were determined to keep it alive.

Rabl-Stadler was determined to bring the arts back to life despite the circumstances. “It is so important to show the value of culture and arts because it's food for the soul,” she told Euronews. “That was the conviction of our founders, and that is why we think the festival must take place.” In many other parts of the world, many artistic organizations and concert halls are still struggling to stay above water. Most summer music festivals, including some in Europe, remain canceled.

The ideals of Rabl-Stadler are certainly embodied in the versatility of this summer’s program, which features two operas with six performances each, four dramas, 10 concert sets, and a few other events, including two youth theater presentations. Only one event, Hofmannsthal’s drama “Jedermann,” a regular event of the festival for almost a hundred years, has maintained the planned number of performances. Most concert sets otherwise had only three or four performances each. Ensembles featured in these concert sets included the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and a few quartets. Solo artists such as opera singer Anna Netrebko and world-famous conductor Daniel Barenboim also starred in a few of these concerts. As part of a revised performance schedule, there were broadcasts and public streamings of past concerts, ballets, and dramas.

For the entire month of August, a modified program of performances was featured in half the number of regular venues. Prevention measures were established for both the audience members and staff. Audience members were obliged to obey the one-meter distancing rule and wear face masks, and there was significant reduction in seating in order to follow government regulations. As for the performers and artists, they were required to comply with the same hygiene regulations as the audience members and submit to COVID-19 testing. By setting mandatory precautions, the Salzburg Festival was able to continue entertaining theater lovers while complying with prevention measures to keep the COVID-19 infection rate at a minimum. Given that Austria’s daily case count has remained under 400 in the past few months, it is reasonable that audience members felt comfortable attending public events, especially with the reassurance that the festival was complying with government regulations. Though they were likely disappointed due to the fewer events and limited seating, in light of the current circumstances, a reduced number of performances is a small price to pay.

The measures that the distinguished music festival took to provide entertainment undoubtedly set a precedent for other artistic organizations around the world that are considering reopening once it is safe to do so. While we all appreciate the free online streamings that concert halls, opera houses, and ballet theaters have provided us, those broadcasts are not the ideal way for artistic organizations to make money and pale in comparison to the in-person performances. In the meantime, let’s continue to enjoy free public viewings of past performances and hope that theater spaces in the U.S. open soon.