When you ask Americans what’s the first association that pops into their heads when they think about Austria, the “Sound of Music”, with its singing nuns and melancholic captains, probably comes up first. At least every American I ever talked to got pretty excited by the sheer thought of Maria and the children and the bikes and the curtains. The movie was shot on location in Salzburg, Austria, and ever since then, casts it’s shadow over the romantic little town. Buses loaded with hundreds of tourists are guided around the city each day to visit the original shooting locations – Sing Alongs included. Well, who wouldn’t love the opportunity to dance in the gazebo like Liesl and Kurt or ride a bike through the gardens of Schloss Mirabell?
Salzburg’s tourism, however, has profited immensely from the popularity of the movie. But the picturesque, and sometimes – with its clean roads and neatly renovated houses – even fake looking little town, has more to offer. Especially in the summer. Once you’ve seen and heard enough of Mozart and the “hills, that are alive”, you can experience top-notch quality – if you’ve got the “small change”.
The Salzburg Festival, one of the biggest festivals for classical music, opera and theatre in the world, takes place July and August every year. It gives the culture vultures out there the chance to experience the highest form of culture (and the highest ticket prices) – whereas I got the chance to work there this year. It was an overall exciting time, meeting great artists, actors, directors and a whole crazy bunch of energetic culture freaks. What does one get to see there? Opera (lot’s of it), classical concerts (just as much) and theatre productions. This year, 14 locations around the city were used to stage 188 performances for 262.893 visitors from around the world. But that’s enough with the numbers. What you actually get to experience are plays directed by the most renowned directors of our time like Deborah Warner or Peter Stein, opera stars such as Anna Netrebko or Placido Domingo and musical highlights with solo concerts by the likes of Yo-Yo Ma. Quite impressive stuff. But, as you might imagine reading those big names, the festival is clearly not for everybody. The tickets cost on average 130€, the highest prices ranging around 430€ per ticket. These prices mirror the audience that pays them.
Each night, but especially on premiere nights, luxurious limousines drive up in front of the festival hall and sometimes ravishingly, sometimes not so ravishingly dressed people make their way to the entrance gate. Pictures are being taken and hands shaken. These people are usually quite wealthy and make sure everybody sees that. Whereas many locals have never even attended the festival, also because they can’t afford to. Just as most Austrians haven’t seen “The Sound of Music”, by the way (sorry to disappoint you).
Getting the chance to catch an overall glimpse by working in the production drama office, the summerly happenings in Salzburg reminded me of a circus of the rich and beautiful. But this, nevertheless, should not distract from the fine artistic quality and the cultural delights that are being offered. This year, it was for example Mozart’s opera “Le nozze di Figaro”, Shakespeare’s “Comedy of errors” or Wolfgang Rhim’s modern opera “Die Eroberung von Mexiko” – which was a hit with the critics as well as the audience.
Another great highlight is the annual performance of “Jedermann”, an everyman-play by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who, together with director Max Reinhardt and composer Richard Strauss, founded the festival in 1920. Since then, the play was performed every year (with a few exceptions, i.g. between 1938-45) on the Dome square, an open-air stage of its own kind. The atmosphere, when the sun begins to sink and dawn sets in, is magical. That’s what theatre is there for, those special moments.
Every day on my way to work, I could hear opera singers practicing behind open windows, trying to reach the highest note possible, saw actors all dressed up for “Mackie Messer”, an experimental version of Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera”, linger around in the sun during their rehearsal breaks, and listened to theatre talk in every restaurant I ate in (especially the Triangel, the place to be for celebrity-sightings). All of this makes this festival truly special and one gets the feeling, that Salzburg, the provincial town in the Alps with its narrow streets, large squares, abbeys and churches, becomes the cultural centre of Europe, or maybe even the world, for those six weeks.
And as cliché as it might sound, the hills then really seem to be alive with the sound of music…