Take a look at classical music festivals across Europe and you’ll find that their origin stories sometimes read like the plot of a Marvel movie. The intent to build the festivals often coincides with ongoing violent conflict or its aftermath and the appearance of a figure of superior strength and resolute moral conviction to resolve the struggle – with the hero usually hailing from an unassuming small town.
Following World War I and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austria was left a landlocked speck surrounded by countries that were once subject to its rule. The loss of might and identity around the nation affected Austrian morale. In order to alleviate the loss and anger, the founders of the festival, Baden-born theatre and film director Max Reinhardt, composer Richard Strauss and prodigy Hugo von Hofmannsthal, banded together in the hopes of re-establishing a human order through art. The death toll was of such magnitude that it was hoped people would conduct a musical pilgrimage to the small city of Salzburg, where the echo of villainy between European citizens could melt away in the presence of music and theatre. Thus, in 1920, the Salzburg Festival was born with a performance of von Hofmannsthal’s play Jederman (“Everyman”), which has since been performed annually at the festival, with a few exceptions between 1920 and 1940.
Though I attend only the shorter Salzburg Whitsun Festival, founded in 1973 by the celebrated conductor Herbert von Karajan – whose name in this community is akin to that of God – I am under no doubt after its four days that I have been given a privileged glimpse into the Olympus of classical music, a site that, rightly, musical connoisseurs flock to come May.
Prior to my understanding of the Whitsun Festival’s beginnings, however, and indeed of the spirit in which the four-day musical extravaganza captures the pulse of the entire city, I land in Salzburg on a balmy Friday morning knowing little of what to expect except that I am to watch an opera named Ariodante that very evening.
Walking over to the Karl-Böhm Saal, where we are to mingle until the opera begins, the festival atmosphere is palpable. Couples and groups dressed in finery rarely seen nowadays cross the road; coloured silks trail behind the women while the men’s dinner jackets flutter in the cool evening breeze. There’s a transportive quality walking amidst the gowned and suited heading as a single unit towards the music hall that occupies the entire street in this small city, known to the less culturally refined among us as a place where the hills are alive with the sound of music. It’s as though the world of grande dames and the Grand Tour has been preserved in this sanctified pocket of Europe, safe from denim, stereos and Taylor Swift.
In the 15 or so minutes I have in festival sponsor Rolex’s lounge before entering the Haus für Mozart, the smaller of the two main concert halls that host the Whitsun Festival, I sense currents of excitement coursing through the crowd. I overhear exhilarated gasps I do not understand, like “Cecilia Bartoli will sing the title role!” “Can you imagine that the first time this was sung, Ariodante was for a castrato!” “The librettos are so difficult to sing!”
I also learn that Ariodante is a baroque opera written by Georg Frideric Händel, and four hours long. Moreover, the reason for the length is because baroque verses are repeated in variations anywhere between two to five times across the three-act performance. I cannot say, given this information, that I did not approach the first opera of my inaugural classical music festival without some trepidation, having only disembarked from a 20-hour transit a mere seven hours previously.
I relay my fear to one of our Rolex hosts nearby, who assures me that I am not the first to voice concern. But I need not have been so anxious. Walking into the hall, I am astonished by a stunning set that would have Broadway and the West End agog not only for aesthetics and scale, but also – as the first act begins – technical prowess and ability. Everything, I learn later on, is made by Salzburg Festival workshops that are situated behind the main Festspielhaus. Suits of armour, the wooden beams lining the floor, the painting of the woods that stretches across the back, are all made in the workshops.
The singing, of course, must be mentioned. From the first note that American soprano Kathryn Lewek sings, to the powerful entrance of the passionate knight Ariodante – played by the great Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, with beard, tall boots and all – even the most melodically unattuned cannot help but realise they are in the presence of something formidable. I sit and wonder if my first serious exposure to classical music might be comparable to having Saint-Émilion as one’s first glass of wine, and as such set the bar so high I’ll never be able to appreciate anything short of heavenly ever again.
Feeling assuaged that I seem at least to have got the gist of the first scenes, but fearful that I might betray my ignorance in a hall full of visibly erudite and regular patrons of the festival (I come to learn the day after that 80 percent of attendees have been more than 10 times) and of operas around the world, I cling to the one object that might see me through the first act – the programme notes. Following the lyrics provided, the relatively simple story becomes obvious. And, after a speed-read through the synopsis and accompanying essays, it dawns on me that the buzzing excitement from earlier is because Bartoli is playing a role that was originally written for a castrato – a male singer castrated in boyhood, a practice prohibited since the late 19th century.
Buoyed by these revelations, I seek out my hosts at Rolex during the first interval to discover that in their now five-year collaboration with the Salzburg Festival, Bartoli has in fact been the artistic director of the four-day Whitsun Festival and applied a thematic structure every year to tie in relevant repertory. With 2017 taking on a Scottish-Romantic bent, a programme of operas such as La Donna del Lago, Lady Macbeth and Ariodante brings themes of romanticism, womanhood, forgiveness and revenge into play with one another.
With this context in hand, I return to the hall for the next two hours as if baptised. The singing takes on greater meaning, and I leave the hall at the end having clapped my hands raw, impressed to find myself not only awake but also invigorated. This becomes a regular feeling throughout the festival weekend, in particular when I’m introduced to virtuoso violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, a child prodigy discovered by von Karajan himself when she was 13 years old and invited to play at Salzburg. Her rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at her concert this year – marking 40 years of an illustrious career – is nothing short of rapturous, so masterly is her interpretation of the classic work.
The Whitsun Festival is no stranger to stirring these feelings among audiences. It is, in fact, inherent to their existence. We meet Dr Helga Rabl-Stadler, president of the Salzburg Festival, the next morning to discuss how she makes it all happen. She quotes the late conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt: “If people do not leave an opera, a concert or play in a different state than the one they arrived in, then we, the artists, were no good.” Rabl-Stadler confidently tells me, “By this yardstick, the artists of the Salzburg Festival are very good, but it is important that we do not only create a programme with big names. We could put [Russian soprano] Anna Netrebko, Cecilia Bartoli and [German tenor] Jonas Kaufmann together, but that is not enough for a festival. You need an idea. The spirit of a festival is something else entirely. You have to convince people arts are not merely decorative but that it adds something to your life. It gives you an idea of how to think things over. This year we are doing a lot about power, we are starting the summer with [an opera about] Titus, an emperor who forgives a man who wants to kill him. Should we forgive our enemies? This is an important topic nowadays.”
The festival practises what its founders intended. Once a vehicle to unite the tattered remains of Europe, the gathering has turned its sights global. “Yes, that is a special thing. All the singers are chosen directly by Cecilia Bartoli – they come from all over the world and meet here,” Rabl-Stadler adds. “What is wonderful about the arts is that it is not important where you come from, which religion you have, what your skin colour is. In German we have a saying which translates to ‘the better is the enemy of the good.’ It is only quality you need to deliver, and that inspires me. Every door is open in arts if you are good.”