Fest looks to revive from scandal

16:00, Mar 17 2011
Richard Strauss' Elektra in Salzburg
EGG CITING: Singer Irene Theorin and Eva-Maria Westbroek perform on stage during a dress rehearsal of Richard Strauss' opera Elektra in Salzburg.

The Salzburg Easter Festival of opera and music, where the top ticket price is €1230 (NZ$2,313.14) for four events, is awaiting the final curtain on a scandal which hit a sour note in the fairytale Austrian town.

Just before the opening of last year's week-long season, the Austrian press was filled with reports that two of the festival's longtime managers were being investigated over the alleged disappearance of more than 2 million euros.

The reports had more the makings of soap opera than grand opera, but the message from the festival today is straight out of the Gloria Gaynor 1970s disco songbook: We have survived.

"The whole thing is now in the hands of the Justice Department," said Peter Alward, the 60-year-old Briton brought in on short notice to replace the festival's former director.

"Basically, there's no new information, everything that happened has been raked over...and publicized, unfortunately too greatly, because to a certain extent it stands in the way of what we really want to talk about, which is the music," Alward told Reuters in a telephone interview from Salzburg, where rehearsals were in full swing.

That, of course, is something any cultural institution that has been embroiled in scandal would dearly wish for. But in the festival's case, it seems that apart from the slow workings of the wheels of justice, a corner has been turned.

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"I have to tell you that thank heavens we've been able to count on extremely loyal patrons and extremely loyal sponsors and they haven't jumped ship," Alward said.

"They remain on board because - I've said this before, and it's true - if you have a barrel of apples and a few have gone bad it doesn't mean the rest of the apples are bad."

Good thing, too, because to pay for the likes of British conductor Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic and the high-flying Venezuelan conducting superstar Gustavo Dudamel, the festival, which this year runs from April 16-25, has a budget of about 6 million euros, only 8 percent of which comes from public funds, Alward, a former EMI classical music executive, said.

Hence the comparatively high ticket prices, which Alward says are justified by the quality of the music, and the special atmosphere of the festival, founded by the late Austrian conductor and tempestuous musical titan, Herbert von Karajan.

"I would call it a beautiful boutique festival - what you have are two cycles of an opera and concerts, surrounded by chamber music...played by members of the Berlin Philharmonic and starry guests. It becomes sort of an annual fixture in a lot of people's calendars.

"They come and they see the same friends, they have the same seats and basically they feel very happy and comfortable because it's family."

This year, the cosy, familial audience is going to get a look at the dysfunctional Biblical family of the Jewish king Herod, his wife Herodias and their nubile daughter Salome, who infamously dances around in Richard Strauss's eponymous opera kissing the bloody, severed head of John the Baptist.

The director for this gruesome grand guignol that has been shocking opera audiences for over a century is the up-and-coming Norwegian Stefan Herheim who says in an interview on the festival's website that pretty much it's all her parents' fault.

"In fact, Salome is really trying to break free from the monstrous and obsessive constraints of her compulsive parents, who no longer have anything to say to each other," Herheim is quoted as saying.

No doubt, though, audiences who see the new production, and hear the concerts conducted by Rattle and Dudamel, will have plenty to talk about. And Alward will be hoping it will drown out chatter about some discordant events of the recent past.

Reuters