Salzburg festival hall, a world temple in the sound of music

Many of opera's most celebrated voices have soared and resonated in its highly acclaimed acoustics, yet the creation of the historic auditorium at the Salzburg Festival was a tall order 60 years ago.

Salzburg festival hall, a world temple in the sound of music
A photo taken on June 23rd, 2021 shows the stage with auditorium of the Large Festival Hall (Grosses Festpielhaus) of the Salzburg Festival in Salzburg, Austria. ALEX HALADA / AFP

Only just free of the post-World War II occupying forces that left in 1955 and still in ruins, Austria set its sights firmly on culture, turning former episcopal stables into the Large Festival Hall (“Grosses Festspielhaus”) as a symbol of renewal.

Since then, the stage has seen the likes of Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, but festival president Helga Rabl-Stadler said: “It’s a pure miracle however that this hall saw the light of day.”

President of the Salzburg Festival Helga Rabl-Stadler poses in the Large Festival Hall (Grosses Festpielhaus) of the Salzburg Festival in Salzburg, Austria, on June 23rd, 2021. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

On the sidelines of rehearsals for “Don Giovanni” topping the line-up at the prestigious annual summer event this year, Rabl-Stadler said that the Austrian state had managed to stump up “an enormous sum” in 1956 to get the flagship initiative off the ground.

At the time, the city’s music and theatre festival, established in 1920 as a peace project in the aftermath of World War I, was held in more modest neighbourhoods that backed onto the steep cliffs that overlook the old town.

Workers had to dynamite 50,000 cubic metres (around 1.7 million cubic feet) of rock in order to erect the new hall’s 100-metre-wide (330-foot) stage, while the auditorium holds more than 2,000 people.

Five imposing bronze doors provide street-level entry into a foyer and hall adorned with wood panelling, frescoes, mosaics, sculptures and tapestries.

A marble sculpture of Tragedy and Comedy theatre masks is seen outside the Large Festival Hall (Grosses Festpielhaus) of the Salzburg Festival in Salzburg, Austria, on June 23rd, 2021. Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

‘Intimidating, yet intimate’ 
But it is “its truly wonderful acoustics” that give the Large Festival Hall its special aura, says Austrian maestro Franz Welser-Möst, who is conducting another of this year’s five opera productions, Richard Strauss’ “Elektra”.

“Going on stage, it feels like a place of intimidating proportions, and yet it allows for an incredible sound intimacy,” he added.

“The softest sounds travel in a way that allows even the farthest away listener to experience them very directly.”
Rabl-Stadler said the technical director of Paris’ famed Bastille Opera had remarked with surprise that such good acoustics had been possible in the 1960s.

So, it is not without some trepidation that newcomers take their place in the festival hall spotlight, conscious of all the great names who have gone before them, as was the case for Welser-Möst who admitted he’d been “very nervous” on his first appearance as conductor there in 1989.

The passion and anticipation among Salzburg Festival audiences, he said, made it feel like participating in the Olympic Games for performers.

“You’re pitting yourself against the best of the best,” he told AFP in an interview.
But the role of the festival is also to look ahead and help the talents set to shape the music of the future to blossom, stressed artistic director Markus Hinterhäuser.

And this year’s performance of the “Everyman” play, written by one of the festival’s original founders Hugo von Hofmannsthal and staged every year here
since, will be in high heels, as it questions the identity of gender.

Director of the Salzburg Festival Markus Hinterhäuser in the Large Festival Hall of the Salzburg Festival in Salzburg, Austria, on June 23rd, 2021. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

‘Transcending nations’ 
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, some 220,000 tickets for the Salzburg Festival, which runs until August 31st, have been sold, costing anywhere between five and 445 euros (six and 524 dollars) — although half were under 105 euros.

With a 60-million-euro budget, a quarter of which is state funding, more than 150 events are planned over nearly seven weeks.

Months of work has gone into crafting the masks for “Don Giovanni”, the opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart being staged in the composer’s home town by Italian director Romeo Castellucci.

Milliners have created the headwear and costume makers carried out umpteen fittings.

“Striving for a common goal, all these people coming from different continents, is an immense task,” said Rabl-Stadler, who is due to bow out as president later this year after more than 25 years.

“In 1920, the founders planned a world artistic centre on Austrian soil transcending nations,” she said.
“Maybe that’s what we’ve done, a little bit.”

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Donauinselfest: What you need to know about Austria’s biggest open air festival

Austria has the largest free open-air festival in Europe, and the Donauinselfest is taking place this weekend. Here is what you need to know.

Donauinselfest: What you need to know about Austria's biggest open air festival

The Austrian Donauinselfest is known as the largest free open-air music festival in Europe, and it happens yearly on Vienna’s Danube island. The festival attracts around three million visitors over its three days of events and is starting on Friday in the Austrian capital.

The festival has been taking place yearly since 1983 on the 21.1-kilometre river island. This year, it has 14 different areas and 11 stages, according to the official website. Visitors can expect more than 600 hours of program.

READ ALSO: The best festivals and events to enjoy in Austria this summer

Here is what you need to know to enjoy the programme fully.

When and where is the festival?

The festival has an extensive range of events starting on Friday, June 24th, and lasting until Sunday, June 26th. It takes place on the island between the new Danube and the Danube rivers, known as the Donauinsel.

READ ALSO: 7 things to know about driving in Austria this summer

It is easily accessible via the U1 (Donauinsel station) and U6 (Handelskai station) metro and there are no parking spaces available near the festival site.

Admission to the event is free.

The festival is back after the pandemic

After two years of reduced capacity and many Covid-19 restrictions, the Donauinselfest is back to (almost) normal. There is no limit to the number of visitors, no requirement to show proof of vaccination or recovery from the disease, and no mask mandate.

However, the authorities have asked that people take “personal responsibility” as coronavirus infection numbers have been rising.

READ ALSO: Five of the best things to do in Vienna this summer

The organisers have requested people to get tested before visiting the vast festival, reported.

People gather on the shores of the Danube river, in Vienna during a hot sunny day and Danube Day on June 29, 2012. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN

“We ask everyone who would like to visit the Donauinselfest this year to take a PCR or rapid test in advance and thus protect themselves and others. People with symptoms are not allowed to enter the festival grounds.”, said organiser Matthias Friedrich.

Though masks are not mandatory, they are recommended on-site if it is too full of people and no social distancing is possible. Besides, there is a masks requirement to all Donauinselfest workers in indoor areas.

Watch out for what you cannot bring

There is an extensive list of things that are not allowed on the festival site. For example, visitors are not allowed to take large bags and backpacks (“A3 format”, according to the website). However, a gym bag is not considered a backpack.

Animals, including dogs, are prohibited – except for guide dogs and service dogs.

You are also not allowed to bring umbrellas, alcoholic beverages, cans, glass bottles, or drones. The list of prohibited items includes “propaganda material”, spray bottles, whistles, large or bulky objects, bicycles and skateboards, stools and chairs, food and more.

Check out the complete list here.

Danube festival

Vienna’s “Danube-island” Festival will return this weekend. (Photo by DIETER NAGL / AFP)

READ ALSO: Forecast: Austria set for high temperatures and storms throughout weekend and beyond

You can – and should – bring plenty of water and sunscreen, as temperatures are expected to be around the 30Cs over the next few days.

What kind of music is there?

The festival has several stages and a broad programme selection. The bands are usually more regional, with a significant presence of Austrian, German, and Italian bands.

You can find all sorts of music, from pop to rock, rap, and techno. There are even tribute bands like Break Free, which will play Queen’s best signs on the rock stage.

The program includes other activities as well, such as poetry slam, art stages, sport areas, and even events for families and children.

You can check the official program here.