Letter from Salzburg: As It Prepares to Celebrate Its 90th Anniversary, Leonard Turnevicius Takes the Pulse of Classical Music's Biggest (and Most Expensive) Summer Festival

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For those of us seeking the second-to-none in sonic sustenance, tenor Michael Schade's claim that "for five weeks every summer, Salzburg is the navel of the earth" is right on the money. And the quarter million people from 68 countries who attend the city's festival every year would agree.

Only in Salzburg can they take in such a wide palette of over 200 offerings, including opera, concerts, recitals, lectures, master classes, rehearsals and plays featuring the perennial favorite, Hugo von Hofmannsthal's reworking of Jedermann. Typically, there are five to seven operas each summer, including staged and concert versions, and festival management regards the genre as essential. "Salzburg is an opera festival," says Salzburg Festival President Dr. Helga Rabl-Stadler. "You can hear good concerts all over the world, but if the opera is not good, the concerts would also suffer."

It all began very humbly on August 22, 1920, with a performance of Jedermann in the Domplatz. That first festival was the brainchild of von Hofmannsthal, director Max Reinhardt, composer Richard Strauss, conductor Franz Schalk and designer Alfred Roller, who conceived it as a beacon of hope and peace after the devastation of World War I. Things changed drastically with the Kulturpolitik of National Socialism in the 1930s, when Jewish artists were banned, visible signs of any von Hoffmannsthal and Reinhardt connection were eradicated and the festival came under the control of Josef Goebbels in Berlin.

Even after World War II, politics remained a factor. The festival started up again in August 1945, with the occupying American forces using Hitler Foundation funds originally earmarked for Mozart research. During the early years of the Cold War, the Americans eyed the festival as a counterbalance to the Viennese musical scene, then controlled by occupying Soviet troops. The Third Reich's star conductors, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Salzburg native Herbert von Karajan, were initially barred. Festival tickets were inexpensive. The American Command and offices snapped up two-thirds of them, with the rest reserved for Salzburg's working folk.

It wasn't long, however, before the festival started to build the international renown it enjoys today. Von Karajan played a leading role in this, taking over as Artistic Director in 1957 and holding sway until 1988. One of the many achievements during those years was the construction of the Grosses Festspielhaus, which opened in 1960. Hewn into the Monchsberg hill, and boasting one of the world's largest indoor stages at 100 metres in width, the 2,179-seat hall has played host to classical music's creme de la creme, though it's not Salzburg's only venue. There's also the Haus fur Mozart, formerly the Kleines Festspielhaus, with 1,580 seats, the Felsenreitschule (1,437) and the Mozarteum's Large Hall (807). The Universitatsaula, St. Peter's Abbey Church and the Kollegien-kirche are also used for music events, while drama is presented in the open-air Domplatz, the Landestheater, Leopoldskron Castle and Perner Island in neighboring Hallein. Most of these are set in the charming context of the city itself. With its cobblestone streets and tourist magnets such as Mozart's birth house and the old town (a UNESCO World Heritage site), it easily lends its beguiling charm to the catchphrase "the city as a stage."

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Completing its 89th season in 2009, the festival has become a big business. It employs about 200 full-time personnel and 3,600 part-timers during the summer. Its overall budget is [euro]49.3-million (about $77-million), more than double the Bayreuth Festival's [euro]23-million (about $36-million). Almost 25% of that budget comes from public subsidy, including federal, regional and municipal governments and the tourism promotion fund. The festival itself generates the remaining 75%, including ticket sales (about 50%), broadcast fees (10%), sponsors (6%) and individual patrons (4%). …