It’s the year 2020. Cultural events around the world are cancelled due to the Corona pandemic. Around the world? No! A small town populated by indomitable culture lovers would not stop resisting. And so, the Salzburg Festival was able to take place this summer – in a significantly slimmed-down version, but still against all odds.

© Tourismus Salzburg GmbH | Günter Breitegger

In mid-March, when the Austrian government announced strict measures to contain the virus, the cancellation of all summer festivals seemed inevitable as all major events were banned. Led by Helga Rabl-Stadler, the equally resolute and optimistic Festival President, the Salzburg Festival Board of Directors nevertheless waited and kept emphasising its firm belief in the 100th anniversary. And indeed, around 15th May it became apparent that there would be a gradual easing of lockdown in Austria. In June, a new, significantly reduced and shortened programme was announced and hundreds of thousands of ticket purchases were reversed before the new advance ticket sales could start. Almost defiantly, posters in Salzburg announced the Now-more-than-ever-festival: “Where the will is awakened, action has almost been accomplished.” It was Hugo von Hofmannsthal who once wrote these words, and in view of the current situation, one would only have to add the subordinate clause to the quote: “if the security concept is implemented!”

Helga Rabl-Stadler
© Bernhard Müller

In order to make the Festival possible without endangering the health of employees, artists or the public, a prevention and safety concept was developed in the background, supported by an expert advisory board consisting of doctors, virologists, epidemiologists and hygienists. To protect the audience, frequent cleaning and disinfection measures were implemented, as well as the reduction of larger gatherings. For example, the number of performance venues was reduced from 16 to 8 and the entrance and exit times were decoupled in such a way that streams of spectators – for example from the Felsenreitschule and the Festspielhaus – did not coincide. All performances were played without an interval, bars and buffets remained closed and seats were allocated according to a chessboard pattern in order to maintain a one-metre distance between audience members. A face mask had to be worn until the beginning of the performance and then again when the final applause began; the necessary information on compulsory masks and the ban on fans (to prevent the spread of aerosols!) was provided in German and English and recorded by this year's Buhlschaft Caroline Peters. The high level of discipline that researchers from the Charité recently attested to the classical music audience in a study, was indeed evident – in contrast to supermarkets or public transport, you only saw people with correctly applied face masks who meticulously observed a distance of “one baby elephant”, the minimum distance recommended by the Austrian government.

Strict guidelines were also mapped out for staff and artists. For example, the rehearsal and performance schedule was thinned out and a negative corona test, no older than four days, had to be presented. In addition, everyone was divided into three groups, for each of which different measures were taken. The red group included stage artists who, due to their work, were unable to permanently observe social distancing and could not wear face masks during their artistic activities. The red group was regularly tested and a health and contact log had to be kept. The orange group included all those who were usually able to socially distance and wear a mask during their work. They also had to keep a health and contact log. The yellow group was made up of people who were able to obey social distancing at all times; they had to wear face masks whenever the minimum distance was not ensured and they had to follow general rules of hygiene. Internally, a medical corona hotline was set up, which was available at all time, and a standby service was organised by Red Cross testing teams.

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Klytaemnestra) and Aušrinė Stundytė (Elektra)
© Bernd Uhlig | Salzburger Festspiele

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, who mesmerised as Klytämnestra in Warlikowski's production of Richard Strauss' Elektra this summer, emphasises the successful implementation of the concept. “On stage we were able to work completely normally and the fantastic concept made me feel very safe,” says the mezzo-soprano, adding that these were “very special Festspiele” where the “fear of being infected” was certainly present, but “a more sensitive togetherness” shaped the working atmosphere. In addition to initial testing, the artists were routinely tested during rehearsals and after each performance, Baumgartner reports, adding that she always wore a face covering “except when working on stage” – either a mask during rehearsals or a visor to not ruin her stage make-up. Benedict Lea, violinist with the Vienna Philharmonic, who was also assigned to the red group, reports of “five tests within 26 days”. All musicians were given “masks that we had to wear at all times – except when we were actually playing.” The health and contact log, which had to be filled out daily, recorded “whether we showed any symptoms of a possible infection and with whom we were in contact for more than 15 minutes.” Although Lea describes the working atmosphere as “definitely different from what we have experienced in previous years”, he too emphasises how well the concept worked and adds how much he enjoyed being able “to play challenging programmes again with excellent musicians and conductors”.

Oper Graz in June
© Isabella Steppan

The fact that cultural events could take place in Austria this summer after all was due to the initially hesitant, but finally momentum-gaining, political commitment to the value and significance of art and culture. President Alexander van der Bellen, who never tired of emphasising the systemic relevance of culture and who visited events and opened festivals throughout the country on behalf of the government, was omnipresent. Apart from the Salzburg Festival, performances took place again very early on in Austria – Oper Graz, the Musikverein and Konzerthaus in Vienna, the Vienna State Opera as well as a number of other organisers already offered concerts or song recitals for a maximum of 100 people in June. As the first summer festival, the Styriarte found a creative way out of the crisis in July by offering the one-hour programmes three times in a row each evening. The Grafenegg Festival, on the other hand, took advantage of the large park and the open-air stage (Wolkenturm) and directed its audience to different, colourfully marked waiting areas in order to ensure an orderly taking and leaving of seats.

Wolkenturm in Grafenegg
© Alexander Haiden

It is doubtful whether the effort has always been worthwhile financially, but after the extraordinary festival summer, at least the artistic result is positive – thanks to a disciplined implementation of safety measures, culture in Austria has been resurrected without entailing new corona clusters. The successful hygiene concept of the Salzburg Festival is now even becoming an international prototype; in neighbouring Bavaria, some orchestras are quoting the Austrian success story in an open letter to underline that health and culture need not be mutually exclusive in the current situation. And in many other opera houses and concert halls at home and abroad, not only the will but the hope for a culturally rich autumn is now awakening again.

Translated into English by Elisabeth Schwarz.