Salzburg, Mozart and ‘Così’

This summer’s visitor to Salzburg discovered every approach to the city, from Autobahn, Bahnhof, and Flughafen, displaying a poster of a handsome headwaiter—to judge by the white tie and tails, although he carried no menu, and his transcendent expression exceeded the mystique associated with even the poshest restaurants. In some places the affiches stood no more than fifty feet apart, at one intersection almost obscuring the signs for Berchtesgaden, and the tourist must have wondered what this glamorous maître d’ could be advertising, with his manner so different from that of the contented users pictured on other billboards.

But close up the face looked familiar, and the caption and CBS trademark confirmed the suspicion: “Leonard Bernstein: Wir Wilkommen Sie Bei den Salzburger Festspielen!” Yet who could deny that the presentation was a triumph of packaging, as well as the launching of a mode, this one ad having sunk the Sixties: Ozawa’s beads, Previn’s hair, Karajan’s melodramatic gestures—all were obsoleted in a single coup. Moreover, here was an icon to replace that of Mozart, whose image was nowhere to be found among the two hundred glossy-page photos of jewelry and Jaguars, conductors and banks that comprise the Official Program.

To the question posed in an article in this booklet, “Festivals—An Expensive Anachronism?” the answer should be an unqualified “Yes.” Festival repertory is no longer distinguishable from that of the regular season, while standards of performance have fallen in inverse proportion to their cost (both to producer and consumer), and artistic control seems to be in the hands of airlines and hotel chains. What else could explain the choice for Bayreuth’s centenary Ring of a producer whose total experience with opera consists of one work by Offenbach and one by Rossini, and of a conductor who has never led the Ring or performed any other Wagner in a way to warrant such an endorsement? (Carlos Kleiber, the one recent conductor there who has demonstrated the temperamental as well as the technical qualifications for the undertaking, may not be a marketable name as yet; but such considerations did not always take precedence over artistic goals.)

A quotation from the aforementioned article exposes the schizoid confusion of the Salzburg Festival’s philosophy by actually suggesting that classical music is inherently less enjoyable than some of the more popular forms of entertainment with which it supposedly must compete:

Our affluent society offers far more agreeable opportunities to have a good time for lots of money than waiting out five hours of Tristan.

Apart from the oddity of airing such a point of view in an opera program, the statement insults all those who treasure every moment of Wagner’s masterpiece. Yet the article goes on to prophesy that

the so-called classics must capitulate…in competition with Frank Sinatra, to say nothing of the possibilities of élite pastimes on the exclusive beaches of St. Tropez….

What, in the name of Neptune, élite seaside pastimes may be, and why such classics as Tristan are only…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.