After a Quarter-Century, the Queen of Salzburg Calls It Quits

SALZBURG, Austria — It was intermission at the Salzburg Festival’s surreal and melancholy new production of “Don Giovanni,” and a small crowd of donors filled the office of Helga Rabl-Stadler, the festival’s president since 1995.

Dropping the medical-grade FFP2 masks that have been required indoors at the 101-year-old festival, classical music’s premier annual event, the group sipped champagne and nibbled canapés. After some small talk, Rabl-Stadler gave a short speech about this summer’s program, a continuation of last year’s centennial — which was truncated by the pandemic but, through elaborate planning and force of will, not canceled entirely.

“We couldn’t celebrate a hundred years,” she said, “by not doing everything.”

As the applause died down, Reinold Geiger, the billionaire who runs the French beauty company L’Occitane en Provence, and whom Rabl-Stadler some time ago recruited to help underwrite the festival’s youth programs, spoke up to suggest a reason Salzburg had been one of the few major performing arts events that went forward during 2020.

“Maybe,” he said with a smile, “it is because this festival has a president who is a bit unusual.”

Coming from a prominent Austrian family, and with long experience in journalism, politics and business, Rabl-Stadler, 73, has indeed been unusually — perhaps uniquely — suited to the job of Salzburg’s de facto chief networker.

This is her final summer after 26 years here, far longer than she or anyone else anticipated — and many would be happy for her to stay on. Her genial but no-nonsense presence has become a reassuring sign of stability, and the festival is bracing for a new leader at a delicate moment, as it faces the ongoing pandemic and looks toward a major renovation of its theaters that will cost hundreds of millions of euros.

Salzburg is a massive operation, with a budget of roughly 65 million euros ($76.6 million) for about 200 opera, concert and drama performances in a six-week burst starting every July. Managing it in a triumvirate alongside an intendant (artistic director) and a finance director, the president serves as head fund-raiser, but also as a kind of all-purpose sounding board, tension diffuser, public face and global booster: “the principal host of the festival,” as Lukas Crepaz, the head of finance since 2017, put it.

“She is incredibly loyal to every intendant,” said Markus Hinterhäuser, a longtime festival administrator who has been artistic director since 2017. “She supports me even if she might not always like what I’m doing. She is loyal; she is helpful; she is empathetic.”

Rabl-Stadler and the venerable festival have grown synonymous. Last October, when she agreed to extend her contract for one final year, the governor of the region called her “the living embodiment of the Salzburg Festival.”

The pandemic has been among her finest moments. Last summer, when few arts institutions were putting on full-scale productions, Salzburg pressed ahead with a curtailed but robust program, including Strauss’s mighty “Elektra” — with the full forces of the Vienna Philharmonic, the festival’s house band, crowded into the pit. Rabl-Stadler and her team lobbied politicians to make it all possible, rallied governmental and private funding sources to make up for ticket revenue lost because of capacity restrictions, and created an intricate safety plan.

Then, this summer, Salzburg returned at nearly full strength. The festival brought back the two operas mounted last year, both set among a contemporary bourgeoisie much like the audience here. “Elektra” was conducted with cool elegance by Franz Welser-Möst and featured a laser-focused Vida Mikneviciute as Chrysothemis. A spare “Così Fan Tutte,” presented in a single, substantially cut act, was tenderly led by Joana Mallwitz and boasted, in Elsa Dreisig and Marianne Crebassa, commandingly sympathetic sister protagonists.

But Romeo Castellucci’s hotly anticipated staging of “Don Giovanni” was dreary, an unsatisfying mixture of naturalism with ambiguous symbols like basketballs and a meat slicer. Set in a permanent haze behind a scrim, the production, aided by clever casting and costuming, at least finally made Giovanni and his servant, Leporello, the uncanny doppelgängers they are in the libretto. Teodor Currentzis conducted his ensemble, MusicAeterna, with solemnity verging on somnolence. Handel’s “Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno,” set by the director Robert Carsen in the aftermath of a reality-TV model competition and conceived as a vehicle for Cecilia Bartoli, was unremarkably sung, if sensitively played by Les Musiciens du Prince-Monaco under Gianluca Capuano.

But the concerts over a week in the middle of August were superb, including Evgeny Kissin’s pensive reading of Berg’s Piano Sonata, which felt the natural partner of the works by Gershwin and Chopin that joined it on the program. The violinist Isabelle Faust was the soloist in a sparkling “Mozart-Matinee” performance. A rapt audience packed the Kollegienkirche for Morton Feldman’s simmering monodrama “Neither.” MusicAeterna brought vibrancy to a Rameau program, if also a tendency to overdo gimmicks like foot-stomping and dramatic lighting shifts.

The Vienna Philharmonic, which appeared in almost everything, showed off its prodigious range over 12 hours on Aug. 15, including an afternoon “Così” and the evening premiere of a rare staging of Luigi Nono’s “Intolleranza 1960.” A coruscating parable of emigration, discrimination and violence, the work whips between ethereal choral chants and pummeling roars and shrieks, both instrumental and vocal. The director, Jan Lauwers, choreographed an endless danse macabre of bodies rushing around the stage, and Ingo Metzmacher conducted with nearly miraculous delicacy and precision.

The Philharmonic had started its day at 11 that morning, playing Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” under Riccardo Muti, a Salzburg fixture for 50 years who was conducting the work this summer for the first time. The performance was the glory of seven days at the festival: radiant, intense, dignified, grand. And there was Rabl-Stadler in her seat on the aisle, leaning forward to chat with friends before the lights dimmed, and perusing the program as she listened.

She was born in Salzburg in 1948. Her father, Gerd Bacher, was an influential journalist and media executive who eventually became the head of ORF, the Austrian national broadcaster; her mother was a fashion businesswoman. Rabl-Stadler spent time as a newspaper columnist; working for her mother’s business; as a member of parliament for the conservative ÖVP, or Austrian People’s Party; and as head of Salzburg’s chamber of commerce before coming to the festival in 1995, anticipating she’d stay perhaps 10 years.

“She was not always like she is now,” Hinterhäuser said. “She had difficulties at the beginning; real difficulties.”

For decades the festival had been ruled — and set firmly in its ways — by the conductor Herbert von Karajan. When he died, in 1989, the brilliant, pugnacious Gerard Mortier was brought in as artistic leader; in his flair for modern provocations, he represented a break with the Karajan era.

But for all his artistic coups, Mortier hogged the spotlight and thrived on tensions, alienating conductors, directors and the Vienna Philharmonic, and secretly seeking to sideline Rabl-Stadler. The move backfired, and when he left a few years later, in 2001, the tenure of his replacement, the far more introverted Peter Ruzicka, proved an opportunity for her to come into her own.

Her savvy and determination revived a long-stagnant effort to renovate the smallest of the festival’s three opera houses — which she set on track to open in 2006, Mozart’s 250th birthday year, when the festival planned to present all 22 of his operas. The Haus für Mozart, as the theater was called, became informally known as the Haus für Helga.

“When you ask me what I did for the festival,” she said, “I can say that without me there would not be a Haus für Mozart.”

She proved agile at courting corporate sponsors, and instituted (and starred in) a globe-trotting road show in the off-season to broaden Salzburg’s appeal around the world. She helped heal the raw relations with the Philharmonic.

Through the brief tenures of Jürgen Flimm and Alexander Pereira, she was asked to take on more and still more responsibilities — including, for seven years, the combined duties of the president and finance director. On top of all that, for the summers of 2015 and ’16 she filled in as an artistic leader alongside Sven-Eric Bechtolf, to fill the gap before Hinterhäuser’s arrival. She was bruisingly overworked. But with Hinterhäuser and Crepaz, real stability arrived at last — the kind that could survive even the pandemic.

While she has left sponsorship deals in place to tide the next president over for a time, that new person will preside over the continuing effects of the coronavirus. Rabl-Stadler’s replacement will be selected by the festival’s board, which is drawn from different levels of Austrian politics.

“It’s a political decision,” Hinterhäuser said. “And I’m a little concerned which direction they will go. It will be a very decisive decision for the future of the festival.”

It is considered likely that the next president will be a woman, since Crepaz (whose contract lasts until 2027) and Hinterhäuser (until 2026) are both men. But beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.

“A president is not a sponsorship department,” Hinterhäuser said. “This person has to have real empathy for what the festival is, what we do, what we want to achieve. I really believe in a kind of cosmopolitan elegance; it’s the Salzburg Festival, but it’s open to more than 80 countries. And then you need a very remarkable political and economic network — and also the capacity not just to have this network, but to use it in an intelligent way.”

The next president will be tasked with advancing a long-simmering renovation plan that is currently budgeted at about 300 million euros (about $350 million). If the person can bring that project over the finish line, it will be a Haus für Helga-style achievement.

Next summer, the consummate Salzburger won’t be in town: Rabl-Stadler plans to rent a villa in Tuscany so as not to seem to loom over her successor. During an interview, her voice grew thick with emotion recalling what Riccardo Muti had told her a few minutes before, as he embraced her backstage.

“Helga,” he said, “the festival will not be the same without you.”

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