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Salzburg's New Sounds of Success

Music: A revolutionary spirit at the world's most venerable festival hasn't hurt its quality--or its bottom line.


SALZBURG, Austria — Think Salzburg, think music.

Mozart was born here and he gives Salzburg its image. A picturesque Baroque town at the foot of the Austrian Alps, it is also home to the largest, oldest, most important and most elite music festival in the world. And let's not forget--Salzburg certainly hasn't--"The Sound of Music."

Indeed, it's hard not to think music upon arrival but harder to think Mozart. The Austrian airplane that brought me here was named Leonard Bernstein. The taxi driver at the airport had a striking resemblance to James Levine. And the music on the plane and the cab radio? Standard American rock 'n' roll.

However much Salzburg would like to remain a bastion of Old World culture--and there is a very conservative high society that is trying hard to make that happen--the brash New World has invaded, and modernity has pervaded every aspect of this once-quaint area.

Tourists overrun the city, as if it were Mozart World. Mozart is now as much industry as music. A large Mozart store, akin to the Disney and Warner Bros. stores, sells Mozart T-shirts, mugs, candies, beer and even an expensive child's playhouse that replicates, to scale, the house in which the composer was born.

On another level, the avant-garde has taken over the most exalted Mozartean ground of all--the Salzburg Festival, which this year began July 19 and ends Aug. 31. For instance, a new production of "The Magic Flute," the most hallowed of all Mozart operas here, was made by German painter and director Achim Freyer. Perhaps best known for the extraordinarily vivid, if a little kooky, productions of Philip Glass operas that he produced in Stuttgart in the '80s, Freyer has transformed Mozart's opera into a transcendental circus act with all the characters as clowns.

It is an amazing show. Certainly amazing to look at--a circus ring as postmodern mandala (a work of art in its own right), bizarre costumes, captivating stage tricks. These clowns are gifted singing actors who convey a profound level of emotion, and there is nothing quite to compare with the spiritual awakening of a clown.

"It's all very clever," a man in formal Tyrolian dress said to me at intermission. "But that's not Mozart." (In fact, a tour earlier in the day of an exhibition on Salzburg "Magic Flute" productions through the years revealed that each now appears very much of its time--the '30s productions look just like '30s Hollywood films; the '50s productions look ever so '50s.)

Of course, he said, he expected as much. This sort of thing has become typical in Salzburg ever since Gerard Mortier became the festival director in 1992. Over the past five years, Mortier, a 53-year-old Belgian, has radicalized this once-reactionary festival, which was founded in 1920, and then later dominated by the autocratic German conductor Herbert von Karajan for almost 30 years until his death in 1989.

And Mortier has enlisted a number of Americans, including some prominent Angelenos, to do so--Peter Sellars and Esa-Pekka Salonen among them.

There is a picture in the German newsweekly Der Spiegel that says it all. Robert Wilson, whose production of Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" is one of this year's attractions, stands tall in black tie escorting Susan Sontag. The Los Angeles art patron Betty Freeman is on his other side. The caption sniffs: "Art for the Armani Society."

Actually, Armani is pretty uncommon here. But if that caption implies that the festival has taken on a new level of visual sophistication, it is accurate. There is probably more of a painter's sensibility in the sets of the festival than in all of Documenta X, the big art show in Kassel, Germany. One currently running production, of "Lucio Silla," an obscure opera seria written by teenage Mozart, has breathtakingly bold sets and costumes by Robert Longo, the American painter (and director of the film "Johnny Mnemonic"), and the opera looks as if Longo's Pop Art paintings of men and women caught in anguished snapshots of conflict had been set in motion.

Tradition still dominates the festival's big-name orchestra concerts and recitals, but even they are offset by the innovation of separate new music concerts. One series, funded by Freeman (who has become an important Salzburg angel), investigates emerging composers. Another focuses on the more established avant-garde, including performance artist Laurie Anderson and jazz saxophonist and composer John Zorn, and feminist composer and accordionist Pauline Oliveros.

But opera has always been Salzburg's glory, and it is in opera that the real revolution is taking place. Of the central festival operatic repertory of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Strauss, only Mozart remains. Other operas this season, besides the "Pelleas," include Mussorgsky's "Boris Gudonov" and Berg's "Wozzeck."

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