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As Salzburg Fest Comes to Close, Its Chief Opens Up

Music: The festival's outspoken artistic director, Gerard Mortier, has held his tongue about Austria's government this summer. But now he's expressing himself more fully.


SALZBURG, Austria — For the last week of July and all of August, Mozart's picturesque birthplace at the foot of the Alps becomes a melting pot of socialites, musical pilgrims and tourists. The glittery and special 81-year-old Salzburg Festival calls itself the greatest music event in the world. And the world tends to agree.

But ever since the right-wing Freedom Party was invited to join the Austrian coalition government last winter, the festival has feared trouble. Close to a quarter of its budget comes from the state, and members of the federal government have a significant presence on the board. Would foreign artists and audiences cancel? Would politicians meddle in the programming? Would the government reduce funding? In the days after the announcement of the new coalition in Vienna, Gerard Mortier, the festival's feisty artistic director, tendered his resignation effective at the end of this year's event.

But Mortier changed his mind and decided to fulfill his contract, which runs through one more year. Only two artists--composer George Benjamin and actor Patrice Chereau--canceled in protest of the Freedom Party's ascension. Attendance didn't seem to be affected--it was good enough to wipe out a $2-million deficit. And, in the end, the festival successfully mounted eight lavish opera productions, including such massive works as Berlioz's "The Trojans" in a spectacular new production and Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," as well as the world premiere of Kaija Saariaho's "L'Amour de Loin" (Love From Afar), commissioned by the festival.

It presented concert performances of four more operas, with such visiting artists as members of the Kirov Opera and Orchestra, from St. Petersburg. The Vienna Philharmonic played its six programs (and in the pit for some of the operas); the Berlin Philharmonic, its two. The London Symphony came with Pierre Boulez. The Orchestre de Paris helped out in a festival overview of Berlioz's work.

Modernist German composer Wolfgang Rihm was on hand for a large-scale survey of his work. There was a concert series devoted to Haydn and Brahms under the direction of Roger Norrington, another revolving around Brahms' chamber music. Young composers were investigated. Many of classical music's biggest names appeared as promised, among them Jessye Norman, Alfred Brendel, Karita Matilla (who gave a vocal recital in such a hot room that she had to remove her jacket and her shoes), Evgeny Kissin, Maxim Vengerov, Maurizio Pollini, Placido Domingo, Dawn Upshaw, Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Muti, Zubin Mehta, Thomas Hampson, Kent Nagano, Susan Graham and Valery Gergiev.

And there was, until a week ago, barely a peep from the often-confrontational Mortier. He uncharacteristically avoided giving interviews or making any statements until all his new productions and major premieres were well underway. Then on Saturday, he mounted an unscheduled, free four-hour "Protest Concert" in one of the festival's halls. But even this was an upbeat affair that focused on the positive aspects of art rather than on criticizing the government.

Further breaking his silence Thursday morning, the last day of the festival, Mortier explained the ups and downs he had felt during the festival.

"It is true that when the right-wing party, which I would call the Fascist party, came to power, I had asked to be released from my contract," he said. "But after I had several long discussions with colleagues, I was convinced that to stay would be the best thing; because, otherwise, it would be taken over by other people. But I didn't change my opinion about the government."

That certainly is true in his description of his shock when he learned, after the fact, that the president of the festival, Helga Rabl-Stadler, allowed an American donor to give a private party--with prominent guests from the Freedom Party--on the stage of one of the festival venues, part of the historic residential palace for the archbishop of Salzburg.

"The American," Mortier says, still fuming, "made a big speech about how happy he was about the new government."

Mortier dismisses the $50,000 he says the American contributed to the festival as only a drop in its $50-million budget. "We don't need his money if he thinks that he can buy the festival with his peanuts."

But then, Mortier confesses that he has an outright visceral reaction whenever he encounters Freedom Party officials, who often visit Rabl-Stadler. "When I go out of my office and I see members of the right-wing party in the office next-door, I feel it in my stomach, like a pain," he says. And he delights in recounting how he rebuffed Jorg Haider, the former head of the Freedom Party, this summer. Haider remains the party's guiding spirit; it was his positive comments about some aspects of Nazism that catalyzed widespread negative reaction to the party's inclusion in the Austrian government.

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