On Music

Is the party over for festivals?

Why music festivals have lost their purpose

There is a sense of ending in the festival industry, with all the major players in a state of nervous transition. Bayreuth, where you once had to wait years in a ballot for a ticket, now has seats to spare. Salzburg is suffering side-shocks of the Russia-Ukraine war. Lucerne is preparing for regime change. Verbier’s future is clouded in its thirtieth year. Edinburgh is in transition. The formula for producing music at high levels through the long vacation is suddenly cracked, if not broken.

A whistle was blown by Ioan Holender, former head of Vienna State Opera, who saw Bayreuth’s box-office slump as “a warning to the entire world of opera”. Holender has scores to settle with Bayreuth chief Katharina Wagner, whose contract is under review. Ms Wagner has promised to improve her choice of conductors and directors. That might not be enough: state and federal ministers of culture descended on Bayreuth this summer muttering about a twilight of the Wagners.

Katharina Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter, aged 45, may be the last of the blood. She has staked her job on a bumper feast of 10 Wagner operas for the 150th anniversary summer of 2026. Will that be enough to save the family’s grip on the Green Hill? Doubts are growing.

Salzburg conceived its festival after the First World War as a haven where artists could play away from real-world pressures. Its founders were the composer Richard Strauss, the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the stage director Max Reinhardt and the conductor Franz Schalk. The escapist formula worked well until the Nazis took over in 1938.

After the Second World War, the Salzburg-born conductor Herbert von Karajan reconstituted the festival as a showcase for superstars and an advertising wall for his commercial partners. Elitism prevailed. Musicians waxed fat.

On Karajan’s death in 1989, the festival flirted once more with idealism. A decade under the Belgian modernist Gerard Mortier gave way to a run of short-term pragmatists with wealthy backers.

The Proms stagger down a slippery slope of populism and BBC self-promotion, unable to afford the top draws

The most recent trend has been to attract Russian oligarchs with their favourites Anna Netrebko, Valery Gergiev and Teodor Currentzis. Then Russia invaded Ukraine and oligarchs scrambled for their yachts. Now Salzburg tries to face both ways. It still hires the contentious Currentzis and charges $500 for some tickets. Director Markus Hinterhäuser seems to be waiting for inspiration.

Lucerne, founded in 1938, has a state-of-the-art concert hall and all the world’s best orchestras. It charges $350 for a Berlin Philharmonic ticket. Bankers bag the best seats. They get bang for their buck. No orchestra on earth presently sounds better than Berlin in Lucerne. After a vaguely experimental season of equality and diversity, Lucerne’s chief Michael Haefliger is leaving, to be replaced by an untested concert hall manager from Berlin.

Verbier was founded by a Swede, Martin Engstroem, with the aim of toppling Salzburg and Lucerne. Three decades on, Verbier mimics the monsters it once bucked. Its best feature is a festival orchestra made up of college-age musicians from around the world who use it as a calling card to jobs in major ensembles. Engstroem, 70, now shares the artistic leadership with his wife, who once played in the student orchestra. Verbier is threatening to become a family business, like Bayreuth.
Edinburgh, which styled itself “the Salzburg of the North”, is revitalising under the leadership of the local violinist, Nicola Benedetti. Strapped for cash by the Scottish Government, the festival is winning brownie points on education and equality, but is not selling enough tickets or making the right headlines yet. In London, the Proms stagger down a slippery slope of populism and BBC self-promotion, unable to afford the top draws.

The problem is that festivals have lost their roots. Wagner’s dream to unify all arts and Strauss’s to free music of its money masters lie crushed beneath Euro mountains. Henry Wood’s idea of the Proms as a festival of high-class orchestral music at a price anyone can afford has been blurred by glitter-nights of rock, “northern soul” and Bollywood soundtracks.

There are a few glimmers of renewal. This summer’s best results came from Aix-en-Provence in France, where director Pierre Audi drew an eight per cent audience increase with six new operas, including world premieres by George Benjamin and Philip Venables.

One-third of Aix tickets were priced under $65 and young musicians surged to its vibrant academy. Aix does not strut its stuff; it just gets on with making art for those who need it most.

Still further from the hubbub, half-a-dozen English estates serve world-class opera with picnics among the cowpats. Glyndebourne had the summer’s hottest ticket with Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmelites. Longborough, to the west, puts on Wagner Rings in a converted barn.

Garsington and Grange Park, an hour’s drive from London, are nurturing the next generation of British singers, a duty long neglected by Covent Garden and ENO. The Arts Council, which was founded to water grass roots, has turned the sprinklers off on the opera lawn.

Summer festivals now face a balancing act between creative imagination and fiscal conservatism in the wake of a Covid wipeout that dispelled the older audience. If festivals are to survive, they will need to invent a twenty-first century purpose. Bayreuth, Salzburg, Edinburgh and Lucerne are stuck in old ruts with few fresh ideas.

Boldness is called for. Timidity is the rule. Next summer, Glyndebourne has dismayed its keenest supporters with a regressive bill topped by Carmen and The Merry Widow. This is not where the future of festivals will be conceived.

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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