Safe night at the opera: Salzburg Festival goes ahead despite coronavirus

Arts world will watch to see if Austrian city has found magic formula for holding festival

Director Krzysztof Warlikowski with his wife, stage and costume designer Malgorzata Szczesniak, at a rehearsal of Richard Strauss’s Elektra at the Salzburg Festival. Photograph: Louisa Marie Summer/New York Times

Director Krzysztof Warlikowski with his wife, stage and costume designer Malgorzata Szczesniak, at a rehearsal of Richard Strauss’s Elektra at the Salzburg Festival. Photograph: Louisa Marie Summer/New York Times

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When the lights go down at Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule theatre on Saturday afternoon, it won’t just be the physically distanced audience that is watching closely. Many of the world’s artistic venues will be looking on, to see if Salzburg has found the magic formula for holding a festival in times of coronavirus.

European festivals this summer were scratched off the calendar during spring, as soon as the severity of the coronravirus pandemic became clear.

In Salzburg, though, the organisers of the annual music and drama festival have taken the decision to go ahead.The number of venues has been halved from 16 to eight. The festival will involve 12 performances of fully staged operas, 29 performances of plays and 53 concerts.

After an early spike in March when the country was recording more than 1,000 coronavirus cases per day, Austria is currently registering only a handful of new cases each day. Since June, restrictions on gatherings have been relaxed and now up to 1,000 people are allowed to gather, depending on the venue.

The festival will kick off with a performance of the Richard Strauss opera Elektra on Saturday.

“We know for a fact that almost all of the major opera houses are watching this to see if the Salzburg model is something they can use,” said Derek Welton, the Australian bass-baritone who will sing the part of Orest in Elektra.

Three categories

The festival has sorted all artists and staff into three categories, based on how realistic it is for them to physically distance. All singers are in the “red” category, meaning they will interact with each other as normal, but are subject to regular testing and have been told to minimise outside contacts for the duration of the festival.

The “orange” category includes some artists and the festival’s temporary staff, who may not be able to physically distance but can wear masks, while the “yellow” group will wear masks and distance at all times. People from all categories are tested for Covid-19 on arrival, but only the red group will undergo repeated, follow-up testing.

At performances, there will be no bars or buffets, and there are no intervals in any of the productions, to avoid people congregating. Audience members will be obliged to wear masks except when in their seats.

Guardian

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