Salzburg, Austria – Many of opera’s most celebrated voices have soared and resonated in its highly acclaimed acoustics, yet the creation of the historic auditorium at the Salzburg Festival was a tall order 60 years ago. Only just free of the post-World War II occupying forces that left in 1955 and still in ruins, Austria set its sights firmly on culture, turning former episcopal stables into the Large Festival Hall (“Grosses Festspielhaus”) as a symbol of renewal. Since then, the stage has seen the likes of Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti but festival president Helga Rabl-Stadler said: “It’s a pure miracle however that this hall saw the light of day.” On the sidelines of rehearsals for “Don Giovanni” topping the line-up at the prestigious annual summer event this year, Rabl-Stadler said that the Austrian state had managed to stump up “an enormous sum” in 1956 to get the flagship initiative off the ground. At the time, the city’s music and theatre festival, established in 1920 as a peace project in the aftermath of World War I, was held in more modest neighbourhoods that backed onto the steep cliffs that overlook the old town.
Workers had to dynamite 50,000 cubic metres (around 1.7 million cubic feet) of rock in order to erect the new hall’s 100-metre-wide (330-foot) stage, while the auditorium holds more than 2,000 people. Five imposing bronze doors provide street-level entry into a foyer and hall adorned with wood panelling, frescoes, mosaics, sculptures and tapestries.
But it is “its truly wonderful acoustics” that give the Large Festival Hall its special aura, says Austrian maestro Franz Welser-Moest, who is conducting another of this year’s five opera productions, Richard Strauss’ “Elektra”.
“Going on stage, it feels like a place of intimidating proportions, and yet it allows for an incredible sound intimacy,” he added.