Salzburg Survivor Rabl-Stadler Outserves Six Directors

Helga Rabl-Stadler, the president of the Salzburg Festival, has survived five artistic directors in 19 years on the job.

She’s resigned herself to working with two more.

“Then I am finally off,” she said in an interview in her Salzburg office. “My contract ends in 2014 and I wanted to leave in 2014, but I think it would be irresponsible to go when the artistic director is also leaving.”

Alexander Pereira, who squabbled with the supervisory board over the budget, will leave in 2014, two years before his contract ends, for La Scala in Milan. Rabl-Stadler and Sven-Eric Bechtolf, Salzburg’s director of theater, will lead the festival in the interim until a new artistic director starts in 2017.

At the supervisory board’s request, Rabl-Stadler has reapplied for her post and agreed to stay through 2017. Describing herself as “an island in the storm,” she said she is expending much energy reassuring sponsors, the public and artists that the Salzburg Festival will overcome its current difficulties. Adding to the uncertainty, the Vienna Philharmonic has publicly questioned renewing its contract in 2016.

In an interview with the Salzburger Nachrichten on Aug. 15, Dieter Flury, one of the orchestra’s leaders, said other musical centers are making tempting offers for the summer and that nowhere is it set in stone that the orchestra has to renew its contract with the Salzburg Festival after 2016.


Rabl-Stadler said parting ways would be a “lose-lose situation” for the Vienna Philharmonic and the festival.

“The orchestra would lose an international platform that doesn’t exist elsewhere, and we would lose our artistic heart,” she said. “Without the Vienna Philharmonic, there would be a festival in Salzburg but it wouldn’t be the Salzburg Festival. I don’t want to speculate about it.”

The supervisory board of the Salzburg Festival meets on Sept. 25 to discuss applications for Pereira’s post. Rabl-Stadler, in a neat black trouser suit, big loopy black-and-brown earrings and multi-colored strappy sandals, paused for thought when asked whether it’s time for a female artistic director.

“It’s interesting,” she said. “There seem to be very few eligible candidates for the post at all. It’s always the same old names that come up time and again. I am surprised and I think there should at least be one new name in discussion.”

Among the names that re-emerge are Gerard Mortier, now of the Teatro Real in Madrid; Nikolaus Bachler at the Bavarian State Opera; Bernd Loebe at the Frankfurt Opera; and Michael Haefliger of the Lucerne Festival, Rabl-Stadler said.

“It is a difficult job that is often underestimated,” she said. “People think it is a job where you have to be here for six weeks a year in the summer, and the rest of the year you just organize. In fact it’s a crazy amount of work.”

Smaller Budget

Rabl-Stadler said she and Bechtolf will try to stick with many of Pereira’s plans.

“It should not be a disruption,” she said. “In 2015 and 2016 Pereira wanted to feature in concerts all the music that the Vienna Philharmonic has premiered -- that is a super idea. We will try to implement this as far as possible.”

The budget next year will be smaller than this year’s 64 million euros ($85.6 million), Rabl-Stadler said. The festival may run a deficit this year, she said. Yet for the first time, income from ticket sales and private sources outstripped subsidies in 2013 because of increased sponsorship, she said.

Festival subsidies have remained unchanged since 1998 while costs have escalated, Rabl-Stadler said.

“It cannot go on like this,” she said. “We need more money from public funds. We are the artistic and economic motor of a region. It will be difficult, and it won’t be as much as we want, but I am optimistic there will be something.”

Joan of Arc

Rabl-Stadler, 65, has run her family’s department store, worked as a columnist for the Vienna daily Kurier, served as a member of parliament and presided over the Salzburg Chamber of Commerce, her biography shows. At a recent award ceremony, she was described as being as fearless and strong as Joan of Arc. Is that what it takes to survive in her current job?

“What is very un-Austrian about me is that I see no danger in change, but the chance to make improvements,” she said. “The Austrian prefers to keep hold of what he has, because if anything changes, it could get worse. I always see a chance in a new artistic director.”

Will she go back into politics once her term at the festival is over?

“No way,” she said, with feeling. “This position is political enough for me. There is only one party for me and that is the Festival Party.”

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(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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