New to Salzburg
MATTHEW GUREWITSCH interviews Alexander Pereira, who promises all new productions every season at the Salzburg Festival.
© Andreas Kolarik 2012
Alexander Pereira, artistic director of the Salzburg Festival as of last October, makes no secret of his surprise at his appointment. "We were in discussion two or three times," Pereira said in late January from the office in Zurich he was about to vacate after directing the Opera House there for two decades. "But I felt a strange inhibition. I wasn't ready. I wanted things I knew wouldn't be possible, and I had made too many comments about the festival that people didn't like, so they wouldn't choose me."
As Pereira tells the story, when the stage director and former star mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender approached him on behalf of the search committee in early 2009, his fantasy of heading Salzburg had ceased to exist. "I told her, 'Frau Fassbaender, it makes no sense,'" he recalls. "'You won't take me anyhow.' And she said, 'Come.' So I thought, okay. Maybe we can at least have a good discussion. I'm Austrian. I love the festival. So I thought I would try to give my best suggestion of what they should do and who they should take." He was interviewed at surprising length in late February and heard no more until May 17, when he found out that his name was one of three on the short list. "And on thenineteenth, I was intendant. I couldn't believe it. The old inhibitions had simply dropped away. I wasn't in my own way anymore."
Tall and big-boned, dressed for the day in trademark gray flannel slacks and blue blazer, with soft silver hair that refuses to stay quite in place, Pereira, sixty-four, could pass for a prosperous admiral in retirement or a private banker at the top of his game. For the past half-dozen years, he has been amusing himself and audiences — in Zurich, London and Vienna — with his spoken-word cameo as the Major-domo in the backstage prologue of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. Only a fool might mistake this caricature of complacent authoritarian caprice for an inadvertent self-portrait.
Judging by his first year's programming at Salzburg, Pereira has wasted no time on little plans. A €50-million budget has been bumped to €57 million, the number of festival tickets from 220,000 to 255,000. In its special way, the long Whitsun weekend this month is a harbinger of things to come. A Salzburg Festival attraction (as the independent Salzburg Easter Festival is not), Whitsun has long had a profile all its own. For the past five years, it served as a canvas for Riccardo Muti's exploration of the neglected operas and oratorios by composers associated with his native Naples. To succeed Muti as Whitsun's artistic mastermind, Pereira has corralled Cecilia Bartoli, who has orchestrated an all-star celebration of Cleopatra. She personally plays the queen whose infinite variety time cannot wither nor custom stale in a new production of Handel's Giulio Cesare by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier.
With extensions on both ends, this year's summertime bonanza of music and theater — what the world thinks of as the Salzburg Festival — runs from July 20 to September 2. A new series of sacred music in sacred settings aims to revitalize a lost tradition and also to build bridges to non-Christian faiths. Challenging composers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries remain a priority, while recent seasons' insistent accent on young orchestras, young conductors, young singers, young directors is being quietly soft-pedaled. Attention is being lavished on quality programming for children. And for the grand finale Salzburg has long lacked, Pereira has ordered up a ball on the grand scale, with music for the 99 percent piped to the Kapitelplatz, a crown jewel among baroque Salzburg's postcard-perfect town squares.
In opera, Pereira's revolutionary motto is "Premieres only." "People need to know that if they don't come, they'll miss out. And the quality will be higher. If you rehearse a show in peace and quiet for six or seven weeks, it will probably be better than a revival you throw together in two days." A proper run of the Bartoli Giulio Cesare after two Whitsun previews hardly violates the rule. (A Carmen held over from the Easter Festival, starring Magdalena Kozˇená and Jonas Kaufmann, with Simon Rattle in the pit, does violate it, but the contract in this case predates Pereira's start date.)
The lineup of exclusives Pereira has pulled together for 2012 should make quite a splash. Absent since the Mozart year of 2006, Nikolaus Harnoncourt has been wooed back for Die Zauberflöte, the first operatic masterpiece of Mozart's maturity he will ever have conducted on period instruments. With Das Labyrinth, Pereira exhumes a sequel to Die Zauberflöte dreamt up by Emanuel Schikaneder, impresario, librettist and original Papageno. Ingo Metzmacher, a maestro undaunted by scores on the Napoleonic scale, undertakes Bernd Alois Zimmermann's tremendous Die Soldaten. Anna Netrebko leads the cast of La Bohème, breaking Salzburg's de facto ban on Puccini. "The only previous Puccini in Salzburg was the 2002 Turandot, with the Berio ending, and a Tosca in 1989," Pereira says. "Everyone knows what Gerard Mortier thinks of Puccini. I hate that kind of prejudice."
Richard Strauss, a cofounder of the festival who has often been snubbed by recent administrations, is represented by Ariadne auf Naxos, freshly adapted and directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf, Pereira's handpicked head of drama. As advertised, the new scenario grafts the uncut, rarely heard original score (including the exquisite suite of dances) onto a new spoken prologue spun from the erotically charged correspondence between Strauss's librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal and an aristocratic young widow who came into his life at the time Ariadne was aborning.
Ariadne is one of four operas to be played by the Vienna Philharmonic, which until recently seldom did more than two per festival. "Negotiations with the orchestra had been very difficult," Pereira says. "But when I showed them my plans and they were artistically convinced, everything changed immediately. From then on our talks were a pleasure." The other big news in Salzburg's operatic sector is commissions. As of 2013, Pereira is planning annual premieres, by Marc-André Dalbavie, György Kurtág, Thomas Adès and Jörg Widmann.
Teasing out the pattern in Pereira's carpet is not easy. Apart from top posts at the Vienna Konzerthaus (from 1984) and at the Opera House in Zurich (from 1991), his official biography cites early jobs in tourism management and with the Italian typewriter manufacturer Olivetti, as well as private study of voice. No mention, though, of his great-great-great-grandmother Fanny von Arnstein, Berlin-born leader of Viennese society, under whose roof Mozart wrote The Abduction from the Seraglio, or of his penchant for race horses. (He owns a number of them.)
And to think that as an adolescent, his ambition was to be a singer. "But my mother said no," Pereira says. "She said I had to work first. 'I won't pay for your life if you study singing and have no income.'" So at seventeen, he put that dream aside. At twenty-two, however, making "half-decent" money on his own, he found in Berlin the blind Margarethe von Winterfeldt, who had taught the legendary tenor Fritz Wunderlich. A year later, Pereira transferred to Frankfurt, where he took up with Rolff Sartorius, teacher of the prominent baritone Wolfgang Brendel. "Sartorius is the teacher I followed from then on," Pereira says. "He took on this strange guy I was and tried to make a human being out of me, to put values into me, to make something out of me that would hold together for many years. And I'm still here."
What underlying principle, if any, has shaped Pereira's career? "In every job, I learned things I use today," he answers. "To walk down a road with a calculator and a typewriter was very important. You knock on 100 doors, and at ninety-five they throw you out. After the first fifteen rejections, you go to an inn and cry, 'Nobody loves me.' But then you tell yourself, 'These people write one letter a year, and they already have a typewriter.' You have to learn not to take it personally when someone says no to you. You have to pick yourself up and keep going."
In Zurich, Pereira's chief claim to fame was his cavalcade of new opera productions, as many as sixteen per season, at a time when few leading houses anywhere could afford as many as a half dozen. As he explained to me in an interview years ago, while it was hard if not impossible to raise money for repertory performances, there were always sponsors willing to fund a new production.
"That's only one argument," Pereira insists when I remind him. "A repertoire house needs to play thirty, or better forty, pieces a year, on 300 evenings. With five or six premieres a year, as in Munich or Vienna, with six or seven performances of each show, that means you have thirty to thirty-five evenings a year of things that are new — and 260 to 270 evenings from the repertoire. With a rotating repertoire of 100 pieces, your productions are on average twenty years old. You're laughing, but what sign does that give the public, and especially the younger generation, when everything they see is twenty years old? If you think through the finances, it's easier to convince people to support things that are artistically true than to support things for which there's no argument."
To his analysis of the radically dissimilar business model that prevails in Salzburg, Pereira brings the same green eyeshade and the same unshakable artistic convictions. By law, he explains, the festival staff is entitled to yearly raises. For the last decade, Austria funded those raises only twice; therefore, they had to be siphoned from the artistic budget. "So they kept the same Don Giovanni or Così Fan Tutte for five years," he says. "You might get Harnoncourt the first year, but not the second. You get a lower-class conductor, and then you change again. You change the cast, even the orchestra. So what has this to do with creating a festival production with a specific conductor and director?"
To realize his vision of Salzburg as it ought to be, Pereira has raised €3 million of new money from sponsors including the American Friends of the Salzburg Festival, Rolex and others. "The state didn't have to add a single Euro," he said, "which I don't agree with, of course. Now I will fight for the annual salary increases of €500,000, at least. It's different if I go to the politicians with four or five million Euros in my pocket, rather than with nothing."
MATTHEW GUREWITSCH, a longtime contributor to OPERA NEWS, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other publications, spent the past quarter century in New York covering the American and European cultural scene. He moved to Maui last year.