When Richard Strauss, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Max Reinhardt founded the Salzburg Festival in 1917, they envisioned both a monument to the genius of Mozart, the city’s favorite son, and a stage for the innovative efforts of contemporary artists in music and theater. These seemingly disparate goals can be easily understood in light of the success with which these artists reconciled traditional art forms with modern ideas and idioms. They viewed their work as contributions to a continuous, living cultural tradition. Luckily for them the public received their work in the same spirit in which it was conceived, and found it good.

But few twentieth-century artists, even in the early 1920s, enjoyed so fortunate a relationship to the audience as did Salzburg’s founding fathers. Though many artists whom we identify as aesthetic modernists often professed their debt to the past, the most salient characteristic of their work was its break with tradition—a break often so radical that it meant a breakdown in communication between artist and audience.

The effect of this breakdown on Salzburg was massive. Because modern artistic production failed to excite audience interest, the original Salzburg idea was never realized. Faced with the task of balancing its accounts, and able to depend on little more than moral support from an impoverished interwar Austrian government, the Festival became a place to perform accepted masterpieces in an accepted way.

Of course, more than financial considerations determined the Festival’s unadventurous programming in the interwar years. Infused at its inception with the eighteenth-century spirit of moderation, the Festival was hardly an appropriate host to radical experiment. Moreover, as time went on the political situation conspired ever more against new aesthetic currents. And finally, Salzburg very early on courted the favor of a paying public which, overwhelmingly middlebrow, had a profound impact upon the character of the enterprise.

Postwar Salzburg has long been in a financial position to rectify its earlier neglect of twentieth-century artistic trends—in particular in the area of music, where this neglect was most glaring. Owing to the state’s commitment, in 1950, to underwrite the Festival’s deficits, it has come under the sponsorship of governments obsessed with maintaining Austria’s cultural prestige.

But not until recent years has the Salzburg Festival attempted to give a hearing to contemporary musical works. Efforts are now being made to recognize the orchestral and operatic works of the contemporary international avant-garde as well as to do justice to such previously ignored Austrian twentieth-century figures—by no means all of them avant-garde—as Schreker, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Zemlinsky, Wellesz, and Krenek.

The addition of contemporary repertory—especially brand-new works—to the Festival’s program is a boon to the composers who are lucky enough to have their works performed. The advantages of an opera premiere in Salzburg, for example, are many. Among them are the enormous prestige of the Festival, the best-attended in the world; its hefty bankroll, which allows the most generous of production budgets; and the collaboration of one of the world’s most famous orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic.

But such blessings do not come unmixed. In fact, one could well pose the question of whether the Salzburg ambiance is appropriate for the launching of new works. Since the Festival offerings still emphasize Mozart, Strauss, and other standards of the repertory performed by big-name ensembles and superstars, contemporary events constitute only a very small portion of the offerings. Thus, new works are often eclipsed by more popular spectacles. Further, Salzburg has proved unable to appeal to a faithful contemporary music audience, however modest in size, which could lend enthusiastic support and draw attention to works easily overshadowed.

Indeed, the remarkable social and intellectual homogeneity of the Festival audience may be the most serious problem for contemporary performance at Salzburg. A peculiarly clubby atmosphere reigns every evening in the concert hall—and not only because tickets must be procured well in advance of performances. The Salzburg Festival, after all, is the gathering place of wealthy and titled Europeans who have a taste for glittery high culture. Predominantly German-speaking, this is a public which is loyal, discriminating, and sometimes contentious. It proudly displays its predilection for Strauss. It extravagantly admires the conductor Herbert von Karajan, Lord of the Festival, and pays homage to him in the forms of both enthusiastic applause and the world’s priciest opera tickets. It is dressed, from the orchestra to the galleries, in black-tie and evening gown—at least when not in Austrian national costume.

All this hardly seemed the perfect place for the premiere, last summer, of a new opera uncompromisingly modernistic in spirit: Luciano Berio’s Un Re in ascolto (A King Listens). The audience—there was apparently a last-minute rush to dispose of tickets-attended it with a great deal more apprehension than excitement, and received it with that rising icy-warmth which tends to greet a work the public suspects might be worthy but does not like.

Referring to this reception, a German critic spoke of Berio as having “won over” a skeptical audience.

Referring to this reception, a German critic spoke of Berio as having “won over” a skeptical audience. This judgment strikes me as unrealistic, despite the evening’s merits. No experienced operagoer could fail to respond to the excellence of this production. The breathtakingly clever sets of Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, the fluid staging of Gotz Friedrich, the assurance and virtuosity of the Vienna Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel’s baton, the dramatic conviction of the cast (in particular of Theo Adam in the title role)—all were obvious indications that those who took part in the premiere had absolute faith in Berio’s work. Nevertheless, the audience arrived looking bored, imbibed intermission refreshments looking bored, and left for after-theater supper looking just as bored.

True, Berio and the poet Italo Calvino had made things difficult for the audience. Rejecting the traditional notion of opera as a drama with a comprehensible story line, they constructed a text upon fragments of poetry and dialogue inspired by theater of the absurd. This libretto, the literary sources of which include an essay by Roland Barthes on the difference between hearing and listening, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and two works based on The Tempest (W. H. Auden’s “The Sea and the Mirror” and an eighteenth-century libretto by Friedrich Gotter), does not tell a story. Rather, it constitutes one of several theatrical elements the interaction of which takes the place of drama. Berio, in fact, refuses to label his work an “opera”; instead he refers to it in the program notes by the oblique description “musical action.”

Here is just what the action consists of. A composer and producer, named for Shakespeare’s Prospero, takes ill during a rehearsal of his musical adaptation of The Tempest. Things are not going well for the production. A soprano qualified to sing the leading aria is sought in vain. The director is incapable of realizing Prospero’s ideas. Worse, Prospero himself is having trouble articulating his ideas. The feverish activity taking place around him touches him only vaguely, permeating his consciousness in the manner of a waking dream. He cannot concentrate on the rehearsal; instead, he is preoccupied with the search for a fleeting voice that he has heard in his sleep, a voice coming from a realm “on the other side of the tones” where he reigns as king over “a sea, . . . a flow” of music. This voice, it turns out, is the harbinger of his demise. Watching helplessly as Prospero is stricken with a heart attack, those around him—his colleagues, his lawyer, his doctor, even his wife—abandon him to his death. “Addio,” they sing, “mirror of tones, echo of deeds, fountain of time."

This is hardly an optimistic end to a work so obviously inspired by a Shakespearean comedy. For this reason alone Berio’s Prospero begs for comparison with Shakespeare’s. We know Shakespeare’s Prospero as the consummate artist, an expert magician and clever manipulator, not only of everything and everybody that touches upon his island, but of the stage itself. Prospero’s power to entrap others in his illusions, to blur their ability to distinguish reality from theater, extends even to the audience. At the beginning of The Tempest, Prospero deceives the audience into thinking that the storm on the stage is, within the context of the play, a natural one. And at the end he engages its suspension of disbelief beyond the limits of theater by refusing to indulge the Elizabethan convention of unmasking his character.

As adept as his sixteenth-century counterpart is at the art of creating and sustaining illusion, Berio’s Prospero is clumsy. His efforts to produce a lifelike illusion out of the raw materials of his craft are failures. He barely manages to populate his stage with circus figures—acrobats, clowns, a juggler, a fire-eater, dancers, a tightrope walker. His actor declaims a text depicting the grotesque antics of cardboard characters—an old fool, an heroic lover. His fate is the fate of creative impotence; he dies, alone, on his own stage before his performance ever reaches the public.

Underlining the pathos of this twentieth-century Prospero’s tragic end is the degeneration of his vital and malleable artistic vision into mere artificiality. The nearer his work comes to completion, the less lifelike spontaneity it has.

Prospero often speaks in despair of voices or tones that only he can hear, that are imprisoned in his imagination, and that he has no hope of reproducing for a public. The music that he does produce, when played back to him in his theater, returns to him as a mere echo, hardly related to his own voice. This echo seems to be the echo of an aesthetic tradition—a structured formalism that enslaves Prospero and prompts him repeatedly to reassure his audience, through the voice of his actor, that “in this magic night we shall shortly come to a plot.”

Berio’s concern with the relationship between spontaneity and formalism in art is, of course, not restricted to the confines of the dramatic situation. In the program notes the composer claims of his musical action that it “ends just before it becomes an opera,” by which he probably means that Un Re in ascolto is essentially about its own evolution—from a concept to a finished artistic product.

But if Prospero wishes to be free—yet fails to achieve his desire—then Berio might have better served his libretto by shying away from formalism. Instead, the musical organization of Un Re in ascolto reveals how little Berio as a composer identifies with his main character’s intent. In setting the libretto to music Berio chose a tightly controlled and unified structure. The structure is evident in the formal division of the work into musical sections—short movements which he entitles aria, concertato, duet, and audizione—and in a clarity and consistency of character and mood delineation that is seldom encountered in contemporary opera.

Berio achieves this striking differentiation by deriving his musical material from a variety of stylistic sources, from classicism to late romanticism, and finally, minimalism. Each element of this quasi-neoclassical patchwork of styles is marked by its own particular motivic characteristics and woven into a transparent orchestral texture easily assimilated by the ear.

From minimalism, for example, come Prospero’s arias, which have a static, chantlike quality. The predominance of the unresolved, dissonant tritone interval—drawn from late romantic and early modern music —in their sinuous melodies effectively suggests the hero’s suffering, while the constant repetition of the note around which the melodies center provides an orientation point for the traditionally minded listener. Berio skillfully carries this florid melodic technique over into the arias sung by the “auditioning” sopranos, thus establishing an intimate connection between these haunting songs and Prospero’s inner voice.

The composer’s use of harmonic motives in sharply marked rhythms and in slow-moving chord progressions provides important unifying material for his work. These harmonic elements are the stationary foundation from which more flexible and fanciful musical elements (cadenza-like orchestral interludes, contrapuntal ornamentation, a suddenly intruding waltz theme) take flight. They are “atonal” in the sense that they are chords built upon dissonant intervalic relationships rather than on the consonant triads of classical harmony; yet through repetition they become easily recognizable.

But it is by repeating whole sections that Berio gives the work its clearest and most immediate unity and comprehensibility. Most effective, for example, is the repetition of the solemn choral theme from the first act at the end of the second. In the first act this neoclassical march gives warning of a coming storm. In the second, it is a farewell to the dying Prospero.

As is the case with most highly touted opera productions these days, Un Re in ascolto has visually more to offer in its Salzburg production than do most established works of the genre. Schneider-Siemssen and Friedrich have created out of Prospero’s theater a shimmering fantasy world reminiscent of the films of Fellini. Extravagant in its artificiality, it is meticulously choreographed, featuring acrobatics performed on a rising stage.

High praise has been accorded to the unusual and imaginative staging and much critical attention paid to the dramatic elements of the work, but the music—traditionally the meat of opera—has occasioned little comment. Here the music lover—or the opera lover—is, as always, in something of a dilemma. It would be idle to say that Berio isn’t a Puccini, or a Richard Strauss, or even a Benjamin Britten. Whether or not it is in his talent to be like these accepted masters, it is certainly not his desire to follow in their footsteps. Instead he has chosen to write a new-sounding music, tempered only by an evident intention to provide something recognizable for a traditionally eared audience to hold onto. It is arguable that his intentions, and in this case their realization, have won him the right to be heard in something more than the pious silence with which Un Re in ascolto was received. A better outcome would certainly have been fair to Berio; it might have been in the best interests of a sophisticated audience perhaps now beginning to tire of familiar pleasures. Perhaps it could all be put another way: Is the Salzburg Festival, and its audience, really immutable?

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 6, on page 47
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