SALZBURG, Austria – Masks, tests, and social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic have left their mark on the 100th anniversary of the Salzburg Festival, making the event possible despite the global circumstances.
After capacity restrictions were lowered in May, the Salzburg Festival decided to celebrate its centenary between Aug. 1-30, with fewer shows and a lot of security measures.
The safety plan includes the compulsory wearing of masks and no intermissions, to reduce movement in theatres and celebrations after premieres.
“I think most of the audience doesn’t like to put on the masks, but when they see us here, they take it off immediately and smile at us,” one of the guards at the Großes Festspielhaus, the festival’s main stage, tells EFE.
Capacity has been cut by half and the crowd is distributed like a chessboard so that even couples can keep their distance.
“I have never felt so alone during a concert, there were many empty seats,” says Antonia Haslinger, an Austrian visitor, after watching a piano recital.
These strict measures are in place to give visitors high-quality art but with health and safety as a focal point.
To avoid any COVID-19 spread between workers and artists, a color system has been created using red, orange and yellow.
Red is for those who cannot wear a mask or keep their distance, like singers or musicians, who must pass coronavirus tests regularly, of which 2,200 have been carried out.
The red group also has to keep a diary on their health and who they have had contact with.
“It is a very strange feeling to have to do a test after each performance. I also can’t go out with my colleagues to celebrate our work. But, of course, I am grateful that I was able to debut at the festival despite the pandemic,” explains Deniz Uzun, a mezzo-soprano who performs in Strauss’s opera Elektra.
The orange group includes those who can keep their distance and are in contact with the red group but can wear a protective mask.
Yellow is for people who can keep their distance and wear a mask at all times.
So far, the system has been effective, with just one confirmed coronavirus case where a worker tested positive in June.
This year the atmosphere in Salzburg, where the festival attracts tens of thousands of cultural visitors, balances somewhere between relief that event was able to go ahead and tension around COVID-19 and its severe blow to tourism.
“The pandemic has affected us drastically. The hotel is at half capacity when in previous years we had to close our registration page,” Andreas Gfrerer, owner of the Blaue Gans hotel, tells EFE.
According to the Salzburg Tourism Office, hotel occupancy in July was at 40 percent, compared to the usually busy summer, and is expected to rise to 50 percent in August thanks to the festival.
The cultural event has kicked off just as Austria, a country where the impact of the pandemic has been moderate, is registering an increase in cases and several outbreaks, one of them in the popular tourist town of Sankt Wolfgang, about 50 kilometers from Salzburg.
Gfrerer explains that many visitors who come every year from the United States have asked for help to travel to Salzburg, however, no exceptions can be made to the travel restrictions imposed by authorities.
“Music must go on, even if it is with masks and a small audience. Because we do not know how long COVID-19 will define our way of life,” says Gfrerer, a music and festival fan.
From a spectator point of view, he describes the festival as “very different,” but assures that he feels safe.
“The organizers of the festival have done a great job,” he says.