When COVID-19 cases began to ramp up around the world in early March, cultural organizations began to cancel their summer plans.

But the organizers of the Salzburg Festival, one of the world’s most prestigious summer platforms for classical music, opera, and theater, bided their time. “We decided to wait, and developed a series of scenarios for how to [still] make it,” says Lukas Crepaz, the festival’s executive director. “We were thinking, maybe even a single event to celebrate our 100-year anniversary—we didn’t dare hope that we could present four weeks of programming.”

Other festivals continued to abandon their programs. The Verbier Festival in Switzerland was canceled, as was the prestigious Ojai Festival in California. Salzburg canceled its Whitsun festival in mid-April, even as it kept its summer plans open-ended.

The Austrian government continued to ease restrictions. It declared in June that 100 people were allowed to gather, then 250 in July, and up to 500, even 1,000, in August, depending on the venue. Salzburg’s directors announced they would put on an abbreviated program, with 90 performances over 30 days. Austria, which briefly had a spike of 1,000 cases a day in March, has now crushed its infection rate: Just 12 people in the entire country tested positive for the virus on Tuesday, according to a report by the World Health Organization.

Now, as the festival begins rehearsals, its preparations could serve as a template for other performing arts organizations around the world, from Broadway to ballet to philharmonics. 

“We did develop very comprehensive prevention concepts, because we want to set a standard that could be adopted by other festivals and concerts after,” Crepaz says. “We are in contact with many Austrian and European institutions, who are obviously looking at how we’re dealing with this situation.”

The Audience

The easiest part, at least from a logistical standpoint, was determining regulations for the audience.

Attendees are required to wear face masks until they’re seated, with the number of attendees slashed by about 50 per cent. Seating is arranged in a chessboard pattern, meaning that even couples won’t be able to sit next to one another. Tickets are non-transferable and names will be checked before entry; should an infection occur, authorities can conduct speedy contact tracing. Intermissions and concessions have been removed.

Those restrictions, organizers say, didn’t dictate the program. Mozart’s more than three hours-long Così fan tutte, which will be conducted by Joana Mallwitz starting Aug. 2, certainly wasn’t chosen for its brevity. The program was based on “a dramaturgical vision and on the compliance with federal regulation and security concepts,” a spokesperson says.

Legally, concerts are allowed to offer a concessions stand of some sort, but “we’re aware that during intermissions, it’s really hard to control peoples’ distance,” Crepaz says. “And we decided not to offer anything to eat or drink, because those create hot spots you can’t control easily.”

They’ve winnowed down the venues from 16 to eight, and staggered performances to avoid audience bottlenecks or any sort of crowded overlapping. The venues though, are all the same: The ornate State Theater, the Haus fuer Mozart (a 1,600-seat concert hall that was renovated in 2006), and the massive Großes Festspielhaus (Large Festival Hall) will all be in use. HVAC systems were “assessed with experts and adapted where necessary,” a spokesperson says, though he notes that “only 50 per cent of the normal audience capacity will be admitted; therefore, the outside air stream per hour is up to 2.5 times as high as before.”  

The Artists

When it comes to the festival’s staff and performers, things get trickier.

It’s very hard to have a socially distanced 30-person chorus, and it’s even hard to have a socially distant orchestra, whose proximity is not only a logistical necessity—orchestra pits aren’t famously roomy—but also an artistic one. It’s easier to play together when you sit together. Masks, for obvious reasons, are often impossible: No one’s going to play the oboe behind an N95 mask, although a conductor, or even a string quartet, might be able to swing it, Crepaz says.

Then consider rehearsals and such people as the choreographer, who is normally close to—if not touching—various dancers, and the director, who’s often in close contact with performers as they work out a scene’s mechanics.

Finally, there are the performers themselves: Actors and singers, generally speaking, are supposed to interact at distances smaller than Austria’s sanctioned one meter. Given the now-storied history of choir members infecting each other and their audiences, “there will be a minimum distance of two meters between the people onstage and the audience, but that’s the minimum,” Crepaz says. “With choirs, they will be at a greater distance from the audience.” 

The Salzburg festival’s solution, Crepaz says, was developed in coordination with a group of health professionals that included specialists in clinical microbiology and hygiene, the head of pulmonology at the Salzburg University Hospital, and the head of internal medicine at Salzburg’s Paracelsus University of Medicine.

Their solution: Break staff into three groups.

The first unit is the “red” group—performers who, for the aforementioned reasons, are unable to comply with Austria’s social distancing rules. Even before they come to rehearsals, they’ll be tested and screened within four days. “They’re expected to have a health log every day, along with a diary and contact log: With whom did they stay in intense contact?” Crepaz says. In that way, organizers hope, the people in the riskiest roles can start safe and stay safe. (They are not expected to quarantine at home between rehearsals.)

The “orange” group comprises the festival’s temporary staff and some artists who might not be able to keep a one-meter distance from one another, but who are able to wear masks. These are artists performing recitals alone onstage, and even some chamber music groups. This group will also be tested and screened on arrival in the city and is expected to maintain health and contact logs.

The final, “yellow” group covers festival staffers and artists who can remain socially distant and wear face masks at all times. They will also be tested initially, but they won’t have to keep logs or undergo screening.

Some rehearsals, Crepaz says, “will take place outside, and initial rehearsals will be done with more distance.” In terms of actual choreography, “I don’t want to reveal too many parts, because it could have a role in one of the operas’ staging.”

Asked whether the festival has a contingency plan if these measures fail, and the concerts turn out to be enabling broad spread of the novel coronavirus, a spokesperson says “the festival believes the procedures it has in place will work to ensure that the festival is a success for both its artists and audience.” Should something go wrong, the spokesperson continues, “the festival has a contingency plan for different scenarios,” though he declined to elaborate on them.

But Will It Work?

There are three key ways to measure the efficacy of Salzburg’s efforts: Audience members have to buy tickets, the reorganization has to make enough money to justify the cost of putting on the performances, and, most important, people—attendees and artists alike— can’t get sick.  

Unless something goes wrong during rehearsals, organizers won’t have an answer to the third question until after the performances have concluded, but the first two—ticket sales and profitability—are easier to answer.

The bad news is that “we’re losing a lot of money” under the new arrangement, Crepaz says. The good news is that the festival has been able to modify its budget accordingly, without going into the red. “We had a budget of €68 million (US$78 million). Now our budget is €41 million, and that only works if you cut costs at every point in the budget.”

One of the easiest ways to cut, he says, was to postpone multiple operas to next year. “It’s not a secret that opera productions are much more expensive than concerts or other, smaller productions,” he says. “So we’re limiting ourselves to two productions in opera and three productions in theater, and the rest is concerts.”

In postponing five of this summer’s planned operas, he continues, the festival has been able to more or less break even. “If we were only an opera festival, I think it wouldn’t have been feasible,” Crepaz says. “If you have the full cost of putting on an opera, and your box office income is reduced by 50 per cent or more, you couldn’t afford to go on. In a couple of weeks, you’d be bankrupt.”

As for ticket sales, the festival had sold 180,000 tickets in advance; with the modified schedule and seating arrangements, it had to refund all of them and start from scratch. 

Under the new arrangement, the festival’s total capacity is a mere 76,000 tickets. Using an algorithm, it gave the original ticket purchasers the option to buy about 50,000 of the new tickets, and all were sold. Some 26,000 went on sale on Monday to the general public. “We’ve gotten a huge response from our audience,” Crepaz says. “People really want to come.” A spokesperson for the festival says that the majority of ticket buyers are from Austria and Germany.

The success (or failure) of this year’s festival, Crepaz concludes, boils down to responsible behavior.

“What really counts is personal responsibility,” he says. “That means all of us, including the audience, have to behave in a way that keeps the pandemic as low as we have it now.”