At the Epicentre of the Extraordinary

Interview with Markus Hinterhäuser – Intendant of Salzburg Festival

By Opera Views,  January 2017

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Photo: SF Neumayr

“As gathering – spots, far from the everyday life and the destruction of the major cities, festival requires nothing less than stepping out of the usual into another context of existence.”

Thus envisioned, according to the press release of the Salzburg Festival the founders’ fathers of this world-famous festival Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Max Reinhardt, the essential ideas that motivated the new artistic director Markus Hinterhäuser in creating the program of the next Salzburg Festival 2017. Taking place from July 21th and ending on August 13th, 2017 festivals program embraces in total 195 performances and concerts.

“To awaken the ears, the eyes, human thought and intelligence” – this Maxim of Luigi Nono served the makers of the festival as a starting point for exploring various phenomenology and panoply of power. In their search for the answers to the questions of existence, the omnipotence of the death and the close interrelation between the arts and society.

The central theme of the phenomena and panoply of power is reflected in beautifully made festival’s annual brochure showing the abstract, inward-looking drawings by one of the prominent French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. Her pure, minimalist, but at the same time complex images reflect the essence of power: love, hatred, violence, dependence, weakness and revolt.

Markus Hinterhäuser - Wiener Festwochen
Photo: Michael Rausch

Markus Hinterhäuser is no stranger to Salzburg. Born in La Spezia, he studied piano in Vienna and Salzburg. In Salzburg, he also started his musical career and later switched to become a program planner and concert director in 2006. In 2011, he took over the management of the festivals as interim Intendant. In 1993, he and Tomas Zierhofer-Kin founded the Zeitfluss (Time Flow) festival within the Salzburg Festival that enjoyed overwhelming success and was carried out until 2001. From 2014 to 2016 Hinterhäuser managed the famous Wiener Festwochen.

In October 2016, he was appointed as artistic director and intendant of Salzburg Festival with the contract running until 2021. In this interview, we would like not only to talk about Markus Hinterhäuser the director and men behind the scene but to look at him as a person, musician, committed citizen and thinker.

Mr Hinterhäuser, thank you for this interview. I am delighted to present you and Salzburg Festival to readers of the “ProÒpera”. Since it became known that you are the new artistic director of the SF, you have done numerous interviews answering more or less same questions. So, my first question would be: Is there a question that you were not being asked so far?

No, there is not such a question. As you have noticed, during interviews I am regularly confronted with very similar issues. Which is fine, since I guess what I am doing, possibly calls forth similar questions. However, there is clearly more than one question that I was not asked for now.


You have become an artistic director of one of the world’s most prestigious festivals for classical music and performing arts is filled with some direct-indirect paths or, if you wish, (de)tours. How would you describe this path? Were these (de-) tours necessary? Did you have to give up on anything?

You know, I have never asked myself these questions. Because I never had to make any detours and to give up on anything. I did not give up being active as a performer, to record CDs or to work as a musician, pianist and actor with major theatre and opera directors such as Christoph Marthaler or Klaus Michael Grüber. In my professional life, one interesting thing has come to the other. Ultimately, at this moment things merge to form a picture that has an absolute validity in my life.

You studied in Salzburg, started here your career as a musician, later you became a concert director of the festival. After the career jaunt to Vienna from 2014 to 2016, you are professionally again back in Salzburg.How does it feel? Would you say you have finally arrived?

The feeling of having arrived is only possible if one pursues a precise strategy. It is undoubtedly a great privilege to lead the Salzburg Festival. However, whether you believe it or not, I have planned this way much less than it may seem to the outside world. I started working as a programmer and concert manager in Salzburg in the 90s. At that time we have launched the “Zeitfluss” (Time flow) festival as part of the SF that enjoyed a great success and was held five times at intervals of ten years. Later, in 2011, I was asked to take over the artistic responsibilities as an interim director. Then came the work as manager of the Wiener Festwochen. However, shortly after that, the request came, whether I would come back to Salzburg and lead the SF starting 2017 for the next five years. For me, this Festival presents an epicentre of the extraordinary artistically. Frankly, I do not think that when I am no longer here, I will be doing something else in that direction. The Festival has been the beginning for me, and most likely it will not, cannot be topped. To answer your question of whether I have arrived, I can say that for sure that now I am at the place that I find most beautiful. Here I grew up and socialized myself as an artist and musician. Also, I like Salzburg from the bottom of my heart.


The planning of your first festival season inevitably presented you with individual challenges and compromises. Are you satisfied with the program? Is there anything you would want to change or optimise?

Look, you always start from scratch and then try to consider what can be right or relevant for the program planning. In the beginning, there are vast numbers of ideas, fantasies and desires that you want to realize and then you face the hard reality. French poet and writer Paul Valerie once said: “Thinking is a scoring out”. Sometimes you have to reach a deal with yourself and score out things for very pragmatic reasons. This, however, does not have to be considered an artistic loss or surrender but is often a balancing act between reality and what one would like to do.  In this sense, I believe to have done a pretty good job in dealing with myself and implementing my artistic visions in the coming season’s programme. In fact, and I am very satisfied with the result: It has a firm stance and presents high artistic quality and standards.

MET has just cancelled a production with Calixto Bieito and postponed it indefinitely. According to Peter Gelb’s statement, the reason for this decision was influenced by MET seeking to save one million dollars. Would such situation be ever possible in Salzburg?

One cannot rule out anything like this because we just cannot foresee the development of the financial and economic conditions and constellations happening in our lives. Here in Salzburg, we apply a system, a certain way how we, together with the Supervisory Board, deal with our finances and decide about it, which makes such an incident practically impossible. Compared to other institutions, we run a company that is firmly oriented towards the outside and is completely dependent on the fact that many people from all over the world come to Salzburg. In five weeks, we will sell about 225,000 tickets. With only a local audience, this volume by far cannot be reached. The cancellation of the production is thus to be regarded only as an absolute exception, as an emergency brake in the case of a higher political, social or economic force. I can assure you that this kind of decision is not an easy one to make. From the artistic point of view, it is a massive cut and is associated with a great emotional disappointment as well as career and reputation loss. Fortunately, I have not yet had to make such a decision.

After the 2016 elections in the United States, some prominent personalities from culture and politics have expressed their disapproval about its outcome, doing thus, directly or indirectly in an aggressive, offensive tone. In your opinion how politically can or should an artist be? How far can you go as an artist? What are the limits?

Look, we cannot remain indifferent or do not involved by pretending that all these political events are not of any interest to us. We all live in a global society, in a global polis. I am convinced that there is not a single artist, nor artwork or theatre which can be established and active in the politically free environment. For me, I am a political person. I live in a society in here, and now, and it interests me, is important to me. Everything that happens politically has an immediate and direct impact on our personal and professional lives. Privately, I do not like to comment on every single day political situation publicly. However, if there is one that I am sceptical or critical of, I find it necessary to communicate my opinion to the outside world. One should get involved politically and socially and be able to express his or her opinion not only as a public figure but also concerned citizen. For me, it is evident that with what I say and in what I do, I can reach out to a certain public, even if I can convince only ten people.  

For our institution, in the broadest sense, every political aspect has its stake. Here we have a unique opportunity to demonstrate our attitude, our stance, which, besides, is not just a simple one-day update of day-to-day political issues. When I open the festival with Mozart’s opera “La Clemenza di Tito”, I know exactly why I do it. This opera reflects on some very political questions about mercy and forgiveness. When Peter Sellars stages it, then it is not going to be an act of escapism but is made in Here and Now and not as a kind of anachronistic event.


In the run-up of your first season, you completed an international advertising tour-du-force to New York via Paris, London, Zurich, Berlin, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Moscow to Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul. Can you imagine expanding the geography your potential new visitors in the future? For example, to the Middle East, Latin America and so forth? Were you in Mexico?

I have never been to Mexico, either professionally or in private. I think I would like to travel to this country one day. Our advertising tour-de-force was primarily aimed to visit the Associations of Friends of the SF in the respective country. The Friends of Salzburg Festival count over 6,500 members. They support us, and all come to Salzburg in the summer.  We on our part visit them to meet personally, to present our program and maintain contacts. Our tour is a thank-you gesture for their commitment, loyalty and support. However, we have not yet been in Latin America or the Middle East.


The position of artistic director consists of an extensive package of duties, tasks of all kinds as well as the responsibility towards the audience, financial donors and supporters, politicians, artists and employees. Where do you see your priorities in leading SF?

The most important tasks of the artistic director include, in my opinion, creative program planning, wise handling of finances, employee-oriented management and creating an atmosphere. The director is first and foremost an artistic director and not just a manager or a planner. Incidentally, my position here is also referred to as of an artistic director. The program is not an arbitrary series of events but requires a meaning, narrative, message or if you want, a composition, without wanting to exaggerate. Next important task is how we deal with the financial resources that are at our disposal which requires a high level of the responsibility.  It is not only, but also a public money we spend. It is like this in Salzburg, and fortunately all over the Europe, where there are institutions subsidized by federal public funds. 

One of the demanding tasks of the intendant and artistic director is an employee-oriented management. It is a rewarding task to create a productive and trusting atmosphere with all 200-people working here around the year and the approximately 3,000 to 4,000 summer employees including artists. If they feel uplifted and secure, they do their best, which is indispensable for the work of this high-profile artistic force-wonder work SF. Committed, enthusiastic and thrilled employees make a significant contribution to the success of the festival. They identify themselves with it and strengthen the brand SF. Finally, I also believe that the SF possess and radiate something very atmospheric. It is a place with a unique artistic climate, where for five weeks the highest temperatures prevail. Your contract with SF embraces five-years period.  Do you find this time span to be sufficient to realize your vision? Five years is a standard term for this kind of contracts. Since I know the festival and have been here, only Gerard Mortier had the ten-year contract. All others remained for five years, and some even shorter.

I think that this period in itself presents a sufficient time. The only problem is that after two years you are already asked, whether you want to stay longer or want to go. If you no longer stay in Salzburg, It leads to an unappealing situation where the person who comes after you is already there and where you have to continue to work for a few years to fulfil your contract. This does not make the work easier and brings a certain restlessness with it. Whether five years are enough for me to realize my visions? Well, it can be that I may need more time? Yes, I think that a little more than five years would be not a bad idea at all.

After completing your piano studies in Vienna and Salzburg, and before you had your first management assignment, you acted for a long time as a chamber musician and piano accompanist. In this role, we will also experience you in the upcoming season? How much of a musician still dwells in the theatre manager Hinterhäuser? When do you find time to practice?MUSICIAN

Just before we met, I had some practice! I am choosing my time and am very selective, careful in what I do and why I do it. My work here is strictly organized, offers me at the same an opportunity to make music without having to make a living out of it. It is a very nice condition. How much of the musicians still dwells in me? I can assure you that my job as the director requires significantly more time and effort to complete, which is right and should be this way.

In front of the main Festival performing venue in the Hofstallgasse. Photo: SF_Kolarik


City Salzburg blossoms during the summer and becomes a cosmopolitan town where the global elite culture, musicians as well as loyal festival fans from all over the world gather and exchange. How is life in Salzburg outside of the festival? What do you do here in your spare time? Do you like to live in Salzburg?

I have the privilege to pursue a profession which brings me regularly on the road. Salzburg is an incredibly beautiful town to return to. The city is very straightforward and amicable. It is very familiar, where everybody knows everyone. Nevertheless, it is a place where you can give yourself to a certain intimacy and peace after a hard day or a journey. I live very beautifully, and I can practice the piano anytime. By the way, almost all major and important festivals never take place in large cities. They usually open themselves once a year to the general public and are equal in their unique dialectic intimacy and world openness. Salzburg with its moving history and love for art and music is a very special place to be in summer. I like to invite our fans from Mexico and Central America to come to Salzburg in the summer and to get inspired by the festival and this charming city.


Are you a spiritual person? Yes

Are you a pessimist or optimist? Rather a sceptic

What would you never forgive? Violence against defenseless

What would you never give up? Me

Do you fib sometimes? Yes

What work approach is more close to you: Relaxed or under pressure? Relaxed

What is your favorite book? It changes constantly

What is your favorite piece of music? Die Winterreise

What characterizes your ideal audience? Empathy, openness, passion

What describes your ideal artist? Intuition, intelligence, imagination

 What does power mean to you? Possibility to create

What does “luxury” mean to you? To be free

How would you want to die? Not uncomfortable?

If you are to appear in front of the God, what would you say?You meant good with me


Number of performances in 2017

Operas: 40. Drama: 5421. Total: 195. Concerts: 79. Gala: 1

Children’s program: 21

Number of tickets and prices in 2017

In total 222,500 tickets, will be issued. Ticket price range between 5€ to 450€. Half of all tickets are located in the lower quarter of the price of spectrum, between 5€ and €105€. Due to high demand, there will be a  double increase number of its youth subscriptions. Altogether 6000 tickets for the opera, drama and concert performances at will be offered at steep discounts of up to 90% for guests under the age of 27 (children born after June 30th, 1990).

Operas:                                                                                                                                                    “La Clemenza di Tito” by W. A. Mozart staged by Peter Sellars and conducted by Theodore Currentzis.

“Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk” by D. Shostakovich starring Nina Stemme as Katerina Izmailova, staged by Andreas Kriegenburg and conducted out by Mariss Jansons.

“Aida” by G. conducted by Riccardo Mutti and staged by the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. Anna Netrebko will make her role debut as Aida.

“Wozzeck” by A. Berg’s will be conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and staged by William Kentridge starring Matthias Goerne.

“Ariodante” will give Cecilia Bartoli another opportunity to sing one of her favourite trouser roles of Ariodante in the new production of G. F. Haendel’s eponymous opera staged by Christof Loy and conducted by Diego Fasolis.

“Lear” by A. Reimann’s will be conducted by Franz Welser-Möst and staged by Simon Stone with Gerald Finley in leading role.

“Orfeo”, “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria” and “L’incoronazione di Poppea” by C. Monteverdi will be conducted by Sir Eliot Gardiner and staged by Elsa Rooke.

Two concert operas will include “I due Foscari” by G. Verdi conducted by Michele Mariotti and starring Placido Domingo and Joseph Calleja and “Lucrezia Borgia” conducted by Marco Armilliato, starring Ildar Abdrazakov, Krassimira Stojanova and Juan Diego Flores. The children’s and youth program will present Mozart’s “The Theatre Director” (Der Schauspieldirektor) opera as a new production conducted by Erina Yashima and staged by Elena Tzavara. Soloists will include a member of Salzburg Young Singers Project.


Impressive numbers of solo and song recitals, chamber concerts as well as performances by major orchestras from all over the world will include series of sacred music and church concerts as well as “Ouverture spirituelle” series. Olivier Messiaen, Franz Schubert, Johannes Ockeghem, Joseph Haydn, Gustav Mahler, Frank Martin, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Dmitri Shostakovich, Alfred Schnittke, Leoš Janaček, Sergej Prokofiev and Gérard Grisey are just a few composers whose works will be featured this summer. The respectable line-up of world-renowned conductors includes Kent Nagano, Daniel Barenboim, Simon Rattle, Bernhard Haitink, Ivor Bolton. Singers and musicians Elina Garanča, Marie-Claude Chappuis Sonya Yoncheva, Nicolas Altstaedt, Markus Hinterhäuser, Sol Gabetta, Evgeny Kissin, Yefim Bronfman, Martha Argerich, Daniel Trifonov, Igor Levit, musicAeterna Choir, Salzburg Bach Choir, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Berliner and Vienna Philharmonic.

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