In 1991, the Nestlé Corporation became the Salzburg Festival’s first-ever commercial sponsor. The Austrian press exploded in rage. This moneygrubbing interloper would defile the sacred space of Salzburg and dumb down the august classical-music and theater showcase, predicted high-minded media wise men.
Needless to say, that hasn’t happened. The world’s leading musicians continue to flock each summer to this entrancingly beautiful baroque town, where for five weeks they perform at the highest peak of accomplishment among Salzburg’s dove-gray and lichen-green palazzi and plazas. And while it would be a slight exaggeration to say that the festival is an island of private enterprise in a sea of arts-funding socialism, the prominence that it cheerfully grants its now eight corporate patrons dwarfs anything seen in the U.S.; a greeting from the five largest sponsors, for example, lights up inside the Grosses Festspielhaus before each performance. Moreover, the festival derives a whopping 73 percent of its budget from the sale of tickets to some of the most elegantly dressed music patrons in the world.
Ironically, Nestlé’s generosity to the festival began the same year that the Belgian impresario Gerard Mortier took over as artistic director, a position that he would hold for a decade. Mortier brought Regietheater with him—a production style that substitutes a director’s political posturing for a composer’s musical and dramatic intent—and never passed up an opportunity to trumpet himself as scourge of the Establishment. In a 2008 documentary about the festival, Mortier sneered at the wealthy patrons who had begun flocking to Salzburg during the directorship of conductor Herbert von Karajan, displacing “the intellectuals,” he claimed. “From the 1960s on, Salzburg became the place to be,” Mortier said disparagingly. “They’ve turned it into a Las Vegas or Monte Carlo.”
Leave aside the absurdity of that comparison. It’s a mark of the decadence of the European arts administrator that he can scoff at the desire of a small slice of the wealthy to associate itself with high art. Why it would be better for the affluent to support culture through tax levies than through ticket sales is mysterious. The cheapest seats in Europe’s heavily subsidized theaters are no less expensive than Salzburg’s cheapest seats; sometimes, they are costlier. Government subsidies apparently do a worse job than private ticket holders of making the arts accessible to the less affluent. Further, if some of the silk- and satin-clad patrons sipping champagne outside the festival complex each night come as much to socialize as to hear music, that would hardly distinguish them from the far more status-obsessed eighteenth- and nineteenth-century opera audiences. As for Mortier’s brand of “intellectuals,” such as director Peter Sellars—“It was very important to me to present Mozart operas as grass-roots political actions,” Sellars says in the Salzburg documentary—spare us.
This August, Nestlé flew journalists into Salzburg to attend the prize ceremony for its recently created Young Conductors Award. Competition winner Ainārs Rubiķis, an elfin 33-year-old Latvian, led the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra with impressive dynamism through the complexities of such twentieth-century masterpieces as Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird and Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. Nestlé’s suave chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, insists that the firm views its support of the festival, including its Young Conductors Award, as a commercial venture, not as philanthropy. In other words, a massive multinational corporation thinks that it can improve its bottom line by associating itself with classical music and by creating more of what every aspiring conductor needs: the opportunity to work with a high-caliber orchestra. Win-win situations don’t get more socially beneficial than this.
The press panjandrums who denounced Nestlé’s backing of the Salzburg Festival 20 years ago could not have been more wrong. Private support for the festival has been an unqualified boon, with commercial sponsors even devising new initiatives for showcasing talent. And it’s surely a hopeful sign for our culture that for some of the most successful members of society, classical music is a status symbol!