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Celebration of Mozart in Salzburg and Vienna

Christian Kerber The House for Mozart, a new theater, will open this summer at the Salzburg Festival

Photo: Christian Kerber

It is quite certain that when I am in Salzburg I long for a hundred amusements, but here not for a single one. For just to be in Vienna is itself entertainment enough," wrote 25-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1781 from the imperial capital to his father, Leopold, in Salzburg. Mozart lived only 35 years (1756-1791), but he wrote more than 600 musical works spanning every known genre, and the two great Austrian cities associated with him—Salzburg, the city of his birth and early career, and Vienna, seat of the Hapsburg empire, where he spent his most creative years—are observing his 250th birthday in grand style, producing major events all year.

It is ironic that the city Mozart disdained ("Salzburg is no place for my talent…one hears nothing, there is no theatre, no opera") is renowned today for a festival that produces opera and theater of the highest caliber. This summer, the Salzburger Festspiele will mount all of Mozart's known operas and stage works, some of which have never been performed at the 86-year-old festival. The 2006 celebration will also inaugurate a new theater, the House for Mozart, expanding a complex whose construction began in 1925. Vienna makes its own claim on the prodigy with a high-profile, multimillion-dollar festival, dubbed New Crowned Hope, in November and December. It will be directed by Peter Sellars, whose acclaimed productions of Mozart operas—The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così Fan Tutte, with updated settings in a luxury apartment in Trump Tower, among drug dealers in Spanish Harlem, and in a diner on Cape Cod, respectively—helped to establish his reputation as one of classical opera's iconoclasts. Elsewhere in Vienna, the composer's anniversary has prompted the city to renovate the Mozart house museum, to mount a major cultural exhibition, and, most significantly, to rededicate a theater as an opera house—Vienna's third—devoted to new drama, dance, and music and, throughout 2006, stagings of Mozart operas.

By offering such an ambitious array of programs, the country's cultural leaders are aiming to ensure that an event like Mozart's 250th anniversary does not end up simply as a platform for Austrian nationalism. Especially since the events of 1989, which unfroze the countries of the Communist bloc, Vienna has again moved to the geographical center of Europe. The city always was a place where one heard a mixture of Central European languages on the streets and in the markets, but it used to have a certain stuffiness you either had to ignore or accept as part of its charm. These days, with the influx of new blood, Vienna has a more cosmopolitan feel, more sophisticated tastes in everything from cuisine to contemporary art—and its pulse seems to have quickened.

Similarly, the stature of Salzburg, 185 miles west of the capital, has grown both in Europe and beyond (Shanghai even chose it as its sister city in 2004). Above all, the international nature of the Salzburg Festival—of its performers, directors, and designers—has given it a singular position among the world's great festivals. In capitalizing on Mozart's birthday, both cities have a great deal at stake. As beneficiaries of cultural tourism, they have the chance to reveal an evolving Austria, one that has much more to offer than powdered wigs and Mozart chocolates.

"It is impossible to describe the rush and bustle," wrote Leopold Mozart to his daughter, Nannerl, on visiting his son in 1785. "Since my arrival your brother's piano has been taken at least a dozen times to the theater or to some other house." In old Vienna people lived on top of one another, an average of 47 to a building, according to a chronicle of 1786. Mozart's apartment was a noisy place—not, we are told, because of the children, but because Mozart would have been making noise. There were rehearsals, music lessons, house concerts, billiard games, and the laughter and conversation on which the composer thrived.

The composer's piano was coming up and down the stairs, to and from the second-floor apartment, every two or three days. Now that very apartment has been newly restored and forms part of a museum called Mozarthaus Vienna.

The museum, on Domgasse, not far from St. Stephen's Cathedral, is the only surviving Mozart home in the capital; he lived there from 1784 to 1787. It was here that he wrote The Marriage of Figaro. It was also here that he and Haydn played billiards and Haydn first heard the string quartets dedicated to him. In one small room, possibly the one where Mozart composed, an extraordinary stucco decoration from the period survives. The upper floors of the house contain displays about the operas, and there's a small performance space that's been carved out of part of the basement.

From Domgasse, the view along Blutgasse—Blood Street, probably named for slaughterhouses that once operated there, though more colorful explanations exist—is essentially unchanged since the composer's day, and one gets a sense of the scale of the city in his time. But you have to forget everything to do with the grandeur of the last Hapsburg era, the vast buildings on the Ringstrasse, the huge museums, and the wide boulevards. You have to think of a compact 18th-century city that retained its medieval foundations. Some of the houses around Domgasse would still have had tunnels linking them to the cathedral for refuge in times of danger.

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