For nearly two centuries Salzburg’s big tourist draw was Mozart. The great eighteenth century composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg in 1756 and lived here — when he wasn’t travelling around Europe performing as a child prodigy — until he was literally kicked out (“with a kick in the arse”) of his job at the Prince-Archbishop’s court in 1781.
In the 21st century Mozart is still as popular as ever, but as a tourist draw for Salzburg he has been replaced by something that most people in Salzburg strongly disliked — or had never even heard of — until just a few years ago.
The lady who gave the introductory talk at the Landestheater (State Theatre) told us about her own experience. She said she was born in Salzburg and lived here until she was fifteen, when she had the opportunity to go to Canada on a school exchange. When people in Canada heard she was from Salzburg they broke out into large smiles and said “Oh, The Sound of Music” — to which at first she responded, totally perplexed: “The Sound of Music? You mean Mozart or what?”
But she soon learned that “The Sound of Music” was a musical by Rogers & Hammerstein that had opened on Broadway in 1959 and was made into a wildly popular (except in Austria and Germany) film in 1965.
Our guide in the Salzburg Festival Halls had a similar story. He recalled the first time he was asked by a young American woman where such and such a scene of “The Sound of Music” had been filmed. He had to admit that he had never seen the film and didn’t know the story, and didn’t even know it had been filmed on location in Salzburg. “But since then,” he added, “I’ve seen the film six times. You have to know your enemy, after all.”
He said that of the film’s 174 minutes (it’s a long film), 124 were filmed on location in and around Salzburg and constitute a free source of tourist advertising that would have cost millions if the city had wanted to commission it. (I’m quoting those figures from memory, hope they aren’t too far off.)
Like most Austrians, he objected to the film’s sentimental American songs, phony Alpine costumes and the geographical ignorance of the film-makers, who had the Trapp family trying to flee from the Nazis by walking through the mountains to Switzerland on a route that would in fact have taken them directly into Germany. Salzburg, after all, is located right on the German border but over 250 km from Switzerland.
But he also told us that in the early 21st century the Salzburg tourist board did some consumer research which confirmed that more tourists come to Salzburg because of “The Sound of Music” than for any other single reason, including Mozart.
Considering the long-standing negative attitude of the local population, it was with some trepidation that the Salzburg State Theatre decided to present Austria’s first full-scale non-satirical stage production of “The Sound of Music” in 2011, fifty-two years after the show’s Broadway opening. They were afraid the production would be rejected or ignored by the local population, but hoped that at least the younger generation would approach it with an open mind. They commissioned a new German translation for the songs and dialogues, and provided English surtitles in hopes of attracting some tourists to fill the auditorium.
Well, they needn’t have worried. The show was an immediate success, and as of 2017 it is the only production that keeps being revived year after year at the State Theatre for six to ten performances each season. In their advertising they quote from a BBC review, in English: “A highly political production, but the audience loves it.”
They have in fact not shied away from the anti-Nazi theme. The only thing they did to tone it down slightly was to have the stage-Nazis greet each other with “Heil” rather than “Heil Hitler”.
When I saw the musical, the house was nearly full. The people around me in the audience were all speaking German (or Bavarian). A few were even wearing traditional Alpine costumes.
On the back cover of the program booklet there is a slogan in English: “A musical comes home!”
At the end of the performance, after lots of applause, the singer Uwe Kröger motioned for everyone to stop clapping and said (in German): “Well, it took over fifty years, but The Sound of Music has finally come home to Salzburg.” Then he asked the audience to join the cast in singing three of the most popular songs from the musical — in the original English, although they had all been sung in German during the performance. The English texts were printed on the back of the cast list and were also projected onto the surtitle screen above the stage.
The hop-on-hop-off tourist buses in Salzburg all advertise a “Sound of Music channel”, presumably pointing out places that were shown in the film. I take this to mean that the bus also has another channel pointing out the more traditional points of interest, so you can take your choice. (But I have never taken such a bus so I can’t speak from personal experience.)
My photos in this post are from 2016. The text was last revised in 2017.
Next: Mozart’s birthplace