Guided tour of the Salzburg Festival Halls

The Salzburg Festival is one of the world’s largest and most intensive summer music and drama festivals, with more than two hundred performances packed into six weeks in July and August each summer. I have never attended any of these performances, both because they are beyond my price range and because the Festival has a reputation for upper-class snobbery which most normal opera houses have long since overcome.

I did want to take a tour of the festival halls, however, because I have heard a lot about them from people who work there, and because I know several singers who have performed there in various years. These tours are conducted more or less daily at 2 pm, with exceptions during the Festival weeks because of performances or rehearsals. The tour I took was in German, but I understand they also offer them in English sometimes.

My first photo (above) shows the entrance to two of the three festival halls, on Max-Reinhardt-Platz. This is also where the ticket office is located, and where the tours begin. During the festival weeks celebrities and other rich folks are apparently allowed to be chauffeured up to this entrance in their fat shiny black cars (so I’m told).

The Wild Man

The Wild Man (Der wilde Mann) is a statue that was made in 1620 and has since then been moved around several times and mounted on various fountains in Salzburg. The statue was sent to Vienna for repair and restoration in 2011-2012, and after that was installed again at Max-Reinhardt-Platz in Salzburg, opposite the Festival Halls.

The square was named after the Austrian actor and stage director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943), who was one of the founders of the Salzburg Festival, along with the composer Richard Strauss, the poet, dramatist and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the scenic designer Alfred Roller and the conductor Franz Schalk.

Faistauer Foyer

The first stop on our guided tour of the Festival Halls was the ‘Faistauer Foyer’ with frescos from the 1920s. These frescos were originally painted in 1926 by the Austrian painter Anton Faistauer (1887-1930), but were removed in 1938 on orders from the Nazis, who apparently considered them ‘decadent art’. Copies on canvas were installed in 1956 and restored in 2006.


Our second stop was the Karl Böhm Hall, named after the Austrian orchestra conductor Karl Böhm (1894-1981), who conducted regularly at the Salzburg Festival for many years. This hall was originally built in 1662 as a “winter riding school” for the cavalry, and is now used as a foyer for two of the performance halls.

Ceiling of the Karl-Böhm-Saal

I took this photo looking straight up at the large painting on the ceiling of the Karl Böhm Hall.

House for Mozart

House for Mozart

There are three performance halls, all in the same long building, that were specially built for the Salzburg Festival. The first of these, from the year 1925, is now called the ‘House for Mozart’ because it is supposedly well suited for Mozart’s operas.

The House for Mozart now seats 1495 spectators, plus 85 standing room places. This makes it larger than the Frankfurt Opera, which only seats 1329.

Actually I was surprised to see how plain and drab this ‘House for Mozart’ is. I don’t think Mozart would have liked it.

On our guided tour we all sat down in seats near the front, and our guide told us that these seats where we were sitting would cost € 430 each for a performance of an opera at the festival. I believed him but later I looked up the prices anyway, just to make sure I remembered correctly, and yes, for a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (with Frankfurt ensemble member Iurii Samoilov as Masseto) a seat in this section would cost € 430, but there were also seats further back that cost only (only?) € 340, € 260, € 185, € 135, € 95, € 70 or € 45, and even a few seats in the back of the balcony for € 20, but these were sold out. (I’ve seen Iurii in this opera several times in Frankfurt for a lot less money.)

Backstage in the House for Mozart




The second performance hall we went to was the Felsenreitschule, meaning literally the ‘Cliff Riding School’ or ‘Rock Riding School’.  In earlier decades I completely misunderstood the name of this hall, thinking ‘Felsenreit’ was the name of a person who was important enough to have a school named after him.

From the 17th century onwards, this whole complex served as a barracks and training center for the cavalry (soldiers on horseback), which is why they had indoor and outdoor riding schools. But after the mechanized slaughter of First World War, even the Austrian army had to admit that cavalry was no longer an effective fighting force, so they no longer needed all these buildings.

The Felsenreitschule is a weird place because of the 96 arcades that were hollowed out of the cliff many years ago. These arcades were where the spectators used to sit (or stand) for horse shows or animal baiting shows (in which animals tortured each other to death for the amusement of the audience).

Our guide told us that at first the Felsenreitschule had no roof, and was used for open-air festival performances. In 1970 it acquired a sort of rain-tarp that could be unrolled in case of bad weather, and in 2011 this was replaced by a retractable roof that can be opened or closed by electric motors in six minutes. He explained that for opera performances this roof is rarely if ever opened, because an open roof would require the singers to have microphones, which they don’t wear otherwise, and it would require an entirely different lighting concept, which would make an opera production much more expensive.

(This reminded me of the Bad Hersfeld Festival in Germany, where there is also a retractable roof which is seldom retracted, for the same reasons.)

I later had a look at the Salzburg Festival schedule for 2016 and found that of the three performance halls in this complex, the Felsenreitschule is the one that is used the least. To my surprise, they were doing a Mozart opera here, namely Così fan tutte, with Julia Kleitner as Fiordiligi.

(This surprised me, not because of Julia Kleitner but because we had been told that the ‘House for Mozart’ was supposed to be the best place for his operas.)

Another thing I noticed about the schedule is that they never seem to use all three of these adjacent performance halls at the same time, presumably because that would cause chaos in the lobbies. And when they have performances in two of the three halls, they try to have them start at least half an hour apart.

Seating in the Felsenreitschule

Seating in the Felsenreitschule is now in these padded bleachers, not in the old stone arcades. There are 1412 seats (not quite as many as in the ‘House for Mozart’ next door) and 25 places for standing room.


Large Festival Hall

Large Festival Hall

At the beginning of our tour we were told that we would not be able to visit the Large Festival Hall (Grosses Festspielhaus) because it was being used for a rehearsal, presumably for the opera Die Liebe der Danae by Richard Strauss. But by the time we got there it turned out that the rehearsal was over, so we could go in after all.

This is the newest and (as the name implies) largest of the three performance halls. It was built on the site of the old cavalry horse-stables from 1956 to 1960. The hall seats 2,179 spectators, which makes it one of the largest opera houses in Europe, slightly larger than the Nationaltheater in Munich, the home of the Bavarian State Opera. The only larger opera houses in Europe are the Festival House in Baden-Baden, Germany, with 2,500 seats, and the Opéra Bastille in Paris with 2,703 seats. (North American opera houses tend to be larger, which is not always a blessing.)

Speaking of Die Liebe der Danae, this is an opera that I have only seen in a concert performance in Frankfurt, but never in a staged performance. The music is great, but the opera is reputedly impossible to stage, so I’d be interested in seeing how they did it. (Also one of the singers was Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, whom I haven’t seen for about twenty years, since he was last in Frankfurt.)

Backstage at the Large Festival Hall

When the Large Festival Hall was built starting in 1956 about fifty-five thousand cubic meters of rock were cut out of the Mönchsberg (Monks’ Mountain) to make room for this huge backstage area.

Max-Reinhardt-Platz with a view of Saint Peter’s Church and the fortress

My photos in this post are from 2016. I revised the text in 2017.

Next: Hohensalzburg Fortress

I appreciate your feedback!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.