A large and growing number of music and theatre festivals take place in Austria every year, most of them in the summer months. With programmes of comedy, operetta and sumptuous opera performances, often held at open-air venues, many festivals, such as the Seefestspiele Mörbisch on Lake Neusiedl, are geared towards promoting tourism. Others aim at meeting regional cultural needs, one example being the Theaterfest Niederösterreich. The Salzburg Festival (from mid-July to late August) and the Wiener Festwochen (May-June) are Austria’s international showcase events in the performing arts field.
Alongside these traditional institutions, contemporary positions and performing arts formats are developed and staged at several other events. These include the steirischer herbst, founded as an avant-garde festival in 1968, the modern dance festival ImPulsTanz in Vienna and the Donaufestival in Lower Austria.
The Salzburg Festival
Founded by Hugo von Hofmannsthal und Max Reinhardt in 1920, the Salzburg Festival (“Salzburger Festspiele” ) was built on distinct, often contradictory, ways of perceiving and engaging with modern art and drama in Austria. In establishing what were then contemporary art forms, the founders looked back to Mozart’s time and drew on the baroque origins of performing art forms. Pointedly opposing the urban cultures of their time, they intended to “give back to the theatre” ... “the celebratory, festive, unique features common to all art”. (Max Reinhardt).
In the early years Richard Strauss exerted a dominant influence on the Festival as a composer and conductor. His successors included Gottfried von Einem in the early post-war period and later Herbert von Karajan (1960-89). Contemporary trends gained prominence in Salzburg under the directorship of Gerard Mortier (1991-2001) , a Belgian by birth.
A specific feature of the Salzburg Festival are the open-air performances of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s morality play Jedermann on the square in front of the cathedral. As part of the Salzburg tradition, Jedermann is not usually judged by the standards applied to contemporary theatre. Being cast for a part in the play, especially the “Everyman” title role, is generally regarded as a badge of honour by German-speaking actors .
The Salzburg Festival attracts more than 270,000 visitors every season , offering internationally acclaimed opera and drama productions, many of which are co-produced with theatres in Austria and abroad and go on to be performed there after their premiere in Salzburg, as well as concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic. Its venues include the Grosses Festspielhaus (built 1955-60 to designs by Clemens Holzmeister), the Felsenreitschule, the Mozart House, the Salzburg Landestheater and the Perner Island in Hallein, to the south of the city of Salzburg . A federal law specifically regulates public funding for the festival, which comes from national and local budgets as well as from the province of Salzburg’s Tourism Fund. In addition to the main summer season events, Salzburg also hosts a Whitsun Festival.
Markus Hinterhäuser has been artistic director of the Festival since 2017. His contract was extended in 2019 until 2026.
The Wiener Festwochen
In his capacity as drama director from 1998 onwards and as festival director from 2013, the Swiss director Luc Bondy positioned the Wiener Festwochen as a festival of the performing arts. Prior to his tenure, the focus was often on other genres . Key figures that shaped the festival in this period included drama directors Marie Zimmermann (2001-07) and Stefanie Carp (until 2013) and Belgian-born festival director Frie Leysen, who served in this position for just one year and left the Festwochen in 2014 over programming and budget disagreements .
The former artistic director of the Brussels Kunstenfestivaldesarts Christophe Slagmuylder has led the Festival since 2019, but will leave after the coming season.
Founded in 1984 by cultural events manager Karl Regensburger, who is still the festival’s operational director, and choreographer Ismael Ivo, ImPulsTanz–Vienna International Dance Festival has developed into one of the largest festivals of contemporary dance worldwide. During the summer, when most theatres in Vienna are closed, ImPulsTanz events take place at all major venues. The festival’s 100 or so performances, which are dedicated exclusively to contemporary dance and performance art, are seen by about 139,000 visitors and participants.
With its Young Choreographers’ Series, which has been running since 2001, and the Prix Jardin d’Europe – European Prize for Emerging Choreography, established in 2008, ImPulsTanz makes a special effort to promote a new generation of choreographers . In addition to performances staged by leading contemporary dance choreographers, the festival offers an extensive and ground-breaking programme of more than 240 workshops which brings thousands of participants from all over the world to Vienna every year .
Another component of the festival is the “danceWEB Scholarship Programme” offered to 60 dancers and emerging choreographers from about 40 countries every year . It comprises participation in all workshops and research projects as well as attendance at all performances of the ImPulsTanz festival, plus mentoring by an artistic coach.
The ImPulsTanz festival is an important co-production partner for local choreographers and, along with Tanzquartier Wien, a main contributor to the rising quality and internationalisation of contemporary dance and performance art in Vienna in recent years.
The steirischer herbst festival was founded in 1968 as an interdisciplinary contemporary arts festival, with its main focus on its own locally staged productions . The festival collaborates with several local cultural initiatives in Styria. Under its director Veronika Kaup-Hasler, steirischer herbst has positioned itself as a festival of new art forms with an additional focus on performance art, as well as theoretical reflection about the role of the arts in present-day society. Current director is Ekaterina Degot.
The Donaufestival in the Lower Austrian town of Krems an der Donau was fundamentally repositioned by its director Thomas Edlinger followed as festival director.in 2005 and now combines independent popular music with contemporary performance and visual arts. In 2017, broadcast journalist
Every summer, the Bregenz Festival presents an internationally acclaimed programme of operas, some of them on an open-air stage, and concert performances by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
The Sommerszene Salzburg takes place every year, shortly before the Salzburg Festival. Under its director Angela Glechner, it offers a small, cutting-edge programme of contemporary dance and performance art.