Austrian President van der Bellen opens 76th Bregenz Festival
War in Ukraine dominates inaugral speeches– Artistic Highlight of the year is Madame Butterfly on the Lake Stage
Bregenz (APA) – The war in Ukraine figured heavily in the speeches marking the opening of the 76th Bregenz Festival on Wednesday. The Austrian federal president Alexander Van der Bellen sharply condemned the war, pointed out the grave consequences, and called on the federal government to get down to work. He flatly rejected the idea of new elections. The Secretary of State for Arts and Culture Andrea Mayer (Greens) and president of the Bregenz Festival Hans-Peter Metzler also made liberty and democracy a dominant theme of their speeches.
“We are living in a time in which the fundamental elements of our life are under attack: peace in Europe, our democracy, the way we want to live, the security of our energy supply, our security in general,” Van der Bellen noted. He referred to the Russian president Vladimir Putin as a dictator who couldn’t bear “that we want to live in a society in which every person is valued equally, and who dreams of the rebirth of a Russian empire”. The Austrian president went on to describe dependency on Russian gas as intolerable; no less intolerable, he said, was even toying with the idea of making oneself the submissive ally of a dictator. This statement brought applause from the audience. On the question of dependency, the governments in half of Europe had made mistakes in the past, Van der Bellen said, adding that he too had let himself to be deceived. He had supposed Putin to be different, he said self-critically.
The Austrian president said he considered it his responsibility “to guarantee the greatest possible stability in this time”. For this reason he had come to the decision that “the government should and must do, without delay, what it was elected to do – work, work, and communicate that quickly and comprehensibly”. The president thus unmistakably dismissed calls for new elections.
Van der Bellen said that even though he didn’t welcome members of the government on all levels being so preoccupied with themselves and thus distracted from other issues, it was obviously essential that accusations of corruption should be thoroughly investigated so that the facts were clear.
The federal president furthermore stressed that we should not allow ourselves be divided, neither in Austria nor in the European Union. “That is incumbent upon us all,” Van der Bellen stated. “An Austria in which families, pensioners, poor people have to freeze in winter because they can’t afford to pay for energy any more – that is not the country we want to live in. I’m quite certain of that,” the president remarked. He said he was not happy that thermal power stations using fossil fuels were being brought back into operation, but felt it was the best possible option at the present moment. “What is happening and is going to happen, we will overcome it all if we pull together,” Van der Bellen confidently declared. With regard to the challenges ahead, he added: “And we will overcome them.”
Hans-Peter Metzler, president of the Bregenz Festival, was the first to speak at the opening ceremony. Referring to the war in Ukraine as a “cruel war of annihilation”, he said that “people are losing their lives, their liberty, their existence”. Freedom remained a key concept in his later remarks too. He said it was a central task of a democratic state “not only to protect and safeguard art and culture in its freedom, but also to promote it consciously and as a matter of principle, just as with education”. In Austria and not only in Austria there was no need for art to be pressed into the service of any other purposes and goals than liberty, democracy and humanity. A wide spectrum of educational and cultural institutions was still vital, he said, for new prospects and problem-solving approaches, for social solidarity and quality of life.
Austria has a system of public funding that has been responsibly implemented and has functioned well thus far, and it must stay that way, the festival president demanded. He questioned the insistent calls for fundraising and private sponsorship. “Trying to raise money at any cost is a doubled-edged sword, however, as has now become clear,” Metzler stated. He was presumably alluding to accusations of corruption on the domestic political scene in Austria recently, without specifically naming them.
The Secretary of State for Arts and Culture Andrea Mayer (Greens) – deputising for the Minister of Culture Werner Kogler (Greens) – referred to the critical situation ongoing for nearly three years now, and highlighted “Europe” as a source of hope in a “world that will never again be as it was”. Cohesion and solidarity across the united continent would help us endure the war and the accompanying crisis. Referring to the Corona pandemic, she declared, “we are not defenceless” – “categorically” contradicting the view voiced in Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague: “And yet plague and war always find people equally defenceless.” Mayer said that policy makers must see the situation of multiple crises as an imperative to take action.
The secretary of state furthermore expressed her conviction that art could help as a way out of apparent inevitability. Pointing to the female leading figures in productions at this year’s festival, she argued that “our deepest emotions can motivate us to superhuman action”. Though these characters it’s possible to delve deep into the nature of human beings. “This power is peculiar to art,” Andrea Mayer said. The Bregenz Festival made the highs and lows of human nature relatable and accessible, not only for traditional opera-goers but for a much wider audience, too, and thereby brought “equality into what is supposedly elitist,” the secretary of state said appreciatively.
Running until 21 August, the Bregenz Festival has about 80 events on the programme with a total of 220,000 tickets available. At least 90 percent of those tickets had been sold by the time the festival opened. The inaugural artistic event was the premiere on Wednesday evening of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly on the Lake Constance stage. In all, 189,000 tickets went on sale for the 26 performances of Madame Butterfly. The Festspielhaus production of Siberia premieres on Thursday evening.
Apart from the speeches the opening ceremony – broadcast live on TV – was memorable for the interludes in which artists appearing at the festival performed a variety of excerpts from the programme at the highest level. As in previous years, the host Nikolaus Habjan also provided top quality entertainment, with his hand puppet Jonathan and subversive announcements. The ceremony concluded with the Anthem of Europe, at the personal request of the federal president. This was followed by the traditional public reception on the plaza in front of the Festspielhaus. The reception had not taken place in the previous two years owning to the Corona pandemic.