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Salzburg Festival opens with cheers on '14 anniversary eve

SALZBURG, Austria -- The Salzburg Festival, despite looming financial worries, got off to a thundering start Sunday with an opera by the city's favorite son Mozart, kicking off a monthlong program of culture and glamour.

“Don Giovanni,” directed by the festival's theater director Sven-Eric Bechtolf, met with rousing applause for its sleek production set in 1920s pre-fascist Spain.

The festival's opening was attended by Austrian President Heinz Fischer, who recalled that Sunday marked the eve of the day 100 years ago, when Austria-Hungary signed its declaration of war against Serbia, setting off the train of events that led to World War I.

In honor of this anniversary, the festival's organizers put together a war-themed program this year, with operas and plays paying tribute to soldiers, frontline nurses and Holocaust victims.

Despite looming budget problems and well-publicized management disputes, the festival remains a highlight of the cultural calendar, with celebrities, politicians and opera-lovers jostling every year to see performances by some of the world's top artists.

Among the big names on the program for this 94th Salzburg Festival are singers Anna Netrebko, Cecilia Bartoli and Placido Domingo, and conductors Riccardo Muti, Daniel Barenboim and Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

In total, 270 performances are planned until Aug. 31, including five new opera productions.

One eagerly awaited creation is “Charlotte Salomon” by French composer Marc-Andre Dalbavie, which retells the story of a young German artist deported and killed in Auschwitz in 1943.

The opera, directed by acclaimed Swiss director Luc Bondy, premieres on Monday.

Plays on the war theme include a new creation by British playwright Duncan Macmillan “The Forbidden Zone,” and Karl Kraus's “The Last Days of Mankind.”

“In commemoration of a horrible war, the First World War, we want to show that people, mankind, have other things to offer than war,” Christoph Eschenbach — music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, who also directed Sunday's “Don Giovanni” — told AFP ahead of opening night.

“Art and especially music wants to abolish war, abolish the confrontation of people, the killing of people. It wants to bring people together.”

Not just opera and theater but close to 100 concert performances, from Ludwig van Beethoven and Anton Bruckner to more modern creations are on the program for the next month.

Under artistic director Alexander Pereira who leaves this year, the festival sought to bring in new life, including Buddhist, Jewish or Muslim music, alongside the more classical fare.

“The festival is open to new music, it's not a crusty thing,” Eschenbach insisted.

Last year, over 287,000 people attended the festival — a new record.

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Singers perform on stage during a dress rehearsal of Marc-Andre Dalbavie's opera “Charlotte Salomon” in Salzburg, Austrai on Thursday, July 24. (AFP)

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