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Salzburg Festival Journal: Paging Peter Gelb


SALZBURG, Austria — Jürgen Flimm, the noted German director of opera and theater and the outgoing artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, has a message for Peter Gelb: he’s available.

Mr. Flimm suggested that I pass the message on the other day when he sat for an informal interview in his airy office adjacent to the festival halls here. He has directed two productions so far at the Metropolitan Opera, both big successes by any measure. There was Beethoven’s “Fidelio” in 2000, set in some repressive modern-day regime and starring Karita Mattila. Then there was his searing, sensually graphic staging of Strauss’s “Salome” in 2004, also starring Ms. Mattila, in an uninhibited and vocally blazing account of the title role.

New York is “really my town,” Mr. Flimm said. And the Met is “the best in the world.” He thinks that Mr. Gelb, whom he respects enormously, may link him with the “old regime” of Joseph Volpe. But he would shift his schedule in a moment to return, he said.

On the other hand, Mr. Flimm, 69, is intensely busy right now. His first season as intendant of the Berlin State Opera (Staatsoper Unter den Linden) begins this fall with the premiere of “Metanoia” by the German composer Jens Joneleit. The house is to be closed for the next three years while a major renovation takes place. For the interim, the company will work at the newly renovated Schiller Theater. The move to the Schiller was arduous, Mr. Flimm said: “We took everything, even the mice!”

The demands of this new job compelled Mr. Flimm to leave his post at the Salzburg Festival a year early. He was scheduled to complete a five-year tenure in 2011. His last year will be taken over by Markus Hinterhäuser, the festival’s innovative director of concerts. Mr. Flimm was sorry to give up Salzburg early, he said, but could not resist the invitation from his good friend Daniel Barenboim, the music director of the Staatsoper, to join the team in Berlin.

During his four Salzburg seasons, Mr. Flimm fostered innovative modern productions of opera and made the festival a haven for contemporary music. By choice and temperament, he brought sweeping conceptual themes to the programming of operatic, concert and theatrical fare. For his first season in 2007, the theme was the Nocturnal Side of Reason. Can love overcome death? Do the mighty — and the gods — play games with the rest of us?

This summer Mr. Flimm has borrowed the title of an essay by the Austrian writer and musician Michael Kohlmeier as the theme for the festival: Where God and Man Collide, Tragedy Ensues. As you can see, a festival is a serious enterprise these days in Salzburg.

The centerpiece is the premiere production of the latest opera by the German composer Wolfgang Rihm, “Dionysos,” inspired by Nietzsche, which opened recently. But the other operatic offerings also explore mythological themes (Strauss’s “Elektra” and Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”) or feature characters who push the boundaries and shatter protocols, come what may (Berg’s “Lulu” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”).

Asked about the financial scandal that roiled the Salzburg Easter Festival this year, Mr. Flimm emphasized that the summer festival he oversees is a separate entity entirely.

As to that message Mr. Flimm wanted conveyed to Mr. Gelb? Consider it done.

By Anthony Tommasini