At Summer Camp With Mozart and Tchaikovsky

Louise Dorner was 14 when, during her summer break from school, she took part in a weeklong opera camp at the Salzburg Festival, the prestigious classical music event held every year in Mozart’s birthplace.

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Louise Dorner was 14 when, during her summer break from school, she took part in a weeklong opera camp at the Salzburg Festival, the prestigious classical music event held every year in Mozart’s birthplace.

Joining other children between the ages of 9 and 17 at Schloss Arenberg, a 19th-century palace with a handsome sculpture park, she learned the cello part for an abridged version of Verdi’s opera “Falstaff,” then performed it on stage alongside a cellist from the Vienna Philharmonic (whom she recognized from televised concert broadcasts). Returning to the camp the next year from her home in Salzburg, she played Leonora, the female lead in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” silently acting and gesturing onstage as three fellow cast members (including her younger sister) narrated the plot.

“The Salzburg Festival, for a young person, is something very, very prestigious,” attended by “all these rich people," Dorner, now 19 and soon to start her university studies in Amsterdam, said. From a child’s standpoint, opera productions there are highbrow and remote, especially as “the plots are very difficult to understand,” she said, and “you don’t feel this connection.”

The Salzburg opera camps “change your perspective” completely, she added: By spending a week studying the music and story line of an opera, and rehearsing next to accomplished musicians from a major orchestra, “you feel closer: you don’t feel this distance.”

The opera camps are part of the Salzburg Festival’s multipronged effort to engage with players and singers from a wide spectrum of ages and abilities. The festival also runs a young conductors competition whose past winners — such as Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla and Lorenzo Viotti — are now rising stars of the international classical music scene.

For Salzburg, these programs are a chance to show that classical music is a living and breathing discipline that can be fun and accessible, rather than the preserve of an affluent and graying elite. There are 40 participants in each of the four camps — a total of 160 children every summer — coming from all over the world, and about 100 candidates (also an international contingent) for the young conductors award.

At the opera camps, started about a decade ago, children congregate every summer (without their parents) at the palace and sing, play an instrument, act, dance, and design sets and costumes, or a combination of them. At the end of the week, they perform an opera, or a version of it.

“We adapt the scores: We have a person doing arrangements, and taking arias and rewriting them for the kids’ chorus,” said Axel Hiller, the Salzburg concert department’s opera camp coordinator. There are no solo vocalists. “Everything that is sung is sung by the chorus,” he said, and there’s some “spoken text.”

The children also attend talks by the cast and crew of that summer’s headline Salzburg Festival production — this year, it’s Mozart’s “Magic Flute” — and watch the dress rehearsal. Perhaps most exciting, for their own show, they get to play side by side with “a handful of members of the Vienna Philharmonic," Hiller noted. “This is helpful.”

The 2018 festival is organizing four children’s opera camps. They include “The Magic Flute” (for ages 9 to 13), Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” (ages 10 to 15) and Hans Werner Wenze’s “Bassarids” (14 to 17) — which actually does require a few soloists.

The Young Conductors Award involves an older and more experienced group of musicians. Set up a decade ago with the support of Nestlé, it is being given out for the ninth time this year, and the prize is 15,000 euros (about $17,500).

About 100 applications have come in from all over the world this year, according to the organizers, and have been narrowed down to three contenders. Applicants cannot be over 35 and are required to send in a résumé, a letter of recommendation and a list of pieces in their repertoire, as well as a DVD showing them conducting orchestral pieces from different centuries and periods. “We have people applying who just conducted for two or three years,” said Florian Wiegand, the festival’s director of concerts. “It’s always a very diverse group of people applying.”

The jury chooses three finalists, each of whom will conduct a concert at the beginning of August, before a winner is named on Aug. 5.

The competition aims to “build a relationship with the younger generation and help them start a career," Wiegand said, adding that there was evidence that it gives winners and finalists a “huge push” professionally.

Viotti, now 28, won in 2015; he was named principal conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon in October. The 2011 winner, Ainars Rubikis, now 40, is the new music director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, one of Germany’s most important opera companies.

Grazinyte-Tyla, 31, is music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England. When she first arrived in Salzburg, the Lithuanian-born musician did not go unnoticed. “It was very obvious to us in 2012 that she would become one of those really fine musicians," Wiegand said. “She’s very grounded and down to earth, but still gets respect from all the orchestras.”

Grazinyte-Tyla acknowledged that Salzburg had been a career springboard. Winning the award “certainly set a whole chain of events in motion in my life,” she said in an email. “A few months later, I had the chance to go to Los Angeles as a Dudamel Fellow,” named for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, Gustavo Dudamel. That “later turned into an assistant conductor position.”

“My current position,” she said of the Birmingham Symphony, “is another one of the doors opened” by the award.

Wiegand said the festival deliberately kept ticket prices for the award concert weekend “very low” in an effort to “convince the audience to come to all three concerts.”

When winners are announced, audience members have heated exchanges about the chosen one, both among themselves and with the organizers. “It’s very easy to just represent the big artists who are on the market,” he explained. The festival has a parallel duty to nurture the stars of tomorrow — and to give the audience a chance “to see people grow.”