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The 1980s were characterized by the trend towards contemporary art and a simultaneous clinging to outdated programme structures. The dawn of a new era was signalled between these charged polarities.

The contemporary repertoire at first became palpable in concert planning. Many works, among them by Helmut Eder, Gerhard Wimberger, Cesar Bresgen, Gottfried von Einem, Gerhard Winkler, Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt, received their first performances starting in 1980. These were followed by important world premières of operas by Friedrich Cerha, Luciano Berio and Krzysztof Penderecki, and also a cycle of opera in concert devoted to rarely played works of modern music. In straight drama, the series of Bernhard world premières continued. In 1982, another Austrian writer hit the headlines: with Über die Dörfer/Walk About the Villages, a work by Peter Handke was performed for the first time on the Festival stage.

The Festival also endeavoured – hesitantly – to open up its doors to the general Salzburg public, for instance by putting on an open day. In summer 1983, a ‘Karajan for all’ concert with the Berlin Philharmonic was broadcast on the Domplatz/Cathedral Square. In 1980, the State of Salzburg for the first time organized a Festival Opening Party. In summer 1982, this was the scene of a demonstration: members and sympathizers of the ARGE association protested against the sponsoring of ‘high culture’. Also the opening première and other Festival events were accompanied by protests.

In the mid-1980s, the debates about the orientation of the Salzburg Festival intensified. People slowly but surely realized that it had to be renewed. Therefore, in the late 1980s, the music manager Hans Landesmann was commissioned to work on a structural reform that provided for artistic and organizational re-planning. Likewise a selection committee was set up to deal with the issue of Karajan’s successor. Owing to age, Karajan had reduced his activities in Salzburg; in 1988, he declared his retirement from the Board of Directors. Nevertheless, Karajan’s death on 16 July 1989 was a shock – and simultaneously a caesura.

Already in the years prior to this, the Festival had seen long-serving Festival artists and leading figures taking their farewells: Karl Böhm died in 1981; in 1983, Clemens Holzmeister, the architect of the Festival District, and also Josef Kaut (Albert Moser succeeded him as President) passed away; in 1984, Ernst Haeusserman and Oscar Fritz Schuh died. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, the stage director most frequently engaged in Salzburg in the two previous decades, died in 1988.

An era came to an end, a new one took shape. In August 1989, Hans Landesmann, representing the selection committee, proposed the new Festival management to the Supervisory Board. At the same time, while Europe and the entire world had to re­invent themselves with the fall of the Iron Curtain, in Salzburg a new chapter of ­Festival history was being opened.