Who among the audience gives any thought to how long it takes to embroider beads all over a costume? Who thinks about how much work is involved in finding the perfect color for a material? All this effort has only one aim in mind: to create a unique and unforgettable theatre, opera or concert experience. Over a number of weeks, the Swiss photographer Alberto Venzago was able to observe that a unique atmosphere, reflecting perfection and hard work, is found behind the scenes in the ateliers of the Costume, Make-up and Wig department during the Salzburg Festival.
Q: How did you go about your work? Had you made a plan as far as which ateliers and places you absolutely wanted to see?
A: In the last couple of years I’ve covered contemporary opera productions in Salzburg with two short films (about The Soldiers and Gawain), so I was already somewhat familiar with the conditions and, above all, the people backstage. There wasn’t really a plan. I let myself be led like a child by the interiors, the materials and, of course, the artists.
Q: Were you able to move freely backstage?
A: Yes, there were no limitations. Everyone was very understanding and helpful. What caused me trouble at first, was the endless labyrinth of passageways you have to negotiate to reach the different departments. It’s amazing how the buildings have grown together.
Q: How did you experience the different staff members?
A: At first I was really overwhelmed by the number of staff members. I’ve known the opera since I was a child, but to experience such an enormous backstage area really was very impressive. They are all experts in their fields and they like to be considered artists; the level of creativity and handicraft is of the highest order. Despite the incredible pressure of each individual production, I saw so many laughing and relaxed faces – being Swiss, I noticed it straight away! There was this typical Salzburg affection and serenity.
Q: Are there particular moments you like to remember?
A: The greatest compliment was when, after spending an hour taking pictures, the staff approached me to ask when I was going to start working. To be invisible is a pre-condition for this type of work.
Q: What camera did you work with and why did you decide only to take pictures in black-and-white?
A: Oh dear, it often felt a bit like being in the belly of a whale: dark-dark. But it was a joy to work with a Leica M and the super fast Leica lenses, and then to see the results. I love to work with open aperture. I’ve been photographing pretty much exclusively in black-and-white for forty years. That’s part of my signature.
Q: How did your work in Salzburg differ from other series?
A: My other stories mostly take place in the dark, meaning the dark of the soul. I love evil, the concealed – whether on the side of the powerful or the suppressed. Here in Salzburg everything was flooded with light, and animated by the spirit of the music and the opera. In other words, an ideal world.
Q: Your brother, two years your senior, is an internationally sought-after conductor and pianist. Do you have a particular connection to classical music? Or what is your personal favorite type of music?
A: Wagner, Strauss, Mahler. I grew up with classical music in my parent’s home. We didn’t have a television, but we did have the first stereo system in the neighborhood. When I was young I also got to know The Beatles, The Doors, Led Zeppelin and the popular bands of the time. That was a completely different kind of education that changed me a lot. I’m a real hybrid! My brother always surprises me with new pieces that I didn’t know. He’s now just been rehearsing all the Bruckner. It was a real revelation to me.
Q: Did the project change your view of musical stage productions?
A: Of course not; but my respect as a viewer, who sits in the audience and only sees the front side, has grown. Maybe now I pay attention to more of the details that used to get painted over by the music and weren’t visible.
The official opening of the The Magic Behind the Scenes exhibition at the Großen Festspielhaus was on July 18, 2015. During the Salzburg Festival it will open up one hour before each of the performances.
Thank you for your time, Alberto!
– Leica Internet Team
Read the interview in German here. See more of his work on his website and Facebook.