Impromptus

Salzburg Journal, Part II

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger spent approximately the middle two weeks of August doing his annual jobs at the Salzburg Festival in Austria. He hosts a public-interview series for the Salzburg Festival Society. He occasionally lectures. And he writes criticism for publications back home. Criticism appears in the current National Review and will appear in the forthcoming New Criterion. Additionally, four reviews have appeared at The New Criterion’s website: here, here, here, and here. The present journal is for non-musical dribs and drabs, although they sometimes touch on music. For Part I, published yesterday, go here.

I have commented on this before — in previous Salzburg journals, I mean. Austrian pedestrians wait at red lights, even if there are no cars coming. If the sign says “Don’t Walk” (or the equivalent), they don’t walk. This doesn’t sit well with my American bones or feet. I feel the itch.

And, very often, I just go ahead and cross the street. I mentally slap myself on the wrist and say, “Bad American.” Actually, good American: bad Austrian.

I have an excuse, other than nationality: All my life, I have been jaywalking. Can’t help it. (Get it? Jay walking.) (I know, I know: Who died and made me Benny Hill?) (He is the greatest funnyman of the modern age, isn’t he?)

Over lunch, I talk with a friend of mine who’s a French businessman. I ask about the rise of anti-Semitism in France. He says, “Anti-Jewish feelings actually find expression in other feelings: anti-rich feelings and anti-entrepreneur feelings. These are often the outlets for anti-Semitism.”

Entirely believable, bien sûr.

Speaking of rich people: At a party, I fall into conversation with a wealthy and delightful American — the husband of a friend of mine. He says that they’re having to sell their home in Aspen because the air is bad for his health. (Other people move to Colorado because they believe the air good for their health, I think.) I then learn that the couple have homes in Palm Springs, Cabo San Lucas, and other desirable places. I think there are about five of those homes.

“So,” I say to my new friend, with a grin, “you’ll have a roof over your head.” He grins back: “Yes, I’ll have a roof over my head.”

I like it when people are un-uptight about their wealth. Hand-wringing, guilty rich people are among the most annoying and exasperating people on earth.

I grew up with what I now find a strange stereotype: Rich people are boring to talk to. They have no interesting interests, and they just go on about shopping, the stock market, the quality of domestic service, etc. I guess I learned this from television and movies — the very atmosphere (certainly in my hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich., a small citadel of the Left).

Then I got out into the world and found this was a load of BS (like so much else that I had learned). There are certainly boring rich people, as there are boring poor people. But the thing about the rich, some of them: They’ve been everywhere, they’ve seen everything, and they know everyone. They know people in the upper echelons of politics, media, the arts, and so on.

At dinner one night, I’m seated next to a wealthy (and delightful) Mexican lady who tells me about Vicente Fox, Carlos Slim, and other major figures I want to know about. She also tells me a great deal about Mexican society and its pervasive corruption. Also the constant violence.

I have had many such conversations, particularly in Salzburg, I would say. I have learned a lot from rich people. I have learned a lot that is journalistically useful, actually.

Where did this idea arise that the rich are boring? Did it arise from envy, like so much else that is baleful in life?

The second guest in our Salzburg Festival Society series is Mojca Erdmann, the German soprano. She is most associated with Mozart, but at the festival this season she is singing Sophie in Strauss’s Rosenkavalier.

I can’t do anything before I ask her about her first name: How do you pronounce it? It’s a Slovenian name, Erdmann tells me — her mother is Slovenian. And it’s pronounced “Moitsa.” Do you get the idea from my rendering? Think of the second syllable of “Beloit,” as in the town in Wisconsin. That’s the sound, with an “m.” Then add “sa.”

As a tyke, she was in the Hamburg State Opera children’s chorus. In fact, she was in Der Rosenkavalier, as one of the little kids in Act III, yelling at Ochs, “Papa! Papa!” (The Ochs was the great Kurt Moll.)

With this choir, she went through my hometown of Ann Arbor. Also another town in Michigan: Grand Rapids. On that same tour, they sang at Disneyland. They sang at 9:30 in the morning, Erdmann says. Just about no one was there. The kids didn’t mind, though, because they had the rest of the day to explore Disneyland. They waited a long time for each ride, but had a ball.

Erdmann trained as a violinist before she became a singer (an adult singer, let’s say). She was a quite serious violinist. You know who else sings and plays the violin? Alison Krauss, the American bluegrass star (who is a marvel). I ask Erdmann whether she has ever heard or heard of her. No, neither.

We talk about singers of the past, and I ask Erdmann to give me a few names — a few singers she has particularly admired. She names three: Lucia Popp, Mirella Freni, and Edita Gruberová. Damn good names (and similar singers in their intelligence).

She is a woman of tremendous poise, Mojca Erdmann — onstage and off. Everything she says is well-grounded and crisply expressed.

A Japanese man (I believe) is setting up his camera on a bench. The camera is affixed to the top of the backrest. The man is about to take a picture of himself standing in front of a “scenic overlook” (let’s call it). This is very old-fashioned by now, and I think, “Ah — the original selfie.”

Remember when people did that? Set up a camera, with an automatic timer or something, to take a picture of themselves? They’re still doing it, at least this fellow is.

I sort of enjoy seeing cameras in general — they seem like artifacts. Phones, cameras, they have all blended.

Buy something in a store here, and it tends to be beautifully wrapped — like a present.

I meet an old Washingtonian, who tells me about his family and where he grew up. (By “Washingtonian,” I mean a native of the District of Columbia.) Not long ago, he went back to his childhood home to see if the rosebushes his father planted were still there. (They were.) A woman — the present owner — said, “You used to live here?” “Yes,” he said. “Are your initials J.J.P.?” “Why, yes,” said my new friend. “How did you know that?”

The woman explained, “Upstairs in the attic, someone has carved, ‘My brother is a rat,’ signed ‘J.J.P.’”

A kid of about twelve, dressed in lederhosen, plays the accordion in Mozart Square. He plays it well. Plenty of coins go into his hat.

That’s almost cheating: a cute kid in lederhosen, playing the accordion well — almost a license to print money!

In the Great Festival Hall, Bianca Jagger sits at the end of a row. I have to slide by her. I say, in my politest tone, “Excuse me, señora.” She does not give me a mean look but a wary one. I’m a good boy — and say nothing about the Sandinistas or anything.

At twilight, I have a walk around the pond at Leopoldskron (mentioned in Part I of this journal). I happen to look over, and there’s a swan swimming elegantly on the pond and the Festung, the Salzburg fortress, high on a cliff in the distance. It looks like an illustration of some medieval tale. The scene looks unreal — yet it’s perfectly real.

I think, “Those mythical, otherworldly drawings and paintings — they were actually quite realistic, or could have been.”

It reminds me of when I first went to Italy, as a student. Some of the trees looked exactly like Leonardo painted them — those tightly rolled cigarillos. Before, I had thought they were unreal trees — fake trees, as in Dr. Seuss. I had never seen trees like those. But they existed.

I haven’t seen anything yet: I get to the field, the meadow, behind the Festung. People have stopped and clustered, and seem to be gaping. Why? The dying sun is fixed on the Festung. The last embers of light are spotting the fortress. And there’s a huge, perfect rainbow, framing the field. It’s an unreal rainbow — like a rainbow out of an old Disney movie. It is thick and vivid — a Technicolor rainbow. A perfect half a hula-hoop, bold and beautiful.

Everyone is taking pictures with his phone. Otherwise, people are hushed, stunned, reverent. I do not take a picture.

Why? I haven’t brought my phone. Because it’s drizzling out, and I thought I should protect the thing.

Which is okay, because no picture could do justice to what is taking place. I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed an earthly scene more beautiful.