The arts are shunning big oil. The Salzburg Festival isn't

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The arts are shunning big oil. The Salzburg Festival isn't
Peter Sellars © Ruth Walz.

by Alex Marshall

LONDON (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- In July, opera director Peter Sellars gave a stark speech about climate change to open the Salzburg Festival in Austria, one of classical music’s most glittering events.

“We are today facing leadership across the world,” he said, “that is willing to sacrifice the next generation and the generations after that.” People everywhere, he added, had to “shift out of bad habit energies and make basic, common-sense changes in our lives.”

That night, he unveiled his new production of “Idomeneo,” which turned Mozart’s opera into a climate change parable and featured a dancer from Kiribati, an island nation threatened by rising sea levels.

Less than three months later, on Oct. 3, Helga Rabl-Stadler, the festival’s president, traveled to St. Petersburg to sign a new sponsorship deal with Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, and OMV, an Austrian oil and gas firm. The companies will each pay 200,000 euros (about $220,000) toward staging a Russian opera at next year’s festival.

Rabl-Stadler said in an email that she did not think there was a conflict between the deal and Sellars’ speech. “I believe we cannot find sustainable solutions for the future against, but only together with, the major companies in this field,” she wrote.

But the deal disappointed some politicians and activists at a time of growing concern about climate change. And it was made amid intensifying pressure on European arts institutions to sever ties with oil and gas companies.

Last year, several Dutch museums ended partnerships with the oil company Shell. (Activists claimed victory, while the museums said they had reached the planned end of contracts.) This month, the National Theater in London followed suit. In September, activists in Paris made handprints in molasses on the Louvre’s glass pyramid to protest the museum’s funding from the oil and gas company Total.

The day before Salzburg signed its deal with Gazprom and OMV, the Royal Shakespeare Company announced that it would end, four years early, a sponsorship deal with the oil company BP that provided subsidized tickets for young people.

Pressure on the Royal Shakespeare had been growing for months. In June, Mark Rylance, the Academy and Tony Award-winning actor, resigned from his honorary position with the company because of the BP deal, which also faced protest from student activists.

“Young people are now saying clearly to us that the BP sponsorship is putting a barrier between them and their wish to engage with the RSC,” the company said in a news release. “We cannot ignore that message.”

The decision jeopardized the discounted ticket program. Gregory Doran, the Royal Shakespeare’s artistic director, said in an internal email seen by The New York Times that the company was left with a “big challenge” to continue it without BP’s sponsorship. The company was determined to keep the discounts going, Doran wrote, but “we don’t yet know how.”

Not every institution has rejected support from the fossil fuel industry. The Science Museum in London, for example, has repeatedly said it will not cut its ties with oil firms, including BP. In July, Ian Blatchford, its chief executive, said in a staff email seen by The New York Times that the museum had received “vanishingly few complaints” about its oil sponsors, and that cutting ties with them “would be unwise.”

The big energy companies have the resources to help solve climate change, Blatchford added: “Demonizing them is seriously unproductive.”

The Royal Opera House in London has been the subject of protests for its sponsorship deal with BP, but has made no moves to end the arrangement. BP has also sponsored British tours by the Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg and supports the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra, an ensemble of young British and Russian musicians formed this year.

Chris Garrard, the co-director of Culture Unstained, an organization that campaigns against the funding of the arts by fossil fuel companies, said in a telephone interview that activists had not yet been successful targeting classical music institutions.

“With orchestras you have a much bigger history of sponsorship being mainstream, and it rests more on that funding model,” he said.

But he added that some musicians were starting to speak out. Mark Padmore, a prominent tenor who will sing the lead role in the Royal’s coming staging of Britten’s “Death in Venice,” was among those who criticized BP’s arts sponsorship earlier this year in an open letter arranged by Culture Unstained.

“We believe that opera sounds better when it is not associated with climate breakdown,” the letter said.

In a telephone interview, Padmore said he would not sing in an event sponsored by an oil or gas firm, and he criticized the Salzburg deal. Funding orchestras is difficult, he added, but “if we can’t find others to step in, we’ll have to evolve.”

Es Devlin, a designer who has worked several times with the Royal, said in an email, “My feeling is that there are other ways to raise funds.”

Not all observers agree. Richard Morrison, the chief music critic of The Times of London, used a column to chide “fascistic” activists for hounding oil and gas sponsors. He added that activists may soon target companies like BMW and airports that also donate money and contribute to climate change, but sarcastically said that they may be ignored because young people benefit from them.

The Salzburg Festival’s deal with Gazprom was criticized within Austria by the Green Party and the center-left Social Democratic Party. Stefanie Mösl, a member of the Social Democratic Party in Salzburg, said in an email that, by inviting Peter Sellars to give his speech, the festival had made a claim to leadership in environmental protection. The deal with Gazprom, she added, was “not in compliance with that credo.”

Rabl-Stadler said the Green Party’s complaints did not surprise her. “Everyone has their own ethical standards,” she said. “Personally, I would absolutely draw the line at arms manufacturers and gambling corporations.”

While Sellars said in a telephone interview that his speech “definitely put something in the water” among the elite who gather at Salzburg, he refrained from criticizing the Gazprom deal. Artists are meant to repurpose excess wealth to create something positive, he said, and while some institutions may be able to cope with major funding losses, he added, “they’re not paying hundreds of salaries per performance” like orchestras and opera companies do.

“As artists, our job is constructive engagement,” he said. “Our job is not to look at the world and say, ‘These are the good guys and these are the bad guys.’ ”

“There’s nobody with clean hands at this point,” he added. “We’re all making our contribution to the climate emergency, and we all have to be part of the solution.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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