Retro Cool: World's Best Classical Music and Opera Festivals

It's an Italian summer, in Italy: warm, calm lake water meets warm calm, evening air, with the flickering of pretty village lights and a watercolour sunset behind them... Then the music starts...the overture of Turandot, promising strains of 'Nessun Dorma':'no one shall sleep', fill the lakeside amphitheatre, and an expectant crowd exhales, settling in for some magic and some passion.

When it comes to music sometimes an oldie is a goodie - some refrains are passed down lovingly, appreciated anew by each generation. My embracing of retro as cool, and the appeal of a summer trip to the Italian Lakes is how I ended up at the Torre del Lago Puccini Festival shedding a tear for cold hearted Princess Turandot, her brave suitor Calaf and slave girl, Liù, instead of waving my glowstick at Glastonbury that summer. As an alternative music festival option, it proves the themes: mostly love and rebellion, that inspire musicians haven't changed much: the songs have just gotten a lot shorter. The passion for music in the audience and on stage was just the same – the audience just had a higher average age and were a little less likely to want to join in when I started dancing.

My lack of etiquette didn't have me thrown out! and inspired, I've put together a list of other great classical music festivals to consider this summer – there's a reason these composers have survived the ages instead of just the few seconds of fame gleaned from the charts.

In the category of Classical Music Festivals for Beginners is the Salzburg Festival, beginning late July. It's not that the music is in any way basic, just that part of its fame comes from the Von Trapp family, both the real ones and the ones fictionalised in 'The Sound of Music', so more people have heard of it. The Von Trapps sang traditional songs in competition, but the five week festival also hosts opera, drama and classical concerts – around 170 concerts playing to audiences of up to 220,000 – which brings a party atmosphere to the town of Mozart's birth.

Familiar names scored all over scores, have their own festivals. Beethoven's Festival, in Bonn, held August though September, fills the town's churches, theatres and public spaces with music to set the turning leaves all a quiver. There's more than just Beethoven's compositions played by some of the world's great orchestras to celebrate, this is a pretty lively cultural event all round – there's going to be drinking and dancing too no doubt, especially round the bronze statue of the great man on Münsterplatz.Bach's Festival in Leipzig recognises the Bach family's contribution to music - I would like to personally thank him for steering us away from the tinny sound of Baroque - and his influence over his students: Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert, whose music is also played here. This festival is known for its great, free outdoor events. Haydn, the 'father of symphony's Festival is in Eistenstadt in September, specialising in chamber music, spiritual compositions, piano and string trios and symphonies, and Mendelssohn gets dates in Leipzig in September, for his less fashionable but still lilting and gently colourful tunes.

If you're not an opera fan yet, but appreciate a story with some drama, then an opera festival may, surprisingly, be a good place to start listening. The Verona Opera Festival is held in in a less battered version of Rome's Colosseum, the Arena di Verona, an outdoor setting with surprisingly good acoustics and a backdrop nothing short of spectacular. The evocative Roman arena serves as an attraction for an adoring audience, it also attracts the best performers and productions. If it turns out not to be your thing you're still going to have an amazing cultural experience just visiting the arena, lit in the summer's evening light.
If you've heard of 'La Traviata', 'Rigoletto'* or 'Don Carlo' then you might try the Verdi Festival, for those, and other passionate, romantic, dramatic operatic offerings. If you're at all in touch with your emotions you probably won't be able to help but fall in love with opera here, surrounded by this kind of enthusiasm for the art, and the swoon-inducing heights and soars of Verdi’s music (that’s before the dramatically heaving bosoms and handsome lovers are taken into account.). Rossini, composer of comic operas including 'The Barber of Seville', has his tribute Opera Festival in medieval Pesaro on the Adriatic Riviera, a town famous for sandy – tanning-friendly – beaches, as well as musical geniuses.
While in sun blushed Italy, Monteverdi, regarded as the 'godfather of opera', has his tribute and festival in Cremona.

Like Verona's amphitheatre, the Savonlinna Opera Festival has a spectacular backdrop: medieval Olavinlinna Castle, where a month long festival takes residence with its Finnish and international acts and audience of 60,000. Bregenz's Opera Festival benefits from serene Lake Constance, the alpine setting beyond it and the meandering, cobbled streets that lead down to it. The Glyndebourne Opera Festival, has beautiful Glyndebourne House, its theatre and the grounds. The theatre has capacity for 1,200, but a picnic in evening dress in the glorious grounds has to be the most romantic option. Wear black tie or your floatiest dress, and bring candles, champagne, umbrellas and a snuggly blanket to wrap up in later.

In a whole category of his own is Wagner. He started his festival himself in Bayeruth, so that he could put on his epic productions just the way he wanted them, not a thought spared for the stamina and endurance of the performers involved or for the ears and buttocks of the audience. A theatre was built specially, which holds around 58,000 a festival season – sadly the applications for tickets number more like 500,000 – this is LOVE IT or HATE IT music. Kept in the family, there are still Wagners involved with the festival, though the arrangement and staging is now up to the various directors.

Festivals presenting a blend of musical genres, like the White Nights Festival, the Budapest Spring Music Festival, the Bath International Music Festival or the Paris Fete de la Musique might be a bit easier to get involved with, but it turns out that if I wanted to go dancing I should have attended The Vienna Opera Ball.

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Comments by other travellers

How on earth can you compile a list like this without the BBC Henry Wood Promenade Concerts in London? Spanning the summer for 110 years now with over 70 concerts of music of all eras, and with a unique ethos provided by the standing "promenaders" it stands out as possibly the largest and certainly one of the best of all.

1 Reply

Excellent suggestion! Thanks!

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