How about dinner with Mozart in Salzburg?

To those who thought the opera was for the connoisseurs, the Mozart Dinner Concert at the oldest restaurant in Europe will be a welcome surprise and a wholesome delight

By Asha Iyer Kumar

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St Peter Stiftskulinarium in early 20th century
St Peter Stiftskulinarium in early 20th century

Published: Thu 7 Dec 2023, 5:02 PM

Last updated: Fri 8 Dec 2023, 4:25 PM

I first visited Salzburg in 2016, which also was my maiden tryst with Europe. That’s when I learnt that Salzburg, The Sound of Music and Mozart are synonyms. You cannot think of one without alluding to the other. I had just got exposed to Western classical music at that time, and the Austrian buskers across the land brought me closer to the genre of music that until then had felt beyond my ken.

That’s when I got introduced to Mozart and to what the world hails as his genius repertoire. Now, seven years later, in an incredible upgrade of my musical tastes, I listen to Mozart at work to stay focussed and unstressed. I have also transformed from a novice listener to a more invested fan, thanks to a revisit to the town where the maestro was born.

Drawn by the baroque charm and the melodic vibes of Salzburg that I imbibed during the first visit, I went there again in the autumn of 2023 on way to the Bavarian Alps. I wanted to soak in the atmosphere that lingered in my memory as the place where the wind created symphonies in the air and the sound of music made me feel like “I was sixteen, going on seventeen” again.

Since it was a reprise of an old visit the reminiscences of which were still fresh, I had to be a prying traveller and find something new to do. Having ticked the major boxes already the previous time, I wanted to explore the nooks and corners for that’s where the soul of a place reclines, waiting to be discovered. I foraged the internet to find fresh things to indulge in other than gallivant in the old town and discovered the ‘Mozart Dinner Concert’ at St Peter Stiftskulinarium.

It seemed a tad pricey, but it promised an exquisite experience and I made a reservation well in advance, for seats were filling up with each day I took to decide. It isn’t easy to choose from a host of Mozart concerts that are advertised online, but what made me put my money on this one was the idea of watching a Mozart opera in the Baroque Hall of Europe’s oldest restaurant.

Yes, St. Peter Stiftskulinarium, located within the sprawling St Peter Abbey Complex, a benedictine monastery, was first mentioned in 803 and its most famous guests include Christopher Columbus and Mozart’s family. It is a place where legends abound.

The Barocksaal at St Peter Stiftskulinarium
The Barocksaal at St Peter Stiftskulinarium

A lyrical dinner to remember

To imagine that I will be dining in a setting that ancient, doused in real candlelight that spreads its warm glow across the chic seating, tucking in culinary delights inspired by the baroque era and be treated to Mozart’s most beautiful compositions performed by the finest musical talents in Salzburg dressed in authentic Rococo costumes, revved my heart up like nothing else had in recent times. It was going to be a one of a kind experience, and I was all set for the rich, theatrical soiree, dressed in an evening gown to meld with the majestic moment.

Walking into the seventh-century St. Peter complex in the heart of the old town was like entering a history book and haute epicurean traditions. The Stiftskulinarium itself is unique with a part of it built into a mountain and its sprawling interiors with 11 dining rooms, each with its own unique charm and archaic design were both fascinating and eerie at once.

The Barocksaal or The Baroque Hall (built in 1903) with its stuccos, frescos and ornate ambience was the perfect backdrop for a silvery evening, but I was apprehensive – will the opera that is touted to be the best spectacle for a tourist in Salzburg beguile me? Or will it be a boring tableau that would fail to resonate with me?

Led to our tables by the most courteous waiters, I took my own time to absorb the magnitude of what was to ensue - an opera. I remembered the famous lines from the movie Pretty Woman, “People's reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it.” Will I? Won’t I?

My worries popped and settled as soon as the five string instrumentalists and the two singers, baritone Fernando and soprano Donata, all dressed in elaborate costumes of the 18th century took the stage. What followed was a confluence of music and playacting that was as foreign as it could have been to someone like me, but the manner in which it was rendered made it seem as if I had been at operas for as long as I could remember.

The simplicity and spontaneity of the performances made me fall in love with what I feared might be a letdown, given my unfamiliarity with the art form. Such was the grace and command of the performers, who sang arias and duettos from Mozart’s famous operas Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute and A Little Night Music that I forgot the lyrics made little sense to me. The programme booklet, however, sufficiently apprised me of the script and the songs. The felicity of the occasion took over and an entire audience was in thrall, delighting in the three-part operatic treat.

A delectable, three-course meal was served in between the three acts - the art and the food never fighting for attention and leaving ample time for the audience to revel in both separately. The menu, inspired by historical recipes from Mozart’s time included clear lemon chicken soup (with curd cheese and rosemary dumpling), supreme of roasted capon with a glass of red wine and herbs with creamy white polenta (cornmeal) and vegetables from Padre Prior’s garden.

The sumptuous courses were rounded off with the original Salzburger Nockeral, a special native souffle dessert. The evening couldn’t have got any more exotic. Vegetarians need not fret; ask for it and your special meal will be served by the ever-obliging waiters. I made lasting memories as the brightest in art met with the finest in cuisine on that Fall evening.

Baritone Singer Fernando Araujo
Baritone Singer Fernando Araujo

Mozart is for one and all

“The whole purpose of the Mozart Dinner Concert which began in 1996 is to bring Mozart’s operas closer to ordinary people. It didn’t intend to offer cheap entertainment to tourists but aimed to make it easier for even a first timer to enjoy Mozart’s music. The approach is classical the way Mozart and his contemporaries would have intended, and it maintains the highest artistic quality, but the style is such that people around the world will be entertained,” says Baritone Fernando, whom I met a day after the concert.

Speaking to Fernando about the genius composer was like getting acquainted with his music in a way a toddler learns his first nursery rhymes. “Mozart wrote music for the elite and for the common man. And his themes were very ahead of his time. He glorified women. Today we talk about feminism in an intellectual way, but in Mozart’s operas, women are depicted as cleverer than men. “He is the perfect classical composer for our times.” Indeed, Mozart was ahead of the curve as demonstrated by the fact that he rushed overnight to marry Constanze Weber, the 19-year-old daughter of his landlady without the consent of his father or his future mother-in-law to save Constanze from ignominy and scandal.

Fernando Araujo, born in Brazil, is a master vocalist in his own right having been a part of international recitals with eminent voices in world opera and owning a number of other noteworthy credentials. He had cherished dreams of coming to Salzburg to learn voice and piano, dress and behave like Mozart from the age of six or seven. He came to Salzburg 21 years ago, and perfected his art at the University Mozarteum, and has been Senior Lecturer there since 2002. He is also the Artistic Director of the Mozart Dinner Concert.

On that evening, Fernando and soprano Donata, who is still at the university were complete naturals. They improvised their acts and engaged with the audience with such ease and cordiality that under their influence the Concert Hall turned into a venue for musical merriment. It is this spontaneity and the fun element of the Dinner Concert that sets it apart from the conventional operas that take place in theatres.

Making music and memories last

The need to revive Mozart in a way that people would pay tribute to his genius without feeling inadequate or inferior could not have been done in a better way. But what if the attempt to paraphrase elite art forms like the opera that only the connoisseurs can appreciate takes away from its core content and essence? It doesn’t, confirms Fernando, who considers these performances a means to make classical music relevant to the new times. ‘It promotes sustainability in music,’ he reiterates. “There are at least 30 big names in classical music today, but you don’t get to listen to their music every day. The Mozart Dinner Concert brings music to the lay man; to people of all ages, cultures and statuses and helps them connect with something they think they will not understand or enjoy.”

Indeed. From what I witnessed, not many in the Baroque Hall that day were experts. Some of them probably knew the songs, but a majority of them were there out of curiosity and an eagerness to get acquainted with the richness of classical music. I was among the latter; the only piece of Mozart that I can quickly recall is his Symphony No.25 which became iconic to Indians after Titan Watches adopted it as its ad jingle.

On day two, when I went to the Concert, not as a guest, but as a journalist who wanted to tell the tale of how Mozart’s protégés down the centuries were striving to revive his magic and ladle it on a platter to the layman, Fernando in his characteristic manner made me an impromptu part of the show, and I played along exhibiting my amateurish histrionics, thrilled in the thought that here I am, playing a cameo in a Mozart opera.

‘Are you an actor?” I was asked by the soprano, as I bowed and took a round of applause at the end of the show with the rest of the ensemble.


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