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Nature in the Leading Role: the Rock Theatre in Hellbrunn

A mystical, almost unreal aura envelops the Rock Theatre. Both summer and winter, the archaic stone stage in Hellbrunn Park radiates an atmosphere quite beyond compare. Not without reason is the old Rock Theatre close to Salzburg City regarded as a unique structure – wrested from nature with hammer and chisel, only to meld with it again in perfect harmony. We will take you on a stroll to the Rock Theatre, a stroll through time itself.

You might imagine you can almost hear the sounds of opera, the voices of singers echoing off the rock, and the melody of the orchestra perched upon their stony platform. We stand before the massive entrance to the Rock Theatre, likewise hewn out of the rock. Extending before us is the oval auditorium, with space for up to 500 guests to take their seats beneath an open sky. How must it have been when, back in the early 17th century, operas or pastorales – baroque instrumental pieces – were performed here? I think we are agreed: It was probably incredibly impressive to guests, especially if the mere presence of the stage itself can evoke such astonishment even today. Indeed, the sight of an imposing stage sculpted out of the rock fills us with a feeling that verges on reverence. In silent awe, we walk around, climb the stage, peek into corners and small caves. We discover numerous passageways and entrances to the left, right and behind the stage, and learn that these made it possible for performers to appear at the precise place the production in question demanded.

An opera under the open sky

The first performance of an opera in the Rock Theatre was a major premiere from two perspectives: When Claudio Monteverdi’s opera “L'Orfeo” was presented here on 31 August 1617, this was the first time that an opera had ever been shown outdoors in Central Europe. And, “L'Orfeo” is still regarded as the first opera ever, making it a milestone work in the history of western music. How appropriate, then, that the Salzburg prince-archbishop of that time ultimately chose the Rock Theatre as the venue. Prince-archbishop Markus Sittikus von Hohenems, who commissioned the building of the Rock Theatre, was a great patron of music and the theatre. So it was that he had the former quarry in Hellbrunn, which had supplied stone for construction of Hellbrunn Palace, transformed into a rocky theatre. By 1616, he was finally able to indulge his passion for music and theatre here in this beautiful setting amid nature. And at the same time, he had managed to create an architectural masterpiece.

Always a memorable experience

Actually, every now and then Hellbrunn’s Rock Theatre hosts special events even today. Sadly, these highly sought-after performances are on the rare side, which might possibly have something to do with the fickle weather conditions in our climes. That said, regardless of what plans the weather gods might happen to be forging, whenever a concert, dance performance or play is scheduled for the stage of the Rock Theatre, it is something not to be missed. Though even when it is silent, pristine and empty, with no event scheduled, a visit to the Rock Theatre is always impressive – at any time of year. As for us, we will now walk down the beautiful pathway back to the Hellbrunn Palace Grounds, the Rock Theatre now at our back. Though certain to return.