Model Lawsuit Filed Against Salzburg Festival

By David Salazar

On Nov. 28, 2022, a model lawsuit was filed against the Salzburg Festival at the Arbeits und Sozialgericht in Vienna, Austria.

Per a press statement issued by Austrian tenor and activist Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, “The lawsuit in its core is about the ‘letter of commitment’ that the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus has issued over decades. The real employer, i.e. Salzburg Festival, was never issuing own contracts as provided in the Theater Labour Act. This ‘letter’ never stated the exact period of the pre-rehearsal-period therefore giving the Salzburg Festival an absolute free hand to decide alongside their own necessities, in this case from 07.01.-28.08.2020. As there was no extra- fee for the pre-rehearsals agreed and as no employee can provide his services unpaid for such a long period the ‘letter’ contained also draconic deductions from the fee during the summer months in Salzburg in case of non-attendance of pre-rehearsals. The model lawsuit wants to achieve that the additional members of the Concert Association are employed directly by the Salzburg Festival right from the first day of pre-rehearsals as stipulated in § 7 of TAG/Theatre Labour Act, that exact rehearsal-periods are agreed and paid in full, that illegally high deductions are no longer part of the employment and that the artists are socially insured right from the first day as provided by law.”

The statement continues, “Neither the Salzburg Festival, nor the State Secretary for Culture nor the Board of Trustees (Federal Government and Province of Salzburg) were able or willing to remedy the legal abuses at the Salzburg Festival that had been known for over two years and which had also been made public through open letters. Likewise, several emails to the Ministry of the Arts did not lead to a successful attempt at a solution. The dumping system via a private association, which could not even appear as an employer through which the plaintiff was affected as pars pro toto, had existed for decades and affected 60 choristers in 2020. Although, according to their own statements, all those involved, including the festival management, were aware that force majeure was not legally valid due to the fundamental opening steps and autonomous artistic planning, Salzburg invoked precisely this towards the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus, as well as towards agencies and soloists who were not required. Although the original contracts did not provide for a postponement without compensation, this was precisely what was extorted from soloists and agencies as well.

“That is why we are taking this model lawsuit as an opportunity to bring a multitude of legal violations before an ordinary court, which will then of course extend beyond the narrower circle of the choristers of the Concert Association who were directly affected, for example the Philharmonia Choir Vienna, as well as the soloists of the completely cancelled productions or the Young Singers Project. All were victims of Salzburg’s refusal to pay, which should actually have been settled at the end of September2020,” the statement adds. “Likewise, Salzburg has violated the Theatre Labour Act by depriving all short-term employees of the operas and theatre-plays for decades of the half-share of the agency fee prescribed in paragraphs 41142, after all 5 percent of the respective fees.”

The Salzburg Festival had previously denied any accusations that workers were unpaid for their works.

In a new statement in response to Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s statement, the organization’s lawyers stated, “The accusations regarding preparatory rehearsals and other agreements between the Concert Association and its choristers are outside the sphere of influence of the Salzburg Festival.

“Contrary to reports and press coverage, the lawsuit currently filed was brought by one individual additional chorister of the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus. The Salzburg Festival Fund roundly rejects the accusations levied on several occasions by the proponents of the lawsuit,” the lawyers’ statement continued. “The Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus was founded in 1927. The Salzburg Festival Fund has been engaging the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus for artistic presentations for 90 years. The Concert Association provides the Festival with a chorus which has been prepared via a rehearsal period, deciding autonomously on the membership of the chorus and holding rehearsals as its own responsibility. The individual chorus members, which the Concert Association chooses and then registers with the Festival, are employed by the Salzburg Festival from the beginning of rehearsals in Salzburg. This complies with Austrian social security law and theatre employment law, and has been a practice followed for decades.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: In his original statement, Ablinger-Sperrhacke referred to the Concert Association using the original German word “Konzertvereinigung.” The word has been translated to “Concert Association” throughout the article in all its original appearances for clarity and consistency with the Salzburg Festival lawyers’ statement.