Conversation: Spoleto Festival USA Making 34th Appearance in Charleston

BY Tom LeGro  June 8, 2010 at 1:21 PM EST

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“Flora, an Opera” at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo by William Struhs.

For 17 days and nights every spring in Charleston, South Carolina, theaters, churches and outdoor spaces are home to opera, theater, dance, and chamber, symphonic, choral and jazz music. More than 140 performances will go on at Spoleto Festival USA, which is now about halfway into its 34th season. It’s an event I’ve wanted to experience and cover for the NewsHour for some time — I hope to make next season the year.

On Monday, I spoke to Nigel Redden, general director of Spoleto Festival USA (and also director of Lincoln Center Festival), about this season’s many offerings, the challenges of putting on a festival of this scale and what makes Spoleto so unique.

 
Nigel Redden
 
 

(A transcript is after the jump.)

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me from Charleston on the phone is Nigel Redden, general director of the Spoleto Festival USA. Welcome to you.

NIGEL REDDEN: I’m glad to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Spoleto, of course, now has a very rich history. How would you describe it today? What do you see as characterizing it?

NIGEL REDDEN: Well ,I think that the thing that characterizes the Spoleto more than anything is the idea that all the performing arts somehow interact with each other in a way that is unpredictable. We have performers of dance theater, opera, jazz, world music and somehow you see a connection between a Wolfgang Rihm opera written two years ago with ballad opera written in England in the early 18th century. You see a connection between a dance company and pieces of theater, somehow these connections are human connections and that I think is really what characterizes the festival.

JEFFREY BROWN: Who sees that? You mean the audience sees that? Do you see that?

NIGEL REDDEN: The audience. No, I think the audience ultimately creates a festival for themselves. We do 140 performances in the course of 17 days, so obviously no one can attend everything. It’s impossible in fact to attend every single event — some of them of course are repeated. It’s impossible to see every production. And so that an individual audience member will make an individual festival for themselves. They’ll see perhaps the dance company, followed by chamber music concert, followed by theater and so on, and they will see connections that somehow are not art historical, they’re not musicological — they’re just human.

JEFFREY BROWN: I see, so you want us to see the links. So, how do you go about programming that? You’ve got to have some challenging productions, I assume you’ve got some crowd pleasers in there. How do you create the links?

NIGEL REDDEN: Well, I think that we want to do is to create something other than simply Chinese menu — you know, one of this, one of that and one of the other thing — we really want to create a meal, and we want to create a feast that somehow things do complement each other. And ultimately it’s intuitive. That is that somehow this combination of events works in this particular city. So this year, for example, we have the first opera every performed in America, which was performed in Charleston in 1735 and inspired the building of a theater in Charleston.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is Flora?

NIGEL REDDEN: This is ‘Flora, an Opera.’ And the theater was recently — or the successor theater — was recently renovated, and we thought this would be a great way to open it. It was a relatively, let’s say thin piece as far as a plot goes, but ultimately it has some interesting social commentary. It’s about a young woman who wishes to marry the man of her dreams. On the other end of the spectrum, we’re doing ‘Proserpina,’ which is this new Wolfgang Rihm piece, which is also about a marriage — I mean, that is Proserpina best known as Persephone in the Greek myth is taken to Hades by Pluto and forced to become his wife. It’s a very complicated view of marriage. A very complicate view.

JEFFREY BROWN: That hasn’t changed though through over the ages.

NIGEL REDDEN: I mean, these are obviously not musicological, but somehow they make people think and I think that’s what’s exciting about a festival.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, it must be interesting for you when you kind of plot this ahead of time and I assume you see some of these productions, but then when you stage it there in Charleston are there always surprises for you? What stood out this year?

NIGEL REDDEN: I mean, there are number of things that have been surprising and gratifying. One is that we have a new director of our chamber music series, Geoff Nuttall, who’s the director the first violin of the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, I’ve seen them — they’re very exciting to watch, I think.

NIGEL REDDEN: They’re a wonderful quartet and Geoff is a terrific director — not to take anything away from Charles Wadsworth, who ran the program for many years — but what Geoff has done is taken a new sensibility to it. For example, we had the ‘Grosse Fuge’ the other day on the chamber music series — we do 33 concerts in 17 days, 33 chamber music concerts in 17 days, which I think is probably, you know, as many are ever performed in the town the size of Charleston. The ‘Grosse Fuge’ is the late work of Beethoven, it’s a difficult piece of music and somehow putting it into the context of these concerts where there is also a work that we commissioned. So the work actually finished in 2010. The ‘Grosse Fuge,’ written in the early 1800s and the ‘Grosse Fuge’ was very complex, very difficult to hear in some ways; the newer piece was actually quite luscious and quite wonderful. And I think, you know, it’s those surprising juxtapositions that always sort of thrill me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you also have the Lincoln Center Festival, and I want to ask you, just sort of going back where we were at the beginning here, how you think about programming for different festivals, different cities and venues, how a site or place specific do you want it to be?

NIGEL REDDEN: Well, I think that any good festival, certainly any great festival, has to be site specific in some way. And the site dictates the content. I mean, sometimes — we’re dealing with the history Charleston in Charleston, or we are dealing with particularities of a kind of theater or we’ve arranged things so that the actual city itself, which is a beautiful city, becomes part of the overall aspect of the festival. In New York, obviously, it’s a different question because there’s so much going on in New York all the time that one has to do something that is much more focused. I mean, the Lincoln Center Festival takes place primarily at Lincoln Center, and Lincoln Center is a center of classical western European performing arts, with the exception of course of jazz and films, which are also part of Lincoln Center. But we play with the idea of classicism at Lincoln Center and try to look at classicism in other parts of the world, but we also try to look at the kind of productions that couldn’t be done at Lincoln Center at any other time of year. So for example we are bringing a huge play that’s in Japanese called ‘Musashi,’ which is a kind of comedy directed by this wonderful director Yukio Ninagawa. But we’re also doing a 12-hour-long drama based on the Dostoevsky’s novel ‘The Demons,’ which is directed by Peter Stein, who is a great German director whose work has not been seen all that often in America. And we’re actually going to Governor’s Island to stage this work. And that’s one of the luxuries of the festival in New York has is that we can go to unusual places to put on performances and places that typically one would not necessarily associate with Lincoln Center. But I think that we at Lincoln Center have felt that we are the art center of New York and therefore New York is to some extent part of the pallet that we can use when we’re thinking about events that we can put on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, finally just coming back to Spoleto, you are putting it on this year at a time of, you know, high anxiety in the economy, unemployment, state budget cuts, all kinds of foundations cutting back. Have you felt that? How has it affected the festival? How do you cope with that?

NIGEL REDDEN: Well, we have felt it. I mean, the state of South Carolina, which used to be a major supporter of the festival, and really quite significant supporter the festival, has reduced its support to probably 5 percent or actually less than 5 percent of what it once was, so it’s a huge, huge cut. We’ve tried to pull in our belts. We’ve done productions that are not quite as lavish as they have been in the prior years and we’ve tried to use our resources wisely. One of the things, however, that I think is enormously gratifying is that our ticket sales are substantially up over last year already and we haven’t reached the end of the festival. We’re already a few hundred thousand dollars ahead of where we were at the end of last year’s festival and we still have about a week to go. Also our donations from individuals are up. That is a strong sign that for many people this is an important area, an important aspect of their lives — the arts — and they have been very generous on a personal level. Corporations have tried to continue to help, but clearly you can’t expect an organization that’s not doing well itself to give away a lot of money. So we’re grateful for what we receive. Personally I think that this festival represents such an important part of the community, such an important way to celebrate this particular place that we’ll figure out how to keep going in spite of recessions, in spite of — well, we went through a hurricane, we can cope with a few more of these things. I hope we don’t have to go through that again.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Nigel Redden is general director of the Spoleto Festival USA. Thanks for talking with us.

NIGEL REDDEN: Thank you.