by Lindsay Koob
Spoleto USA’s General Director Nigel Redden gave us a candid interview last week, recounting his personal ups and downs as well as the challenges and rewards of running the Western hemisphere’s biggest, best, and most diverse performing arts festival. He’s been with the festival since 1986, with a hiatus between 1991 and 1995.
LK: What are some of your favorite memories — your supreme Spoleto moments — during your tenure?
NR: Ah, where to begin? There’s the wonderful 1989 production of Mozart’s opera, The Marriage of Figaro — one of the final productions that Gian Carlo Menotti directed ... That’s the one that helped launch the operatic career of Renee Fleming, and also Emmanuel’s (Villaume) first guest appearance here. Then there’s the earlier production at Dock Street of Rameau’s opera Platee, a baroque-era piece that’s fiendishly hard to pull off, being all about a Frog queen. But that’s just the kind of challenge that Spoleto thrives on. Then there are our productions of Salome, both Richard Strauss’s horrific opera and Oscar Wilde’s play, with its extravagant language. Several Chamber music productions at Dock Street also stand out, like the performance of the Tchaikovsky Trio featuring violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet back before anybody knew who they were. And I can’t leave out the 1990 production of Philip Glass’s Hydrogen Jukebox, with Allen Ginsburg’s libretto.
LK: How do you feel that the festival has evolved under your directorship?
NR: Well, [there’s] the matter of making the festival more of an institution, which is essential if we are to have any hope of accomplishing long-term development, including predictable fundraising and venue restoration. Aside from now being a more firmly established institution, Spoleto USA has grown as the city of Charleston has grown: what was a rather shabby town back in the ’70s and ’80s has become a much more burnished and cosmopolitan city, with a more artistically sophisticated populace. This has led to Charleston becoming much more of a destination of choice for tourists and art lovers alike. I feel that the festival has grown apace, and has definitely helped to drive Charleston’s artistic renaissance.
LK: What have been some of your biggest challenges or frustrations?
NR: The main challenge has been keeping the festival fresh and unexpected; offering material that will keep people excited about what’s on stage. Then, once future programs are decided upon, you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to pull them off. Like where are you going to find the money? The artists? And what kind of logistical considerations are involved? These are the sources of most of the frustration, the worry, even agony, that we regularly go through.
LK: Do you think that the ongoing recession is degrading the festival in any way?
NR: No, not really — though we have cut our budgets in the past couple of years. We do as much as we can with what we’ve got. But our funding resources are relatively secure, ticket sales have remained strong, and donations are actually up this year.
LK: I’ve heard Spoleto attendees ask why there was no large-scale “grand opera” this time. Was the decision to drop this year’s planned production of Puccini’s La Rondine a financial one?
NR: It was partially a financial decision, but the immediate reason was that we had decided to rent an existing production rather than do it ourselves. But then we discovered that the existing sets and props were simply too big for the Gaillard, and we didn’t want to rebuild them.
LK: Besides the obvious Charleston connections — like Flora’s part in our history, and the Chamber series’ performance of the music of Pachelbel (whose son was an early part of Charleston’s musical life) — are there any other salient festival “themes” this year? By the way, was the scheduling of both of these musical connections intentional?
NR: We try to avoid pervasive themes that tie productions together across the board. But smaller connections like these can help make things interesting for our attendees. Just about the only other “theme” of sorts this year is between our two operas this year: Proserpina and Flora. Both are essentially coming-of-age stories about young girls questioning their roles in life. And yes, the thematic connection between Flora and the chamber series’ Pachelbel Canon was intentional.
LK: Kindly tell me about your association with Emmanuel Villaume over the years, and how hard it will be to fill his very big shoes. Did his resignation come as a complete surprise? And have you given any thought to who might replace him?
NR: Emmanuel and I have been close friends and colleagues for many years, ever since he first conducted here 20 years ago. He will be sorely missed. He’s done so many wonderful and memorable things for us, like Mozart’s Don Giovanni a few years back, and, more recently, Amistad. Both were ground-breaking productions; in fact, Don Giovanni is still talked about in operatic circles worldwide as a model for future productions of all kinds. Then there’s the Mahler symphony cycle he brought us over many festivals. But his greatest legacy to the festival is the evolution of the Spoleto Festival orchestra, whose current high standards are largely the result of his attention and hard work. It’s the end of an era, and it’s hard to imagine Spoleto without him. No, his resignation didn’t come as a complete surprise, as he had mentioned the possibility, and we knew how busy he was keeping up with his European commitments as well as his ever-expanding guest conducting opportunities with the world’s finest opera houses and orchestras. And no, we haven’t begun seriously thinking about whom we might approach to replace him.