NIGEL REDDEN’S FIRST acquaintance with the Spoleto Festival was as a 19-year-old student volunteer in Italy in 1969, seven years before Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA would realize founder Gian Carlo Menotti’s dream of a Festival of Two Worlds.
Redden, born in Cyprus to an American diplomat father and an Australian mother, worked with Italy’s Spoleto Festival for five years, that first year in a capacity he describes as “the lowest of the low.” But even then he had an inkling of what the future might hold.
Today, the annual 17-day late-spring event in Charleston showcases both established and emerging international artists in more than 150 performances of opera, dance, theater, classical music and jazz. And Redden is its general director. Having previously served as the Festival’s general manager, from 1986 to 1991, he rejoined Spoleto in October of 1995, three years after an acrimonious split with Menotti resulted in the former’s resignation.
Between 1991 and 1995, Redden served as executive director of the Santa Fe Opera. In addition to his duties at Spoleto, he served as director of the Lincoln Center Festival from 1998 to 2017.
During his first tenure with the Festival, Redden succeeded in reversing its faltering finances. In 1995 he was called on again, turning its finances around from deficit to surplus once more.
The influence of the Festival has been considerable on the national stage. Locally, it has been immense. Charleston’s artistic and performance landscape has changed dramatically since the Festival started in the late 1970s, especially since the mid-90s, due in no small measure to the success of Spoleto and Redden’s management.
Q: You have seen much in your 36 years with the Spoleto Festival, beginning as a young man. What have been the most rewarding aspects of this association?
Redden: I vividly remember my first year in Spoleto, Italy. I felt I was being challenged and loved everything I saw in this wonderful world. When the Festival started here, I knew about it because I had kept in touch. I thought that eventually I would come to Charleston and run the Festival. I had known the managers over the years, and I had organized other festivals. I knew at the time I took the job that the financial situation was a bit iffy. But I believed I knew how to raise money, and it turned out I did.
Q: In what ways has your role as steward of the Festival changed in recent years?
Redden: It is much the same. The content of the Festival shifts every year, which is the wonderful thing about it. However, I think the idea behind it is the same today. I think we’ve stayed true to Menotti’s original idea. But he was not an institution builder. He really did not care about that, in a way that is true for quite a few artists. That job was left to others.
Q: Are there challenges that did not exist in quite the same way in 1986?
Redden: I think it was easier to raise money in some ways. Back then there was a large amount of government money, federal and state, that has shrunk or gone away. The National Endowment for the Arts now focuses much less on what is on the stage than on what’s around the stage, which is its prerogative. Some national foundations have reduced or stopped giving to the arts.
Q: Should we feel a special resonance during this year’s Festival, given that April marks the beginning of the city’s 350th-anniversary celebration and also the 250th birthday of the College of Charleston?
Redden: Yes. Charleston is a part of everything we do. Part of wanting to do the opera Omar was the idea of doing something that had to do with Charleston history. There are many things to celebrate in this history, and while many of the Africans who came to this port did not come of their own accord, they brought traditions and talents that helped shape the country. I also think it’s wonderful that the production reopens the Sottile Theatre. The College of Charleston is doing a fabulous job on the renovation.
Q: What has you most enthused about the 2020 Festival’s bill of fare?
Redden: There are so many. I think Romantics Anonymous is a delightful play. Emma Rice has such a gift for dealing with the bittersweet quality of romance. I know that Omar is going to be a great success. The chamber music program at the Festival has always been wonderful and, if anything, it has gotten better. Charleston native Jonathon Heyward returns home as guest conductor of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, which among other works will present a Rhapsodic Overture by Edmund Thornton Jenkins, a Charlestonian born in 1894. Then there are various pieces that will offend or challenge some members of the audience, like Meow Meow, which is raunchy, and The Believers Are But Brothers is going to stretch some people’s idea of what there should be.
Q: Is there any reason the Festival cannot continue indefinitely?
Redden: No. I think it will. We have assets today we did not always have, including our headquarters building on George Street. And Charleston offers so many wonderful [exhibition and performance] facilities that are only getting better. We also have a long history of generous, committed people who care about the Festival.
Q: Can we assay how the Spoleto Festival USA might have influenced the creation and development of other festivals around the country?
Redden: I think we have been an inspiration. Every festival is different, and I certainly don’t want to take credit for another one. But we still get inquiries about how to run a festival, and we give out information freely. It is very difficult to do these things.*
Bill Thompson covers the arts, books, and design.