Spoleto Festival USA announced on Tuesday that for the first time in the festival’s 43 year history, the annual 17-day celebration of artistic innovation and tradition will be canceled, another cultural mainstay nixed by the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.

In a Spoleto board meeting earlier in the day, executive director Nigel Redden said, due to growing concerns about the spread of the virus, it would be “irresponsible to continue.”

While the cancellation of a festival that draws artists and attendees from all over the world may seem like a common sense move during these unprecedented times, Redden and Spoleto board president Bill Medich laid out other basic obstacles the festival faced if it moved forward.

Reasons included but were not limited to: the inability to hold rehearsals with a group of more than 50 people through May 15 as mandated by the city; limitations on international travel; and the chance that College of Charleston’s residence halls may be unavailable, which the festival uses to house its production team.

“This was certain to be one of our more memorable seasons,” said Medich during the a board meeting via conference call on Tuesday morning.

The season had already garnered national coverage, most notably of its world premiere-commissioned opera, Omar, written by Rhiannon Giddens. Both Medich and Redden point out that Giddens and her team are happy to have more time to work on the opera, and they’ve put down their dates to participate in the festival next year. 

Redden hopes to “transpose” much of this season’s schedule onto 2021, with plans in place for next year being pushed to 2022. “I think very little explanation is needed for why we are are canceling,” said Redden. “I think artists will be grateful for what we are able to provide and that we want to have them back in the future.”

According to Medich, Spoleto intends to continue paying its staff “without any hesitation.” He said, “The overall financial challenges are significant, but not something we can’t overcome. It’s not debilitating or threatening to the festival, but it is significant.”


The Spoleto team is working on virtual offerings including playing recordings of chamber music concerts from years past, and possibly broadcasting a recording of 2016’s Porgy & Bess on local TV.

“We don’t want the festival to fall out of people’s minds,” said Jessie Bagley, the festival’s director of marketing and public relations. “We want to stay as relevant as we can and keep adapting to the world around us. We’re brainstorming some ideas as soon as we get past this.”

Ticket holders for 2020 will receive credit to their Spoleto accounts for use on any future festival purchase. Ticket holders may choose to donate the value of their ticket to the festival or elect to receive a full or partial refund.

The 45th season of Spoleto Festival USA is scheduled to take place May 28-June 13, 2021.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.