Spoleto Festival USA director Mena Mark Hanna has a distinct vision for the future of the festival. That vision is reflected in this year’s lineup which is characterized by reimagining, recontextualizing and reinterpreting stories that have shaped our world.
Hanna took the helm ahead of the 2022 festival as its first new general director in 35 years. He is known professionally for being outspoken about representation in opera and classical music and denouncing the colonialism of the genre. He previously served as founding dean of the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin and as assistant artistic director of Houston Grand Opera.
This year’s festival brings in artists from all over the world who are deeply engaged in human expression and finding ways to interrogate some of the biggest issues affecting us today, Hanna told the Charleston City Paper.
“Be that different perspectives of what it means to be a human in different marginalized forms, or climate change. If there is an undercurrent to this year’s festival, it’s recontextualizing age-old stories,” he said.
Classic stories in contemporary context
Examples include a reinterpretation of Arthur Miller’s seminal play The Crucible as told through female-led choreography performed by the Scottish Ballet. And one of Western civilization’s oldest stories, Homer’s epic The Iliad, is reimagined in a radical one-man play starring Tony Award-winner Denis O’Hare (True Blood, American Horror Story).
Drawing inspiration from the complex rhythms of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, award-winning South African choreographer Dada Masilo presents a performance of Tswana dance called The Sacrifice. Masilo is internationally renowned for reinventing iconic pieces from the Western canon that speak to Black identity and feminism.
The opera this year is another instance of redux: The existential drama Vanessa was written by Spoleto’s founder Gian Carlo Menotti. He directed a 1978 performance at Spoleto Festival USA which turned out to be one of the performances that put the festival on the world map, Hanna said. Vanessa will return to Spoleto after 45 years, this time with a female director and designer.
“It’s cool to go back to a piece like that and reinterpret it through a female-led direction with Rodula Gaitanou,” said Hanna. “It’s reframing those stories, but it’s also more than that; you’re going to start seeing a kind of experimentation of form and an expansion of genre.”
Jamez McCorkle, who dazzled in the title role of Omar last festival, (the opera which recently won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Music) brings A Poet’s Love to the Queen Street Playhouse. The work is an interpretation of Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe, which is normally performed with a singer and a pianist playing together.
In the world premiere of A Poet’s Love, McCorkle will sing and play at the same time, “like a sort of 19th century Elton John,” Hanna said. “There’s a reason why that doesn’t really exist in the classical music world. To be able to sing and play that complex music in such an enmeshed manner is unheard of; it is pretty spectacular.”
One of the reasons why this year is unique — and this is something Hanna intended to lean into in future years — the lineup offers what he called “accessible points” which can lead viewers into some of the more bracing, inquisitive and interrogative shows.
“You can go see Tank and the Bangas, you can go see Nickel Creek or Kishi Bashi, stuff that you may listen to on Spotify. And hopefully, that can lead you to [going to see] something that will push the boundaries a little bit.”
This year also marks the first time the festival will offer a “pay what you will” option, so folks can buy tickets for as low as $5. That initiative is spread out across a number of different venues and performances for the festival and is supported by an anonymous donor.
Select your Spoleto lineup
In choosing which shows you’ll attend this year, Hanna recommends seeing four shows: Two shows that you feel comfortable with and two shows that expand your artistic understanding.
“The beautiful thing about being human is that we have all of these modes of expression,” he said. “And with art, we can transcend some of the most difficult social, political and cultural disparities. Art is communal. Especially the performing arts, it is this ephemeral moment of joy, of newness, of understanding, of comprehension that you did not have before you took your seat.”
Hanna said one of the performances he’s personally most excited to see is Abdullah Ibrahim, the internationally respected master musician who Nelson Mandela referred to as “South Africa’s Mozart.”
“Abdullah Ibrahim is really a senior statesman of jazz,” Hanna said. “He’s someone whose music has commented on and accompanied some of the most remarkable moments of the late 20th century. He wrote this piece called ‘Mannenberg’ which became the defining song of the anit-apartheid movement. He’s this incredible paragon of hope.
“When you think of a job like running Spoleto, I mean it’s a dream job for someone like me,” he said. “You have a checklist of people you want to see come to Spoleto and for me, he’s at the top. To see him at the Cistern under the Spanish moss at night … it’s going to be truly magical.”
For the future of the festival, Hanna promises a robust development of education and engagement activities even outside of the 17-day festival period. Another important piece for Hanna is the festival’s production of new works, which he sees as a vital part of the festival’s founding vision to be a multidisciplinary playground for the arts.
“Charleston is such a unique and important place — a place that I think encapsulates all of the challenges and the violence and the beauty of this country,” Hanna said. “To me, it’s such an exciting place to be able to create new art, to create work that provides artists a chance to really interrogate some of these big questions that we have about our society right now, as well as the broader questions about what it means to be human.”
The goal this year, and in future years, he said, is to build a festival that delivers public value the whole city can get behind and feel proud of.
“[We want Spoleto to be] a festival that is at once international and almost hyper-local in the challenges that we try to confront and bring people together on. To me, that’s what’s so exciting about specifically Spoleto in Charleston, the opportunity to steward that cultural change here.”
To view the full festival schedule and purchase tickets, visit spoletousa.org.
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