Behind the rhetoric of “reunifying” Spoletos

Even since Gian Carlo Menotti severed ties in the early 1990s between The Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, and its American counterpart, Spoleto Festival USA, based here in Charleston, there has been speculation about how to get the two back together.

After Menotti’s death at the age of 95 on Feb. 1, 2007, speculation has grown. Last Monday, it swelled to its highest pitch yet.

That’s when the mayor of Spoleto, Italy, and the new director of The Festival of Two Worlds Foundation (it recently changed names) arrived in the Lowcountry to meet Mayor Joe Riley and tourism officials at the Convention and Visitors Bureau to discuss ways of boosting commerce between cities.

The meeting was also seen as the latest step in “reunifying” the two festivals. The next day’s Post and Courier announced that “Spoleto may rejoin with Italian roots” and “Officials with Umbrian festival visit Charleston, discuss reunion.”

Strange thing, though. No one from Spoleto Festival USA was there.

And even if someone from the American organization had been present, what does “reunification” really mean? Beyond the obvious and so far largely symbolic, sentimental, and romantic appeal of re-establishing cultural ties with the Old World, that remains unclear.

The Festival of Two Worlds was founded in 1958. Spoleto Festival USA, which Joe Riley lobbied hard to secure, was established in Charleston in 1977. From the beginning the festivals were supported by American philanthropists enthralled by Menotti’s work on Broadway and at the Metropolitan Opera. Menotti’s reputation in fact was founded in New York City, not in Italy, so financial support in this country had always been crucial.

The rift came in 1993. According to some observers, it was sparked by the prima donna attitude of Menotti’s “adopted son,” Chip Menotti, toward American philanthropists.

Others say the elder Menotti, then 80 years old, wanted Chip to take command of Spoleto Festival USA, but its board resisted, the second time in three years the Americans clashed with the Maestro. In 1990, Menotti went head-to-head with then-executive director Nigel Redden over Chip’s role in overseeing the direction of the festival. Menotti told the board to make a decision: Either Redden goes or he goes. It was Redden who went.

Three years later, Menotti clashed again with the Americans over plans to turn over stewardship of both festivals to Chip. The Americans this time presented a united front, sending Menotti away in a huff. A few years later, Redden was rehired, and he’s been the head of Spoleto Festival USA ever since.

In the year since Menotti’s death, Chip has run the Festival of Two Worlds into the ground financially. In November, the Italian Culture Ministry (which kicks in, according to some reports, as much as 70 percent of the festival’s budget) replaced him with filmmaker and stage director Giorgio Ferrara.

Ferrara was among the “delegates” to visit Charleston to “reunify” the Spoletos, even telling Dottie Ashley, the P&C‘s performing arts reporter, that he was poised to mount an opera at this year’s festival. (Calls to Spoleto officials last week confirmed that there is no such last-minute addition to the 2008 line-up.)

In an interview Thursday, Redden said the whole notion of reunification is something of a misnomer. The festivals have always been separate organizations, with different administrators, boards, fund-raising strategies, and so on. In the past, they did indeed share artists — chamber musicians, the Westminster Choir, and even some operas. That may recommence, but a merging of the two organizations has never been a part of their history.

“They have always been quite different organizations,” he said.

A source at Spoleto Festival USA who did not want to be identified told me a formal link between the organizations is unlikely. There may be talks about how to collaborate in the future, but merging the two? Not gonna happen.

Besides, last week’s Italian visit focused primarily on trade, according to Sergio Fedelini, the local liaison who arranged the meeting on behalf of the Italians.

“We want to get our products in the States,” Fedelini said. “Charleston is a port of entry. There is an economic advantage in partnership between the two cities.”

So why all the talk about “reunification”?

Partly, it’s economic. For Italy, it’s access to the American economy. Partly, it’s cultural. For Charleston, it’s access to European history and heritage. Partly, it’s emotional, Redden and others told me, citing the importance of sentiment in the connection between the Old and New Worlds.

But beyond the economics and the romance of this family reunion, there is also the real and tangible power of prestige. A strong relationship with Italy and its festival could in the long run affect philanthropy, artistic quality, and future global relations.

As one source told me, the promise of repeat performances in Europe could spur an even higher level of artistry by attracting very high-level artists. Hey, maybe we can tempt Renée Fleming to return. Maybe not. In any event, with the good Maestro’s passing, relations seem to be thawing out nicely. —John Stoehr