As I sat under the lights and overhanging leaves of the Rivers Green performance space, I was overcome by a very strong thought. The same thought came to me in multiple strong waves on opening night of The Woman in Black in Festival Hall: I am so happy to be sitting in a theater again.
After a year of Zoom play readings, stitched-together virtual performances and live streamed offerings, Spoleto Festival USA provided a desperately needed breath of fresh air. Not everything about this year’s COVID-protocol inspired season was perfect, but it was exactly the kind of cautious step needed to reenter the world of live performing arts.
When Spoleto’s 45th season was initially announced, vaccine rollout had just started, and anxiety about being outdoors and around unmasked people was still at a pandemic high. It was somewhat awkward, then, to walk into Rivers Green and remove my mask once I got to my seat. But it felt good.
Every single performer was unmasked, and every single performance (from ballet to The Cookers) included some acknowledgement of what it meant for the performers to be performing in front of audiences instead of computer screens. That felt good. And being able to applaud a performance and see the performers feeding off that energy? That felt really good.
Rivers Green was a beautiful setting for the dance program this year, and I desperately hope it returns. Several members of Spoleto’s board echoed high praise for the new pillared performance space during a May 31 board meeting. Moving forward, Rivers Green could continue to host the dance programs, or be an excellent setting for some visiting Shakespeare plays.
COVID protocols and planning meant that much of the Spoleto 2021 slate was extremely limited. New Orleans Jazz Celebration, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Two Wings and The Cookers were all one-night engagements. They all took place in the Cistern Yard, this year’s largest venue, but at a fraction of normal seating. Most of the attendants of Spoleto 2021 will have missed all four of these stellar performances. That’s a shame, and of course something that future years hopefully won’t have to deal with.
While much of the future remains uncertain, next year’s Spoleto is currently in the works as each season starts being built well in advance. 2022, in many ways, will be the first page of a new chapter, and it’s something board president Alicia Gregory is excited about.
“We need a robust festival. We need a full blown, all genres represented in all their glory, really robust festival.” she said.
We know Omar, the big centerpiece opera of the canceled 2020 season, will be making its long-awaited debut. Composed by Michael Abels and Grammy-winner and MacArthur Fellow Rhiannon Giddens, Omar is based on the life and autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, an African and Muslim man who was enslaved and brought to Charleston in 1807. During the virtual opening gala this year, Giddens performed a selection from the opera called “Omar’s Aria,” a beautiful piece that served to whet the appetite for next year’s full-scale production.
Additionally, all festivals henceforth will be guided by a new hand after general director Nigel Redden steps down this fall. The board is already in the process of selecting a new general director.
“Here we are, getting ready to embark upon a new chapter, and it’s just exciting because we have such a strong foundation for our next leader to come in and build upon,” said Gregory. It remains to be seen just how different Spoleto will feel without Nigel’s guiding vision.
Another unknown is whether Spoleto will continue to embrace virtual offerings. Some of the decisions it made this year may be worth investing in again. The availability of Chamber Music program excerpts on YouTube and the entire series airing on S.C. Public Radio opened up the sold-out showcase to those who couldn’t afford or find tickets. The Meet the Orchestra and Meet the Choir video series were also great fun, providing unique insights into the personalities of the performers.
It was unique. It was limited. It was different. But 2021 was undeniably Spoleto Festival USA. It was, in so many ways, a celebration of live performing arts after a long drought. I am very curious to see where the festival goes in 2022 and beyond.