This year’s Spoleto began with an opening gala, as it does every year. There were speeches and performances by prominent artists in the country and around the world. But, it was a little different. First, instead of City Hall or another outdoor space, the entire gala was virtual. And, in a completely unprecedented move, you can stream the entire gala (for free) until June 13. Second, instead of focusing on the festival itself, the entire event was about one man: Nigel Redden, the festival’s inimitable general director who will retire this fall.
Redden has been synonymous with Spoleto for 50 years. Getting his start at age 18, working for the Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, he took over as general manager of Spoleto Festival USA in 1986. As general director, a post he took in 1995, his vision has shaped the festival we know today. He is responsible for programming, fundraising, administration, marketing, community relations — Redden’s fingerprints can be found on all aspects of the event.
Watching the gala, you can hear how much his touch has guided not just the festival as a whole, but the individuals he has worked with. The roughly 50-minute event is full of artists and colleagues showering praise and love on their beloved Nigel. Board president Alicia Gregory gave a report of his career and accomplishments. Composer Meredith Monk gave heartfelt thanks for his vision, guidance and love. Stephen Colbert and Evelyn McGee-Colbert invited him to a shrimp-and-grits dinner. Compagnia Marionettistica gifted him a custom marionette in his likeness, hilariously and coincidentally wearing his exact suit. You get the sense that Redden’s biggest accomplishment during his tenure is a lifetime of incredible relationships.
“You’ve not only nurtured the audience and changed the audience there, but you’ve nurtured the artists. You’ve taught us all something in our time at Spoleto,” said Grammy Award nominee, Spoleto alum, and host of the gala Anthony Roth Costanzo. It was a sentiment that came up time and time again in speeches from Bill T. Jones, Michael Colgan, David Herskovits and Chen Shi-Zheng.
Laurie Anderson shared anecdotes about her previous opera works while playing her musical compositions in front of an ever-changing background. Ayodele Casel tap danced after thanking Redden for giving her a first Spoleto showcase with 2017’s While I Have the Floor. Rhiannon Giddens, co-composer and librettist for 2022’s highly anticipated opera, Omar, also spoke before playing “Omar’s Aria,” possibly a sneak peek into next year’s festival.
It was a lovely gala, and it meant the world to the man it celebrated.
“I must say, I was very, very touched by what people had to say,” Redden said of the many artists who thanked him for giving them their career catapults. “It’s been one of the huge rewards of this job is that I have felt that we have given opportunities to a wide variety of artists.”
It was a fitting opening salvo for a festival primed to feel more intimate.
“I think he was very touched by it all,” said Gregory. “I think it really spoke to his heart to hear from the artists who have worked with him for so many years. And, to hear their remarks and their gratitude. I think it really resonated with him, and I think it was a very meaningful experience.”
The gala’s structure was meant to invoke one of the most impressive elements of Redden’s tenure as director.
“One of the things that’s always impressed me … is this terrific range that Nigel has,” said Gregory. You work with so many different genres and collaborate with all of these different sorts of artists and then pull together a festival that’s cohesive and the various pieces resonate. I just think it’s really brilliant, as I’m sure everyone does, just how he’s been able to do that for so many years.”
While a paired down, social-distanced, limited engagement and limited-seating festival was not necessarily the way Redden would have wanted to spend his final season as general director, he’s elated to be returning after being forced to take 2020 off.
“The idea that we are going to have live performances. That’s what all of us involved in the festival really believe in. It’s very nice to have virtual performances, it’s nice to stream things and so on, but that’s not what we’re in this business for,” he said.
“We’re in this business because we believe there’s something very special about a person in front of you doing something that is —” he said, pausing, before finding words that feel fitting: “It becomes magic.”
Redden, who turned 70 last year, admitted the loss of the 2020 festival was a contributing factor to his decision to step down.
“It was very difficult for me that we weren’t able to do a festival in 2020. I work 52 weeks a year basically to make two weeks happen, and these two weeks didn’t happen,” he said.
After that setback, he started considering stepping down. But, Redden acknowledged another meaningful reason that now is the time to pass the baton.
“There’s been a lot of talk in the arts community about giving room for new voices. I have been at this job on and off for 36 years, which is a very very long time for anyone to be involved in, frankly, anything. Certainly to be running an arts organization that really does have significant impact on the cultural life, I would argue, of certainly the city and the state but also the country. It seemed like it was time for someone else to take over this platform. This wonderful, wonderful pulpit where one can try so many different things. Where we have an opportunity to give wonderful artists sometimes-career-changing opportunities.”
As Spoleto moves forward into a new chapter without him, Redden has specific hopes for his successor.
“What I do hope, and I hope fervently, is that whoever it is takes risks—that whoever it is pushes the envelope, pushes hard to do perhaps more than is rationally feasible but is somehow intuitively feasible.”