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Editorial: Spoleto 3.0: A Charleston cultural tradition turns a new and exciting page

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Members of Ingoma Nshya: The Women Drummers of Rwanda perform at the Spoleto Festival USA opening ceremony Friday. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Friday's opening ceremony for Spoleto Festival USA was not able to be staged at its familiar, traditional venue outside Charleston City Hall because of rain, but it was able to recapture the large-scale pageantry, including a brief glimpse of artists' performances, that have been missing from its first day since 2019, and there was a sense that this important international arts event — a fixture on Charleston's cultural scene for almost half a century — is turning a significant and exciting new page, one that will maintain its artistic excellence while making it more accessible for all.

In 1977, the festival was created by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who aimed to create an American version of the then 19-year-old Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, with strong support from Charleston's new mayor Joe Riley and the College of Charleston’s then-president Ted Stern. It proved magical, as world-class operas, theater and dance productions and all sorts of musical performances were staged in beautiful city venues, not only its theaters but also its churches, auditoriums and open spaces.

The annual 17-day festival still might not have survived had it not been for Nigel Redden, its longtime general director who worked here early on, left for a time and eventually returned with the artistic expertise and business acumen needed to stabilize a festival that had struggled in the years following the tempestuous departure of Mr. Menotti.

Mr. Redden has retired, but he is not forgotten.

As Mr. Redden himself has noted, the challenge and wonder of the festival is how it must reinvent itself every year, and bringing it a fresh perspective was a primary reason he decided to step down. We're pleased to see how the new general director and CEO, Mena Mark Hanna, is bringing new energy, youth and enthusiasm to the role. The festival seems poised to begin a new era — Spoleto 3.0.

We are particularly encouraged by Spoleto Festival USA's announcement that it is offering subsidized tickets to more than 25 performances in a bid to make its shows more accessible. It also is, for the first time, selling tickets for select shows at "Pay What You Will" rates. The shows include jazz star Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya, saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and a theatrical performance featuring an all-female Rwandan drum group, The Book of Life.

The festival's offerings are top-notch, and top-notch artists — just like top-notch lawyers, neurosurgeons or auto mechanics — don't come cheap. Spoleto's ticket sales offset only about half of the festival's total cost, but for many events, those prices have been high enough to discourage some people from attending. An anonymous $50,000 donation has made these new, more affordable rates possible this year, and we applaud the creativity and generosity of that gift and hope the effort continues in years to come.

“As Charleston continues to grow rapidly, we want to ensure that the arts serve as a connective tissue across our community,” Mr. Hanna told reporter Alan Hovorka. “By lowering one barrier to entry, we hope to create a culture of belonging that welcomes curious new audience members. Our doors are open.” Aside from the new ticket discounts, the festival continues to offer about 600 free tickets to local nonprofits.

Dance and musical performances start the 2023 Spoleto Festival USA.

Recognizing the elite and occasionally inaccessible nature of the festival is one reason the city created the complementary, parallel Piccolo Spoleto Festival, where many events are more affordable, and even free.

As one longtime observer noted, Spoleto has done everything everybody had hoped it would do. It has served as a catalyst for cultural growth in Charleston and helped it return to its historical place as a leading American city for the arts — Charleston is where the first opera was produced in America in 1735 — and made the city better known to national and international travelers. It's also led to significant upgrades to the Dock Street Theatre, Festival Hall (also known as Memminger Auditorium), the Sottile Theatre and the Gaillard Center. And it has not done the damage some had worried about, such as undermining established local arts organizations.

As Spoleto board chair Alicia Gregory noted last year, when rainy skies forced the opening ceremony indoors: "The last two years have tested us and forced our resilience. The festival's responsibility to our community and to the community outside of Charleston have been brought into focus. ... While the festival knows it is imperfect, we strive to move with our community towards a better future. Our commitment to the arts provides us a platform to envision, dream and articulate a better future, grounded in our shared humanity, human agency and freedom of thought.”

While Friday's big opening was forced indoors, may the sun continue to shine on Spoleto Festival USA.

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