Outspoken Music Scholar to Lead Spoleto Festival

NYT Music

A scholar who has spoken forcefully about the legacy of colonialism in classical music will serve as the next general director of Spoleto Festival USA, the renowned arts group in Charleston, S.C., announced on Tuesday.

Mena Mark Hanna, 37, the son of Egyptian immigrants, will be the first person of color to lead the festival, which was founded in 1977.

The appointment of Hanna comes as the festival tries to recover financially from the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the cancellation of its 2020 season and led to a 70 percent decline in ticket sales this year. The festival’s leaders are also grappling with questions about increasing diversity in staff and programming amid a broader reckoning over racial justice in the United States.

Hanna, who will take office in October, said he would make it a priority to use culture to confront the legacy of slavery in the United States and build an inclusive environment.

“Art has a very unique role to play in this conversation by really harnessing its transformative power to bridge differences,” Hanna said in an interview. More needs to be done in terms of making sure that we have diverse perspectives at every single point of the life cycle of a work of art.”

Hanna will replace Nigel Redden, the longtime leader of the festival, who last fall announced plans to retire after 35 years, citing the pandemic and the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, among other factors. Redden, who is white, said at the time that the movement had made him realize the importance of stepping aside to make way for a new generation of leaders.

Hanna is a protégé of Daniel Barenboim, the celebrated conductor who founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with the Palestinian American intellectual Edward Said. Hanna is a professor of musicology and composition at Barenboim-Said Akademie, a music conservatory in Berlin named for both men. He previously served as assistant artistic director at Houston Grand Opera.

As a scholar, Hanna investigated difficult questions about cultural imperialism in art. He has called classical music a “thoroughly colonized medium” rooted in 19th-century norms, and he has criticized the persistence of orientalism in operas such as “Aida.”

At Spoleto, Hanna will inherit one of the country’s most prominent music festivals, with an endowment of about $20 million and an annual budget of about $8 million. In June, the festival finished its 45th season, staging some 77 opera, theater, dance and music performances over 17 days.

The festival is known for bringing artists together across disciplines and commissioning and staging innovative works, such as “Omar,” an opera by Rhiannon Giddens that is based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim man from West Africa who was enslaved and transported to Charleston in 1807. It will premiere at the festival next year.

Hanna said he was eager to explore ways that art might be able to help bring attention to social challenges.

“We have a unique opportunity to define how our history can inform our present and how we can be stronger for it,” he said. “We can use art to give us a glimpse of a future that can only be imagined right now.”

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