An academic who has spoken forcefully about the legacy of colonialism in classical music will be the next general manager of Spoleto Festival USA, the renowned arts group from Charleston, South Carolina announced Tuesday.
Mena Mark Hanna, 37, the son of Egyptian immigrants, will be the first person of color to lead the festival, founded in 1977.
Hanna’s appointment comes as the festival tries to recover financially from the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced the cancellation of its 2020 season and resulted in a 70% drop in ticket sales this year. Festival officials are also grappling with questions about the growing diversity of staff and programming amid a larger racial justice context in the United States.
Hanna, who will take office in October, said he will make a priority of using culture to address 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 truly harnessing its transformative power to bridge differences,” Hanna said in an interview. “More needs to be done to ensure that we have diverse perspectives at every stage of the life cycle of a work of art. “
Hanna will replace longtime festival leader Nigel Redden, who announced his intention to retire after 35 years last fall, 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 made him realize the importance of stepping down to make room for a new generation of leaders.
Hanna is a protégé of Daniel Barenboim, the famous conductor who founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with the Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said. Hanna is professor of musicology and composition at the Barenboim-Said Akademie, a music conservatory in Berlin named in honor of the two men. He previously served as Assistant Artistic Director at the Houston Grand Opera.
As an academic, Hanna studied difficult questions about cultural imperialism in art. He called classical music a “completely colonized medium” rooted in 19th century standards, and he criticized the persistence of Orientalism in operas such as “Aida”.
In Spoleto, Hanna will inherit one of the most important music festivals in the country, with an endowment of around $ 20 million and an annual budget of around $ 8 million. In June, the festival wrapped up its 45th season, staging some 77 opera, theater, dance and music performances over 17 days.
The festival is known for bringing together artists from all disciplines and for commissioning and staging innovative works, such as “Omar”, an opera by Rhiannon Giddens based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim from Africa. from the West who was enslaved and transported. in Charleston in 1807. It will premiere at the festival next year.
Hanna said he was eager to explore ways in which art could help draw 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. “