Spoleto's no safari
by Gian Carlo
Forty-one Festivals, forty-one years! It seems a dream. And everyone keeps asking, “What do you think about it, how do you feel?”, as if I had just completed a safari or an expedition to the North Pole. People don’t realize that these forty-one years have been a constructive experience, not just a long adventure. Questions like that don’t make sense to me – it’s as if they were asking, “How does it feel to be still alive?” When you reach the age of eighty and you still love life, what counts is the present and the future – the past can only take up a small part of your thoughts. Anyway, an eighty year old’s past is a dreary sight that looks too much like a graveyard. What a lot of friends and associates have passed away! Samuel Barber, Tommy and Nonie Schippers, Luchino Visconti, Anna Venturini, Ben Shahn, Ionesco, Nureyev, Ezra Pound, Jean Cocteau, Henry Moore; our marvellous set designers Petrassi and Valentini, sweet Mrs. Curtis-Bok, who helped me found the Festival, and all the many, many others!
And so they ask, “But what did this Festival cost you in terms of time and effort?” I’d rather not take stock of that. There would be too many disappointments to put in the balance, even if the joys and satisfactions out-weigh them. What is the point of recapitulating? The sum total of a life-time teaches little, and even the sweetest and dearest memories become poignant and painful at my age. The Festival has undoubtedly given me a lot, too, and satisfied my pressing need to be of use to a community. What artist today has the duty to talk to the Mayor, the Chief of Police, the President of the Tourist Board, bank managers and factory workers? A waste of time? No. Yesterday’s artist also had to talk to the podestà, the pope, the abbots of monasteries, the parish priests of the churches he frescoed, and the clients who commissioned portraits.
Today’s artist lives in a little world of his own that reflects only a tiny aspect of the life of a community. The confines of this universe are set by his manager (or publisher, or art dealer) and his public. But neither his manager nor his public are part of his private life. Nor can they have any great influence on his development as an artist and a man. Basically, the contemporary artist does not know his public, or knows it only as a “public”, not as human beings, his fellow-citizens, and to the public the artists is an innaccessible idol to whom it sacrifices the cost of an admission ticket, or a book, or a painting, in exchange for a few hours’ diversion.
It has always been hard for me to feel on the edges of society, and I felt the need to convince at least a small community like Spoleto that an artist is just as useful and necessary as a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. It takes patience to show your fellow-citizens that civilized man “lives” by art without even realizing it. The tune he whistles while he’s shaving has been written by a composer, and his morning newspaper and evening TV comedy are prepared by writers; the beautiful material of the dress his wife is wearing was created by a designer, so were the stylish cutlery and china that grace his table. What would his office be, without the reproductions of art works that give a tone to the place? “One is craftsmanship, the other is commercial art”, you might object, but without Art neither would exist. Mondrian changed the face of our homes (though not always for the better). Matisse surfaces in summer fabrics, Calder in toys, just as you can spot Stravinsky and Prokofiev in the movie sound-tracks of box-office hits aimed at a public that looks horrified if you mention classical or contemporary music.
After forty-one years, I don’t know how much Spoleto has realized all this thanks to the Festival. There is no denying that the economic benefit it derives from the Festival is of the first importance; but there are many Spoletini, now, who have at last become aware of the beauty that surrounds them and make efforts to take part in it. Efforts that may seem childish at times. But it’s touching to see their pride in the beauty of their town – something they were only vaguely conscious of before the advent of the Festival.
To say nothing of the Spoletini who have taken to the theatre, not only as actors, but also as technicians, and whom you meet every so often on Italian and foreign stages. That’s what counts most for me; to have been useful, albeit in a small way, to the economic and cultural rebirth of a poor little town that today is neither little nor poor any longer.
What is the point, then, of remembering the disappointments and the obstacles? Of course there were plenty, and there were hard battles to overcome the constant financial uncertainty. Right from the start, the proverbial medieval jealousy of the Italians quickly put spokes in our wheel. We’ve had “flights over Spoleto” with attendant showers of obscene leaflets, protest rallies within the Festival itself, anonymous threats, unfair accusations and unjustified criticism on the part of the press. But I maintain that adverse criticism is a useful test to measure the temper of a work of art or of an artistic event. Any art that lets itself be killed by criticism doesn’t deserve to live. Besides, it was to be expected in Italy. When people ask me what I think is the main difference between an Italian and an American, I say: “An American loves wealth and success also in his neighbour, but perhaps out of reserve, he’s quick to drop anyone who falls ill or into disgrace. An Italian is exactly the opposite: he loves his neighbour only when he’s down or ill in bed”. I’m not ill (touch wood), but I have the advantage of being eighty, and in Italy children and old folks excite either tenderness or pity. I don’t know how much more useful I can be to Spoleto, but I do think the affection that exists between me and Spoleto is still the secret strength that makes our Festival unassailable.
And the future? There are those who would like to give the Festival a new look, but I don’t think a face-lift always helps. The main thing is to create an image that knows how to stay young. The new only counts if it can create a tradition. We’ve brought the new and, like Bayreuth and Salzburg, we’ve succeeded in creating our own image and character. Let’s not lose them. And let’s not complain if our public is becoming, in the main, one of “old faithfuls”. A restaurant without a culinary tradition and a nucleus of regular customers soon finds itself forced to shut up shop.
So, what do I wish the Festival? The continuing ability to keep its independent nature and to protect itself from political manoeuvrings. In a country where it is openly and anabashedly accepted that if the superintendent of a state theatre is communist, then the artistic director must be socialist, and so on down the line (something that has become a standing joke throughout Europe and the object of disbelief in the States), it’s a real miracle that at Spoleto all the political parties agreed not to involve the Festival in their rivalries, and that in these forty-one years no Mayor has ever taken the liberty of enquiring what party I belong to or what my political views are. That is more or less what I wrote seventeen years ago, and I still agree with every word of it. A lot has happened in the meantime. Before taking stock, I would like to end this kind of premature testament with a brief overview of recent years. The future of the Festival no longer worries me, now that it is in my son’s capable hands. For a long time, Francis was a keen, attentive pupil and a shrewd observer. When he stepped out of the wings, he proved to be an outstanding manager, able to cut administrative costs and at the same time to enrich the Festival with novel artistic ideas and new sponsors.
The day came when the Festival felt the need to look into its old administration and renew it. I realized that would involve a clash with staff on whom I had relied unconditionally for many years. Since I didn’t have the courage to tackle such a tricky situation on my own, I asked Francis to help me, offering him the position of president of the Association and leaving him free to open up a new age.
Francis immediately showed he was the kind of firm, seasoned manager who is not easily intimidated by threats or criticism. In spite of underhand manoeuvres to eliminate him, he has succeeded in cutting the budget to eight billion lire, down three billion from previous years’ eleven, and this without detriment to the artistic standard of the programmes. In him the Festival has a sure, creative guide – because he not only appreciates every art form, but he also knows where to choose advisors and assistants.
It saddens me to note that none of the former staff stepped aside gracefully when asked to do so, nor have any offered to work with the new organization. All of them, especially those who had been highly paid for years and who loudly proclaimed their friendship and gratitude towards me, immediately filed exorbitant claims for damages which I feel were undeserved. But the few staff members who are still my friends make up for the bitter disappointment caused me by those who refuse to honestly assess their past, preferring to pose as victims. The pathetic little band of “enemies” who are still trying to muddy the Festival waters is now out in the open, and the people of Spoleto know the underhand ploys with which they may be trying to take over the Festival.
Relations with the members of the Foundation are not easy, either. They still refuse to understand that the Festival is my creation and that it’s not for them to decree its future. The Foundation’s role, by law, is simply to manage state subsidies (which amount to a sixth of the funds the Association must collect to meet its budget). Roll on the day when the Foundation undertakes to find new sponsors, thereby widening the scope of the Festival, instead of using our heritage and our sponsors. But all the Foundation thinks about is taking over the Association’s heritage, which I have personally and laboriously put together in the course of forty-one years.
Nor can I say that the Town Council has always cooperated with the Festival. After all these years we have still not been offered decent premises and new sites in which to stage our shows. Now that my son is at the helm of the Festival, the air is cleaner and fresher. It’s high time the Council oiled the cogs of its sluggish bureaucratic and political machine that weighs so heavily on us all. Furthermore, the local government should do its utmost to consolidate the presence of my Festival at Spoleto, making room for us and involving us in the problems of the community, as it did in the early years. It’s also high time the Council protested with the Mayor of Charleston over the arbitrary use of the name “Spoleto”, which it no longer represents in any way and only makes for embarrassment and confusion. It’s like asking people to go to New Jersey to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
People will wonder, how on earth has the Festival managed to survive for forty-one years in spite of all these obstacles? Perseverance, luck, but above all love for my work and faith in what I can still do.
After this long chronicle of victories and an occasional defeat, of many happy days mingled with times of disappointment, it is with real joy that I look to the future, in the knowledge that I have placed the Festival in hands younger and stronger than mine, and more capable.
Spoleto, January 1999