The City Magazine Since 1975

Mena Mark Hanna - General Director, Spoleto Festival USA

Morning coffee at Little Line, a favorite neighborhood haunt, fuels Hanna for full days putting the final touches on his first Spoleto Festival as general director.

WRITTEN BY Stephanie Hunt
PHOTOGRAPHS BY (portrait) Mira Adwell & (4) courtesy of Spoleteo Festival USA

Officially, he’s Dr. Mena Mark Hanna—as anyone holding a doctorate from Oxford University can justifiably be called. But the new general director of Spoleto Festival USA shrugs off the honorific—he’s simply Mena, the 37-year-old dad to two-year-old Hugo and the guy walking Agatha Christie, the family mutt, in their Hampton Park neighborhood. And they’ll all soon lose bragging rights as the new Hannas in town. That title will go to a baby girl due as this story goes to press. Yes, indeed, that means Hanna and his wife, Sarah Moriarty, will be in the throes of newborn life as he births the 2022 Spoleto Festival back into post-pandemic, full-fledged, glorious swing. Good thing the musicologist and composer knows a thing or two about harmony.

“New job, new city, new house, new baby—bring it on!” laughs Hanna, who arrived in Charleston last October. He and his young family came from Berlin, where the New Jersey-raised Hanna (an avid Sixers fan) moved in 2014 to help open the Barenboim-Said Akademie, a conservatory dedicated to the vision of Palestinian American literary critic Edward Said and conductor Daniel Barenboim. There, Hanna served as founding dean and professor of musicology and composition and was instrumental in getting the Akademie’s Frank Gehry-designed concert hall built, “the most beautiful and astounding chamber music hall in the world,” he asserts.

“It was an unbelievably heady and intoxicating time—to be working alongside Barenboim, one of the quintessential great artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, a musician and humanist who truly believes in the power of music to transform lives, build bridges, and tear down walls that are built between disparate peoples,” Hanna adds. Plus, he was fulfilling this high profile, and highly political, role (the Akademie is a largely federally funded organization, with Barenboim’s lens predominantly being the Arab-Israeli conflict), “all while not speaking my mother tongue,” says Hanna, the son of Egyptian immigrants who grew up speaking English. He also speaks Arabic, French (which his mother taught), and Italian, in addition now to German. Currently in process: a Southern accent and honing his ear to Gullah.

“That Omar is the centerpiece-a story of forced migration, based on an autobiography written in Arabic, and that I’m in a position to steward this—there’s definitely kismet here.” —Mena Mark Hanna

Despite loving his work in Berlin, Hanna was immediately interested when a colleague alerted him to the Spoleto leadership opening last year. Prior to Berlin, he had served as assistant artistic director of the Houston Grand Opera, and before that, he had worked briefly in New York for Opus 3, a leading arts management firm, so the nitty-gritty aspects of negotiating contracts and licensing, as well as arts curating and producing, were part of his repertoire. Plus, he’d long loved performing arts festivals for their “kinetic energy” generated through multidisciplinary richness and an intense time frame.

As a soprano in a boys’ choir, a young Hanna performed in summer festivals in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Switzerland, France, and Australia. “Spoleto has always been evocative to me,” says Hanna, who spent time in Spoleto, Italy, while in graduate school (a friend has a home there) and had collaborated with former director Nigel Redden (“a curatorial beacon”) at the Lincoln Center Festival while working at Houston Grand Opera. “I certainly knew of Spoleto’s reputation for pushing the aesthetic envelope, especially in opera,” he adds. “When I learned America’s premier interdisciplinary performing arts festival was looking for a new director, of course I threw my name in the hat.”

A Diverse Offering: (Clockwise from top left) The festival lineup includes performances by renowned Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour; Lebanese-American tenor and Grammy Award-winner Karim Sulayman (Unholy Wars); South African jazz musician Nduduzo Makhathini; and Brooklyn-based dance company Reggie Wilson/Fist and Hell Performance Group.


Now that he’s wearing that hat, Hanna is more than excited to be bringing this season’s program—much of which was already planned—to fruition. “That (the opera) Omar is the centerpiece—a story of forced migration, based on an autobiography written in Arabic, and that I’m in a position to steward this—there’s definitely kismet here,” he says. Hanna’s hand—and his Barenboim-nurtured belief in the power of arts to bridge divides—is evident in the incredibly diverse lineup (Karim Sulayman’s Unholy Wars is one of the offerings he brought in). Though a piano player and composer by training, Hanna is “agnostic in my artistic loves,” he says.

Art as a humanistic force and the “communal catharsis of live performance” is what jazzes him. He’s looking forward to “seeing how the festival functions at high stress points—and how I function at high stress points,” he notes—and then pushing Spoleto “to take the lead in bringing in more marginalized voices to create, imagine, and produce new work,” he adds. Like the festival itself, he says, Hanna has “an appetite for risk, for adventure.” Curtain up.

Program Notes

CAN’T WAIT: “The birth of our second child—excitement and terror can be the same thing, right?”
CHALLENGE AHEAD: “Growing Spoleto in a way that creates public value and cultivates a thriving ecosystem in Charleston.”