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Spoleto Festival USA

Charleston, South Carolina
May 23 - June 8

Superlatives come easy to Spoleto USA. The high-brow festival -- in one of the country's most popular tourist towns -- presents a wider selection of arts than any other Southeastern spring festival. Organizers claim Spoleto is the only truly comprehensive arts festival in the nation. It draws some of the most prominent names in opera, jazz, dance, symphony, theater, literature and visual arts -- from the San Francisco Ballet to self-taught folk artist Thorton Dial.

Despite offering such a rich selection, Spoleto USA in recent years has gotten more attention for being poor. Perhaps more than any other festival in the nation, its budget has been as prominent as its performers.

General director Nigel Redden, who took over Spoleto USA after its financially-disastrous 1995 season, calls that "regrettable."

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"Half of the [$3 million accumulated] debt has been retired, and we fully expect to balance the budget this year," he says. "What we do is very expensive -- it's expensive to produce an opera -- so inevitably, there is always going to be a tight rope."

The tug-of-war between lavish performances and limited budgets is the kind of dichotomy that defines and enriches Spoleto.

"I think the contrast between this historic city and a contemporary sensibility tells us something about who we are," says Redden. "We are not simply people of the 1990s. I think it's a dialogue. I think when an artist reacts to that context, the result is richer than when there is no reference."

Downtown has maintained much of the Charleston's centuries-old charm with many remaining colonial buildings, old churches, and pastel-walled town houses with side porches and lush, hidden gardens.

Chamber music at the Dock St. theater

"The thing about Charleston is that it dramatically changes during Spoleto. It is not a large town -- the entire area is transformed," says Redden. "There are performances in every conceivable place -- on the street, in churches ...."

One of this year's two operas -- "Curlew River," based on a Japanese Noh play -- is being staged in a church. The other -- the grim, contemporary "Wozzeck" -- gets some elbow room in a municipal auditorium.

The dance lineup includes "Tharp!" -- choreographed by Twyla Tharp, using music from Shaker Hymns to Esquivel's "bachelor pad" grooves -- and the San Francisco Ballet with the Spoleto Festival Orchestra.

Among other highlights of the 17-day festival: The orchestra and the Westminster Choir's presentation of Verdi's "Requiem," appearances by jazz masters the Gene Harris Quartet and Ahmad Jamal, candlelit performances by a Taiwanese dance troupe, and a production of "The 3 Musketeers."

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In addition, a site-specific art exhibition called "Human/Nature: Art and Landscape in Charleston and the Low Country" will present works throughout the city from artists such as Thorton Dial (a Southern "outsider" artist who creates sculptures with sticks, hoses, and other refuse), Esther Mahlangu (a South African artist known for her colorful, tribal wall-paintings), and Adriaan Geuze (a Dutch landscape artist who will create a Zen garden in a swamp).

"I like to think of it as going to a spa," says Redden of the wide-ranging festival. "I feel that this is a spa for the mind. You see a wide variety of things, more than you would usually see or even want to see -- the same way you might exercise more than you normally would at a spa -- but it is out of the ordinary. It's something special."

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