Spoleto Festival USA: On stage and in the black
May 20, 1999
Web posted at: 6:00 p.m. EDT (2200 GMT)
By Porter Anderson
CNN Interactive Arts Writer
(CNN) -- Charlestonians call it "Spuh-LET-uh."
They're unimpressed that this annual gathering of world-class performing artists has its roots in "Spo-LAY-to," Italy. It's in that fine little Umbrian town among the olive groves that the original -- Spoleto Festival dei Due Mondi -- has held sway yearly since 1958.
But Charlestonians bow to no one, certainly not to Italians, when it comes to pronunciation.
So at Charleston International Airport, get off the plane asking about "Spuh-LET-uh." You'll do just fine as you visit what in many years has been a performing-arts festival of surprising depth and scope.
The 1999 festival: 'Moby' to Middleton
This year's festival opens on May 28 and has the customary Middleton Place fêtes-and-fireworks conclusion on June 13. The 1999 poster artwork is "O'Murphy Sister II," originally a work in oil on canvas, by Germany's Georg Baselitz.
In 17 humid days, a total 126 events are to be staged for as many as 80,000 audience members in more than 20 venues -- bringing together opera, theater, music-theater, dance, symphonic music, jazz, chamber ensemble work and choral concerts. The box office reports that ticket sales are running more than 60 percent ahead of last year's. That's the kind of news that can put a dance of the ecstatic festival honchos on the bill.
On its "fringe," Spoleto will again have visual-arts exhibitions, the Piccolo Spoleto side-festival of mostly regional arts -- and that special Charlestonian feast of she-crab soup, warm bay breezes and cordial conversation that can turn a good Spuh-LET-uh into a great one you remember for years.
Spoleto Festival USA '99 poster -- 'O'Murphy Sister II' by Georg Baselitz
New York-based Laurie Anderson and her "Songs and Stories from Moby Dick" may be among the most controversial draws of this year's festival. Anderson had spiky hair long before most of us had seen a punk in person. She creates set-you-on-your-ear electronic music that holds up to some of the best of minimalist Philip Glass and free-range rocker David Byrne. And she tells stories. Often they're way out of the order in which you remember them. Like you might dream them.
Anderson creates shuddering sonic spaces for her stories, bracing worlds of shadows and lyrics. This is work categorized as "music-theater." That's not musical theater as in "South Pacific," but a distinctive, contemporary amalgam of sound, visual symbols and movement. Other leaders in this genre are Martha Clarke and Lee Breuer, whose "Miracolo d'Amore" and "The Warrior Ant" were both in the 1988 Spoleto.
Laurie Anderson joined Spoleto a year later, with the world premiere of her operatic "Empty Spaces." This time, her space is flooded with the brooding darkness of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." She's using a Brazilian percussion ensemble and a traditional symphony to make her own brand of waves in Gaillard ("GAL-yard") Auditorium.
Familiar friends and first-timers
There's another fond return, the Compagnie Philippe Genty of France. In the 1992 festival, audiences got a look at the image-intensive dance work of this ensemble, with its taut, edgy moves and Pilobolus-like gymnastics. This time, the production is Dedale in the Sottile ("Soh-TIL-ee") Theatre.
A special nod is being given to the surrounding coastal South Carolina "low country," infrequently represented in Spoleto's presentations over the years. "Mamba's Daughters" is a play by Dorothy and DuBose Heyward. He was the librettist of "Porgy and Bess." And this show, in its Village Voice Obie-winning production from New York, is about a Southern black woman's sacrifice for her daughter. It's being staged in the historic Dock Street Theatre, one of the country's most painstakingly restored performance spaces.
In opera, this year's major work is a new staging of Giacomo Puccini's "Il Trittico," with settings by director-designer Keith Warner that include a barge in Paris' river Seine. Brent Ellis sings Gianni Schicchi to Susan Bullock's Giorgetta under the leadership of festival music director Steven Sloane. That one, like Anderson's "Moby Dick," is in Charleston's largest house, the Gaillard.
And Kurt Weill's "Die Bürgschaft" gets its American stage premiere in a production directed by Jonathan Eaton, conducted by Julius Rudel and designed by Danila Korogodsky in the Sottile. Weill, better known for his "The Threepenny Opera," wrote "Die Bürgschaft" in the Brechtian tradition of political fable and social commentary.
Sometimes there's art so quickly: Spoleto's spotty history
To outsiders, Spoleto Festival USA often seems the sort of wonder that only an imaginative opera composer, maybe a cheerfully quixotic one, might attempt in South Carolina.
Granted, the jewel-box restoration of Old Charleston -- founded in 1670 -- still looks every bit the cobblestoned setting of the Gershwins' 1935 "Porgy and Bess."
But time and urban development have been no kinder to the Deepest South than to other parts of the country. Charleston's metro area, inclusive of North Charleston, today is like so many regional sprawls in the United States -- a paved panorama of shopping centers and highways. Trailer parks are nearby.
A scene from 'Kwaidan' directed by Ping Chong, on stage June 4-13 at Spoleto
So opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti looked pretty good to the surviving culturati of Charleston in 1977 when he arrived, beaming with Italian charm and speaking that delightfully baffling language of his, to open the U.S. counterpart of his European festival.
Menotti's no slouch. He had discovered that native Charlestonians still cling to their city's Colonial reputation as a New World arts capital. He'd found plenty of quaint performance venues within walking distance of each other in the historic district. A ready tourist-industry infrastructure. A warm climate. Lots of fine restaurants. Just what the maestro ordered.
And it all nearly had an operatic end.
In 1993, just 16 years after he'd inaugurated Spoleto Festival USA, Menotti threatened to leave his own American party -- with precious few groupies left to mourn his departure. The festival board of trustees and the composer no longer agreed on artistic and budgetary decisions. Ominous accusations flew both ways about disappointing programming decisions, uneven attendance, budget deficits.
Menotti -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of the eerie operatic gems "The Saint of Bleeker Street," "The Medium" and "Amahl and the Night Visitors" -- suddenly was doing a Lucretia on Charleston's Battery. He said the festival was his. He said it had been taken away from him by the local organizers. He said he could take it back.
The Charlestonians were buying none of this. They'd seen enough Menotti performances. This time, there' wasn't a "bravo" to be heard.
Menotti picked up his baton and walked.
It looked like time for the festival's big death scene.
But as the arts world watched, Charleston rolled over, sat up and -- like any good operatic legend -- picked herself up off the floor and started singing again.
The city proved that it had learned how to run the festival as its own. Spoleto Festival USA still mounts as its unofficial twin centerpiece, two key operas each year -- the pattern set by the maestro. The festival maintains its allegiance to forward-looking movement companies, some jazz on the side, and endless chamber concerts to while away those seaside afternoons. And it never overreaches its limitations in dramatic theatrical work; one good stage play per year is the norm.
This basic formula, under general director Nigel Redden, is intact. And so are the festival's books. After three years of recovery, Spoleto-after-Menotti has a budget of more than $5 million and for three years has turned a modest surplus -- no mean feat in the world of non-profit arts fests of this magnitude.
And Menotti? Never fear, there's always another act to be sung. The maestro's original festival in Spoleto (Italy, that is) this year runs June 19 through July 11. Menotti the Younger, son Francis -- once floated (unsuccessfully) by Pere Menotti as a potential point man for Charleston -- is artistic director. The family that does opera together has staged a modest little something with music of Sergei Prokofiev for the 1999 home-fest in Italy: "War and Peace."
More on this year's lineup
"Kwaidon" is director Ping Chong's stage adaptation of three Japanese ghost tales from a collection by Lafcadio Hearn. The show uses puppets big and small, as well as dancers and actors. Kids will like this as much as adults will. It's at the College of Charleston's Emmett Robinson Theatre, an appropriately intimate space.
The Miami City Ballet, the Ballet Flamenco de Antonio Canales, the Quasar Companhia de Dança and off-Broadway sleight-of-hand master Ricky Jay (directed by David Mamet) also are on the bill.
Miami City is, with the New York City Ballet, one of the country's two top repositories of the George Balanchine repertoire. Miami is scheduled to dance a Spoleto program of the Russian-born choreographer's "Prodigal Son" and resident choreographer Jimmy Gamonet De Los Heros' "Supermegatroid."
It's a special year for Charles Wadsworth's avidly followed annual chamber-music program, as the director celebrates his 70th birthday and his 40th Spoleto -- Wadsworth is a favorite in both the Italian and the Charlestonian festivals. And the Westminster Choir under Joseph Flummerfelt, puts in its yearly appearance, this year with music of such composers as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Francis Poulenc and Samuel Barber.
The annual Festival Concert, this year on June 6, has a program featuring Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question"; Witold Lutoslawski's "Concerto for Orchestra"; and Igor Stravinsky's "The Firebird."
Jazz always has a presence at the festival. This year's series, sponsored by Wachovia, features singer Denise Jannah in the Cistern -- a large old courtyard at the College of Charleston; the world-music quartet Oregon; Cuban pianist Frank Emilio Flynn; and saxman Sonny Rollins.
Seeing the city: 'The livin' is easy'
Experienced Spoletogoers know to slightly under-book themselves into shows. Pass up a couple of programs on the lower end of your "must see" list.
Once on-site you'll want a little more time to walk among the palmettos of Battery Park, so you can look out through the haze and see beleaguered Fort Sumter. The Spanish moss dances smartly enough on the hot winds off James and Johns Islands that you can count it as a Spoleto event.
Then there's dinner, maybe at Poogan's Porch (Poogan is the dog), at an outdoor table overlooking the Gibbes Museum of Art's sculpture garden -- a long dinner, don't rush it.
The reason the Charlestonians will be looking at you as they do, so understandingly, is that they know you'll be back -- when the crowds have thinned a little, when the artists have moved on, when Spuh-LET-uh is over.
The festival comes once a year. Italian composers come once in a lifetime. The "Holy City," as the natives will surely tell you, is forever.
For Spoleto Festival USA ticket information and bookings (tickets run $10 to $75) -- as well as information on lodging and transportation -- call 843-723-0402. US Airways offers discounts off published fares, good May 25 to June 16 -- call 800-334-8644 and refer to Gold File No. 4560881. Brochures are available from the festival office at 843-722-2764.
Click here to see a schedule of events and ticket prices.