When people look at the Spoleto Festival USA, they’re sometimes overwhelmed. Where to start? If you’re interested in traditional classical music and opera, it should be simple enough, but it isn’t. And what’s with these operas you’ve never heard of? Or the ones that are very well known, but you can’t understand why the festival is doing such popular pieces? Then there’s the lineup of solo performers – doing what exactly? It also looks like most of the world has been imported for the jazz series.
OK, relax. This is how it’s supposed to be. The Spoleto Festival isn’t for those with narrow interests; it’s for those who want to explore performing arts of all kinds from all over. Let us provide you with a little helpful and honest guidance for the 17-day festival that starts Memorial Day weekend.
The festival was founded by Gian Carlo Menotti, who was born 100 years ago. One might think the festival would open the floodgates to celebrate this anniversary, but it won’t. The festival will mark the event with a production of his one-hour opera the Medium. That’s it.
Menotti, who is frequently viewed as the fickle and fight-prone founder of the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy in 1958 and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston in 1977. He quit the Charleston festival in 1993, but continued with the Italian festival until his death in 2007. Menotti has long been a lightning rod for criticism both as an impresario and a composer, but those who dismiss him don’t have a very good grip on his accomplishments.
Before he turned his attention and energy to running festivals, Menotti was one of the most famous 20th century opera composers, breaking new ground in a form that was largely irrelevant in the post-World War II world, especially in America. For a couple of decades he created very 20th century, very American operas. He wrote the first operas specifically for radio and television (Amahl and the Night Visitors), took opera to Broadway, and won the Pulitzer Prize twice. Much of Menotti’s music has been tossed into the dustbin of recent history, but often after a few decades folks go running to the trash when they realize they’ve tossed out some jewels.
Nor should his impact on the arts in America and on Charleston be underestimated. When Menotti arrived to start his festival, Charleston was a faded city. The South, let alone South Carolina, barely had any major cultural institutions, and certainly no world-class arts festivals. No other city in the country even came close to having such a festival for another two decades if even then. The Spoleto Festival is still the biggest and best multi-disciplinary fine arts festival in the nation.
Written in 1946 and set in a war-devastated country, The Medium focuses on a fortune teller who, to her own surprise, summons up spirits. With The Medium, Menotti took opera to places it had never been. It ran on Broadway for 100 performances, was made into a film that won a top prize at the Cannes film festival and was nominated for an Academy Award, and was performed live on the groundbreaking Studio One television program. At this year’s Spoleto, The Medium will be performed by five singers and a chamber orchestra conducted by Joseph Flummerfelt, who began working at the Italian festival in the early ‘70s and has been with the Charleston festival since the start.
Maybe The Medium can call up the spirit of the festival founder and make us appreciate him anew.
The chamber music series is the most widely recognized aspect of the festival. Charles Wadsworth began a series at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, in 1960. When the Charleston festival started, he did the same there. Wadsworth retired from Spoleto after the 2009 festival, but the chamber series continues under the direction of Geoff Nuttall, violinist with the St. Lawrence String Quartet.
Nuttall, with his ever-changing hair and intense performance demeanor, has helped attract new young musicians and infused the series with new life. He talks about the composers and music with as much enthusiasm as he plays violin. The concerts can be expected to serve up a healthy dose of the classics as well as new music.
The series has stuck with the format Wadsworth set originally at the Italian festival: you find out who is playing and what they’re playing when you show up. The goal is to encourage people to come for music, not specific works or players. Many of the operas and the festival concert of big orchestral works usually are conducted by the director of orchestral and opera music, but this year that position is empty after the departure of the dynamic Emmanuel Villaume at the end of the 2010 festival. As a result, several guest conductors are coming in.
The 32-year-old conducting wunderkind James Gaffigan will be on the podium for the festival concert. He will lead the even younger orchestra in a concert of all 20th century works: Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, Dance of the Seven Veils, from the opera Salome by Richard Strauss, and Fragments from the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Claude Debussy. After the festival Gaffigan takes over as chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.
Each year, the festival does at least one well-known opera. This year it’s The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Mozart. A few years ago, the festival’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni found the title character in dreadlocks and wearing a Speedo, while the cast cavorted in pools of water. This Magic Flute is the product of a French team that has worked with the festival for 23 years. This production was first performed in France several years ago, so it’s not a Spoleto original. But these guys always come up with something moderately outrageous, and everyone should expect a good production of an old standard. Steven Sloan, music director of the festival from 1996 to 2000, is returning to conduct.
The other opera is one as unknown as The Magic Flute is familiar. Emilie, produced once in Europe in 2010, has its American premiere at the festival.
The opera, by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, is about Emilie du Châtelet, a larger-than-life 18th century woman who is credited with inventing the concept of financial derivatives in order to pay off a $1 million loss she suffered in a poker game. In a single night.
This opera has only one character, who is female, which is something of an operatic trend. Last year the festival produced a new, one-woman-character opera based on the Persephone myth, and the Southern Exposure new music series at the University of South Carolina last year offered excerpts from another one-woman-character opera.
Women play significant roles, aside from the protagonist, in this opera. The presentation of Emilie marks the first time an opera by a female composer has been performed at the festival. Marianne Weems of New York’s Builder’s Theatre Association makes her opera directing debut with Emilie. Elizabeth Futral, who has been singing lead roles at the Metropolitan Opera for a decade, is coming to the festival for the first time to take the title role.
The Gospel at Colonus, gospel-musical version of an ancient Greek story, had a short run on Broadway in 1988. A few years later, it became an-off Broadway sensation starring Morgan Freeman and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. The musical came out of the always-adventuresome Mabou Mines theatre, which has done a number of works at Spoleto (Peter and Wendy, Doll’s House). The Gospel at Colonus was revived last year in Scotland and is coming to Spoleto for the first time this year.
England’s Kneehigh Theatre made a big splash with its U.S. debut at the 2005 festival with Tristan and Yseult and since then has appeared all over, including on Broadway. This year, Kneehigh brings a dark version of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Red Shoes. The theatre turns familiar tales into something new with its brash, colorful, and musically-rich productions.
Few playwrights in recent years have received as much attention, both positive and negative, as Martin McDonagh. The Druid Theater from Ireland comes to the festival for the first time with McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishman. Between 1996 and 2001, McDonagh created a six connected plays set in rural Ireland, among them The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Along the way, he also won a short film Academy Award for Six Shooter and wrote and directed the hilarious hit-man movie In Bruges. The Cripple, which doesn’t have all the violence and gore usually found in his plays, is set in the 1930s on a remote Irish island where a Hollywood movie is being made.
Most years the festival brings in at least one dance company with a big name and storied history that offers a program that might be called “Resting on Our Laurels” along with several young companies. This year, it’s just the latter thank goodness. The new dance companies often have mixed results both on stage and with audiences. Some people knock them because their technical abilities aren’t always those one would find in a ballet company and others think they’re just too damn weird. These criticisms are sometimes accurate, but what’s also true is that the new dance lineup is among the most exciting and engaging things the festival offers. This year looks to be particularly solid because most of the companies are headed by folks with serious dance resumes.
Corella Ballet was founded in Spain two years ago by Angel Corella, longtime principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. He and choreographer Jerome Bel, both of whom worked for many years with Merce Cunningham, have created a piece that examines the life of dancers through narrative and movement.
You can’t have dance at Spoleto without some cultural expansion. That’s being provided by a dancer and choreographer who trained with the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and has merged classical Khmer dance with some western moves and narrative. The most established of the dance companies coming is Shen Wei Dance Arts, which also touches on Asian culture in its contemporary works.
This year it seems like more performers than usual are parachuting in, but that’s always the case with the solo shows. The parade of one-person theater pieces often has little connection to the festival, the city, or the audience. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good – some have been thrilling – but often they are terribly self-indulgent, poorly written and conceived. These are the crapshoots of the festival, but once in a while you’ll hit a jackpot.
This year brings back the glitter covered drag-queen-on-steroids Taylor Mac, who will be doing something called Comparison is Violence or Ziggy Stardust Meet Tiny Tim Songbook. When he appeared at the festival in 2008, Mac was a huge hit, and shows had to be added. In two more very New York-centric shows, Edgar Oliver reminisces about his life on the Lower East Side of New York during the past 30 years, and Lemon Anderson serves up a hip-hop narrative of a life that took him from drugs and jail to a Tony Award.
The jazz lineup is its usual international, eclectic mash-up: four-time Grammy winner and festival regular Diane Reeves, as well as a Norwegian pianist, a Brazilian accordion player and a bassist from Argentina.
Those who don’t care much for classical music, opera, theater, contemporary classical music, or dance have more choices than usual in music verging on pop. Trombone Shorty, who has performed with U2 and recently gained widespread attention on the HBO series Treme, will play, as well as space banjo player Bela Fleck and the reunited original lineup of the Flecktones. Last year for the first time, the festival orchestra did not perform at the finale. Instead, the string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops,entertained the crowd at Middleton Place plantation. The new tradition continues with bluegrass from the Del McCoury Band.
Those looking for something offbeat that meshes art and music may enjoy 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. The work couples the pop artist’s silent black-and-white footage of Paul America, Jane Holzer, Dennis Hopper, Billy Name, Nico, Lou Reed, Edie Sedgwick, and others with live music by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, formerly of Luna. We’re predicting this will be the sleeper sensation of the festival.
For the best and most authentic festival experience, mix it up. Go to something you think you’ll love, but attend something completely out of character for you. You might find out you’re a bluegrass junky who loves opera, or vice versa.
The festival of 150 performances runs May 27 through June 12 at various locations in Charleston. Tickets range from $10 to $130 and can be purchased at spoletousa.org or by phone at 843-579-3100.