Jazz, new children's opera highlight Spoleto Festival

May 30, 1993|By Howard Reich | Howard Reich,Chicago Tribune

The worlds of popular and classical culture will converge on a grand scale this year at Spoleto Festival U.S.A., running through June 13 in Charleston, S.C.

In the popular arena, a particularly strong jazz lineup and a personal appearance by film legend Ginger Rogers will be among the highlights.

In the classical realm, a new opera by Spoleto's founder and artistic director Gian Carlo Menotti, the American premiere of Alexander von Zemlinsky's opera "The Birthday of the Infanta," and rarely seen repertoire from the Martha Graham Dance Company are especially worth noting.

In addition, the festival will feature the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre.

"As far as the jazz programming goes, I cannot take full credit for it," says Mr. Menotti. "The specific bookings were arranged by Marcus Overton," the festival's executive director.

"But I did tell him that I would like jazz to be important at Spoleto. In other words, if we are going to do the jazz series, let's do it right."

Thus the 17th annual Spoleto Festival U.S.A. will feature the Gil Evans Orchestra performing Evans' classic arrangement of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," with Miles Evans leading the orchestra; alto saxophonist Bobby Watson and his Horizon ensemble; vocalist virtuoso Jon Hendricks and Company; be-bop pianist Barry Harris and his trio; the Jimmy Giuffre 3, with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow; and the Count Basie Orchestra.

For Mr. Menotti, 81, and those who treasure his ineffably poetic music, a festival highlight will be the world premiere of his new children's opera, "The Singing Child."

"The idea in this piece," says Mr. Menotti, "was to get children interested in opera."

In a way, said Mr. Menotti, he got the idea from "Amahl and the Night Visitors," his most beloved children's opera.

"You see, I wrote 'Amahl' for children but also with an eye for the parents. After 'Amahl,' I wrote my children's operas really for children, because children have a different sense of humor than parents, and I wanted to write opera specifically for them."

The opera concerns a child who is left home alone and retreats into a world of fantasy, a subject that seems particularly timely in this era of "home alone" children.

"Yes, I know this has been in the news lately," says Mr. Menotti, "but actually, I have been thinking about this opera for quite a long time.

"To make it better for children, there are no long arias or ensemble pieces. I found that although children love 'Amahl,' they get restless during the ensemble pieces.

"You see, once the children get into the drama, they want to know precisely what the characters are saying and what is happening, and this can be difficult for them when several people are singing at once.

"So I wrote this opera so that the words are understood very clearly."

As for the future of the festival, Mr. Menotti seems optimistic, despite the much-publicized battles he has fought -- and won -- with various Spoleto board members over the years.

"Actually, the formula for Spoleto never has changed, even with those battles," says Mr. Menotti, "and I am happy about that. It always has been a mixture of art forms, a mix of traditional and avant-garde.

"What I dream for now is finding for Spoleto a more international audience. It's the international flavor of the festival, you know, that makes it unique."

For the complete schedule and other details, call (800) 255-4659.

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