The Art of Charleston

Spoleto comes to town and the setting's a perfect fit


THE SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA and Charleston, S.C., were made for each other. One offers art; the other is art.

The city creates a magical atmosphere for festival-goers. When one leaves a production of Wolfgang Mozart's Don Giovanni, he or she isn't slammed back into the 21st century.

It's more like a walk through time.

Giant live oaks and walls of fragrant oleander shelter sidewalks. Brick walls sprout resurrection fern. Stucco flakes from the walls of 250-year-old buildings. Horse hooves click and carriage wheels rumble. Behind walls, garden fountains murmur.

The 17-day festival is as unique as its setting. Most festivals concentrate on opera, chamber music, modern dance, ballet, contemporary music, theater or visual arts. Spoleto does it all.

The festival launches its 30th year Memorial Day weekend with a $6.9 million budget and its usual eclectic lineup of artists from around the world.

Many of the 130 performances take place in historical theaters and concert halls, as well as at outdoor venues ranging from the central Cistern, or courtyard, at the College of Charleston to Middleton Place, home to the first fully planned landscaped gardens in the nation.

One of the biggest draws is always the chamber music series at the Dock Street Theatre. The series is hosted by Charles Wadsworth, founder of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, who cracks jokes, introduces the concert program (which isn't announced until then) and generally charms everyone.

"It's a fabulous experience to play there," said Andreas Diaz, the cellist in the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which will offer two concerts a day. "The audience really gets into it. No one knows what we're going to play, but they still come."

Italy of the South

Opera composer and Spoleto founder Gian Carlo Menotti knew people would come to Charleston. In the late 1970s, he began looking for a U.S. location to create a sister to his Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. When Menotti stumbled upon this time-capsule town his search ended.

What Menotti saw 30 years ago still resonates with Emmanuel Villaume, director of opera and orchestral music at the festival.

"Charleston was my first destination in the States and I remember thinking that, if the entire United States was like that, it was the most beautiful country on Earth," said Villaume, who joined the festival in 2000. "The beauty and quality of life that Charleston offers is one of the main attractions for artists coming to the festival."

This year's event includes performances by British group Kneehigh Theatre, the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company, the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the production of Don Giovanni from last year (only the second such holdover). Rounding it out are several dance groups and the world premiere of Geisha, a music theater work by Singaporean director and writer Ong Keng Sen.

The festival's radical edge sharpens or dulls from year to year.

Don Giovanni was considered fairly radical, with the orchestra in the middle of what was once audience seating and extras cavorting in a pond. But last year it was overshadowed by Mabou Mines Dollhouse, a version of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House in which all the men were about 3 feet tall, all the women were close to 6 feet tall, and sex scenes and nudity were featured.

This year's lineup appears to be one of the tamer, but like the city it will likely reveal a few unexpected secrets.

The city as stage

"The city itself has always been a stage and that's still true," said J. Michael McLaughlin, author of the book Insiders' Guide to Charleston.

The stage was set in 1680 when settlers arrived on the peninsula formed by the Cooper and Ashley rivers. Locals brag that these two rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean.

If one is looking for history, this is the place to find it. Charleston was home to three signers of the Declaration of Independence and the starting point for the Civil War. It was also the entry point for most slaves and home to a diverse religious population. Charleston is called the Holy City not just for its many churches, but its tradition of religious tolerance.

By the early 18th century Charleston was a large and rich city. The well-to-do purchased their furniture, jewelry and gowns from Europe and had their portraits painted by Thomas Sully, Benjamin West and Gilbert Stuart. And they supported the arts. The first concert was held in 1732 and the first opera performance in the colonies took place here in 1735. A theater was built a year later.

The city was spared most battles of the Civil War and Sherman's March, but a fire during evacuation as Union forces approached did great damage. An 1886 earthquake did more. But mostly, abolition of slavery ended Charleston's position of prominence.

Lost in the fog of time, it slouched into decrepitude.

In the long run, the city benefited from its decline. Much of the historic district is intact because no one had enough money to tear down and build new. Places were patched, not replaced.

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