Friday, May 15, 2009

My Spoleto Sojourn

I can’t recall many details of my first trip to the Spoleto Festival USA. It was 1990 and only the second time I’d been to Charleston.

The first was in September 1989 – about a month before Hurricane Hugo. So Spoleto 1990 was heavy on percussion of construction and reconstruction.

The next year I remember well.

The festival had mounted the site-specific installation art exhibition “Places with a Past” and I got to interview some of the artists involved - David Hammons, Lorna Simpson, Anthony Gormley, Ann Hamilton, Christian Boltanski and others. Good thing I didn’t know how important they were or I would have been scared to death. It was a pretty amazing time. I went repeatedly to the old city jail where Gormley had filled one floor with pluff mud and another with water. I watched Hamilton create a huge pile of blue work shirts in an old garage.

The show was not only great artistically (although it had its share of failures) but it introduced me to the Charleston that was fast disappearing. The courtyards, strange little stores in the middle of neighborhoods, container ships, overgrown cemeteries, crumbling stucco and brick.

Still, it’s a wonder I was able to appreciate “Places with a Past” or anything else because the festival blew up. The art show, and other things, had taken the spotlight off festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti and within a few weeks, Menotti had purged the festival board and staff, starting with general director Nigel Redden, who has put together “Places with a Past.”

Time passed. The festival went into a decline and a few years and managers later, Menotti quit, Redden was brought back and the festival began digging itself out of a $3 million hole. (At that time the festival’s annual budget was only about $4 million. Now it’s about $6 million.)

I’ve now known many more festivals without Menotti, who died in 2007 at 95, than with him, but Menotti is always with the festival in the best way. It was he who decided in 1977 that the run-down city with a rich past was the right place for an American version of his Italian festival. He was right.

When I moved to South Carolina in 1989 to go to work for The State newspaper in Columbia, it was to write visual arts and theater. So for the first couple of years of the festival I just went to theater and sought out visual arts, which other than a really big show every few years was mostly local. (The festival is out of the visual arts business now, which is a shame since it did such a good job with “Places with a Past” and even better with the follow-up “Landscape and Art in Charleston and the Low Country” in 1997.)

To really understand the festival and cover it, especially themes and variations on the bigger canvas, I had to go to concerts and operas.

The festival turned me into a classical music fan and a bit of an opera snob – or not so much a snob as an opera-goer with high expectations. “Die Vogel” by Walter Branfels, which hadn’t been done since his work was banned by the Nazis, was mesmerizing. The festival’s take on the 250-year old comic opera “Merlin’s Island” by Christoph Willibald Gluck (best known for his hyper-serious fare) was a delight with the two main characters coming across kind of like Bill and Ted on their excellent adventure. A sample line: “Eating makes me horny.”(That's them after eating at right.)

But I was also crazy about “Lakme” a much more traditional rendition of a very popular opera. I’ll never forget listening to the soprano and mezzo-soprano during a rehearsal in an anonymous room at the Gaillard Auditorium. I remember that better than the full production.

Over the years I’ve seen a lot at the festival that I really loved.

Both the big art shows rank high on my list.

Smaller theater pieces such as “medEia” by Dutch group Dood Paard and “The Great War” during which another Dutch group, Hotel Modern, just about set the entire stage on fire re-enacting trench warfare in miniature, were unlike anything I’ve experienced.

The chamber music series, which Charles Wadsworth (that's him at the keyboard in the photo) hosts for the final time this year, is always the most pure poetry one can find. I never tire of listening to and watching the St. Lawrence String Quartet – they rock. It was also a proud moment last year when Peter Kolkay, a USC School of Music faculty member, was up there on stage with his bassoon.

Another small, but significant high point was when a chamber orchestra played a work by Anton Webern twice during the same concert because the audience hated it to much the first time.

“Peter and Wendy,” the Peter Pan story told with puppets, and “A Doll’s House,” performed by very very small men and tall women, both done by Mabou Mines. “Tristan and Yseult” by Kneehigh Theater. “Love’s Fowl,” an opera about Chicken Little sung in Italian and performed brilliantly by small, poorly made puppets. The Richard Strauss opera “Ariadne Auf Naxos.” The 18-hour Chinese opera “The Peony Pavilion,” of which I saw 15 hours.

Some good memories.

One thing that surprises me is how many people don’t go to this world-class festival. Nope, it’s not cheap, but you can still get a good ticket for about the same price you’d pay for a half-way-decent dinner and drinks and for only $10 to $15 more than you’d spend on a local play or concert. If you don’t like in Charleston, you do have to drive, but once you finish you’re in Charleston, so what’s the problem?

As Oscar Wilde wrote in “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” which was done at the festival a few years ago, some people know “the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Working on a limited budget, I’ve made a point of always jamming in as much as possible during my Spoleto trips. I tried to spend my employer’s money the way I would spend my own. That means maybe one nice meal, but rarely is there time for many leisurely meals because I’m running from one thing to another.And I'm not there to eat. Nor am I there to sleep so I stay at the cheapest places I can find that aren't too far away and aren't completely disgusting. (I've traveled a lot in other countries so my standards for disgusting may be lower than yours.) One has to decide what's important. I know plenty of people without much money who save up and buy art. I know poeple with plenty of money who don't.

I also pride myself on how much I can see and so far the record has been 15 performances in about seven days. This year, because I really am spending my own money, I’ve figured out how to attend 17 performances in slightly less than six days. I’ll have to duck out of a couple things a little early and maybe get to one or two things a little late, and I might even fall asleep briefly during something (but I won’t be alone in that.)

Although the festival has had to cut back a bit because of the crappy economy (only one opera this year), the lineup still looks good.

My picks

“Don John,” a retelling of the Don Juan story by the Kneehigh Theatre of Wales. The group did a stunning production of “Tristan and Yseult” two years ago.

A concert for the shamisen, a Japanese stringed instrument. Old device, new music.

Jake Shimabukuro plays nice music on a mean ukulele. Or vice versa.

The festival orchestra playing “Das Lied von der Erde” (which translates to “You Could Look It Up”) by Gustav Mahler and conducted by Emmanuel Villaume.

"Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter's Lorre's 20th Century" provides a look at

this crazy century just passed through the eyes of a tragic actor.

(pictured at right)

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.(below) I don't know much about dance, but usually like the smaller dance companies (even though my dancer friends don't.)

Chamber music concerts. They don’t tell you who’s playing or what they’re playing until you get to the theater, but who cares?

I won’t be shocked if I fall in love with something that’s not on my list.

You can read a couple of my stories about the festival in the May 20 edition of the Free Times. I’ll also be regularly filing stories her from the festival starting Friday, May 22.

For more information about the festival click on the Spoleto logo on the right side of this page or go to


  1. ahhh...looking forward to reading your stories in Free Times :)


  2. i have been to mai thai in west columbia! it's great. i haven't been to spoleto yet--i keep meaning to go but may is a busy time of year...

  3. Enjoyed the read and am looking forward to the FreeTimes articles - will definitely be checking in here for your reports from the Holy City.

    Sounds as if you're scheduled to the gills - but - I'd love to see you include the Piccolo visual arts in Marion Square.

    Thanks for being our Spoleto connection.

  4. Well i want to be a good spoleto connection. So i'd suggest you not spend very much time in Marion Square. Tomorrow I'll post a review of three terrific shows taking place in Charleston.

  5. I completely agree that it's surprising how few people from Columbia make it to Spoleto. I was just ranting & raving about that on Friday! Some of my coworkers, who've lived in Columbia for years, thought Spoleto was a weekend-long outdoor music fest where you take your own chairs and coolers. Oh, my.
    This is my 10th year, I went to Tierney Sutton & Alvin Ailey this weekend and am plotting returning in 2 weeks for Noche Flamenca, & whatever else I can find that day.
    Looking forward to reading your coverage!


Post comments under the anonymous listing if you do not subscribe to one of the services listed.