June 5, 2001
Spoleto Festival: At 25, Ever Eclectic but Newly Secure
By STEPHEN KINZER
HARLESTON, S.C., May 30 -- A lush and decadent nightclub run by gangsters, its walls covered in plush red velvet, was the setting for a Puccini opera staged at this year's Spoleto Festival U.S.A. The characters included gun-toting thugs in tuxedos, exotic dancers in fishnet stockings and a white-slaver who branded his captives with a hot iron.
This production of Puccini's rarely staged "Manon Lescaut," which sprung from the mind of the director and designer Petrika Ionesco, may be far from what the composer envisioned. But it delighted audiences here and showed why the Spoleto Festival, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, has become a major and evidently permanent feature of the American cultural landscape.
"We want the flavor of what's new, what's vivid, what has a lot of energy," said Nigel Redden, the festival director. "People here can see everything from a 17th-century opera to a 21st-century music series. We're creating the entire span, and what we present is going to define the cultural context for the majority of our visitors."
More than 70,000 tickets have been sold for this year's festival, which runs through June 10. About 80 percent of the audience is from South Carolina or other Southeastern states, and for many if not most of them, Spoleto is a crucial cultural experience. It entertains and shapes the taste of an entire region.
"Certainly there has been an arts revival in the Southeast in the 25 years since this festival began," said Ellen Dressler Moryl, director of Piccolo Spoleto, a city-run companion to the main festival. "People get inspired. In Charleston, the orchestra and ballet have gone from amateur to professional and increased their budget 10 times. You see the same thing in community after community. Spoleto is the main factor. There's been a huge spinoff effect."
The nontheatrical highlight of this year's festival was the announcement at City Hall of a $25 million fund-raising campaign to make the festival financially sound and buy and renovate a historic mansion for use as its new headquarters. Already $18 million has been raised.
"We've had a history of being stable and also not so stable," said Joel Smith, a local businessman who is a chairman of the fund-raising drive. "The purpose of this is to take the bumps out of the road."
The Spoleto Festival is one of the very few in the United States that present a diverse mix of world-class performers in a compressed time period, in this case 17 days. There are dance festivals and music festivals and theater festivals; Spoleto presents all those forms and more.
This year's offerings are being presented on nearly a dozen Charleston stages, most within walking distance of each other. The variety is as rich as ever. While "Manon Lescaut" was a dazzling visual feast, for example, the other opera, Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas," was spare and minimalist. The director, Chen Shi-Zheng, left the sloping stage bare except for a few archetypal objects like a stone and a leafless branch. Singers moved across it as if entranced.
Both the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago were well received, but dance audiences reserved some of their loudest applause for the Brenda Angiel Aerial Dance Company from Argentina. Members of this troupe perform while attached to elastic ropes hanging from the ceiling. They perform some routines entirely in the air, others by bouncing and twirling from air to floor.
The theatrical centerpiece was an over-the-top slapstick version of "A Servant to Two Masters," an 18th- century farce by the commedia dell'arte master Carlo Goldoni. London's Young Vic/Royal Shakespeare Company made it one of the festival's hottest tickets. It was staged as a raucous comedy, somewhere between "I Love Lucy" and "The Three Stooges," with references to the Beatles and Monica Lewinsky thrown in.
Other popular events this year have included "Blood Links," an engrossing personal history by the Chinese-Australian performance artist William Yang, and an outdoor concert by Virginia Rodrigues, a Brazilian singer who is being called the latest great voice to emerge from her country.
Among the shows to come are the Bal Folclrico da Bahia from Brazil (performing on June 7 and 9); a musical piece based on Jean Genet's play "The Screens" and performed by Philip Glass and Foday Musa Suso, who melds modern and traditional music from West Africa (June 8 and 9); and a concert by the jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, accompanied by Danilo Perez on piano (June 9).
As he travels the world looking for performing talent, Mr. Redden, the festival director, wears two hats. He is also director of the summertime Lincoln Center Festival, which presents a range of performing groups as wide as the one here. In shaping schedules for the two festivals, he must consider various differences between them.
Spoleto has an annual budget of $6.4 million, half of what the Lincoln Center Festival receives. Lincoln Center can afford to present bigger ensembles, higher-paid artists and larger-scale productions.
Unlike Lincoln Center, however, Charleston offers enough empty theater space in the weeks before the festival that it is possible to prepare new works. Directors of the Spoleto Festival plan to take advantage of that asset in coming years.
In New York, cultural offerings are so rich and audiences so accustomed to large scale that the Lincoln Center Festival can stage demanding events like a 19-hour opera or a long series of Pinter plays. The Spoleto Festival, in contrast, attracts many people who want to see two or more shows each day. They enjoy events like the hourlong "Dido and Aeneas," which Mr. Redden said audiences at Lincoln Center might find "a little spare."
The Spoleto Festival takes over Charleston in a way that no single event, save perhaps an October subway series, ever takes over New York. Piccolo Spoleto, the companion festival, attracts many residents with more than 700 events, most of them inexpensive or free. This year they have ranged from an outlandishly costumed man who strolled the streets reciting nonsense poetry by Lewis Carroll to a production of "Macbeth" in which the entire cast was made up of ninja turtles and other plastic figurines, none more than an inch tall.
Besides its cultural impact, the Spoleto Festival is widely credited with supplying the charge of dynamism that revitalized Charleston. New hotels here do good business year-round, and downtown streets, once all but abandoned, are lined with shops and restaurants.
"In 1977 when the festival opened, our downtown looked like a lot of downtowns in America, meaning it was sick and looked it," Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said in an interview. "Spoleto produced a real renaissance."
The festival has survived several crises. Perhaps most threatening was in 1993, when the founding director, Gian Carlo Menotti, angrily resigned. Mr. Menotti had chosen Charleston to mount an American version of the Festival of Two Worlds that he ran in the Italian town of Spoleto, and he had directed the festival since 1977.
"I and others close to the festival felt that it would never survive without Menotti," said Joseph Flummerfelt, the choral director, one of the few people who have been with the festival for all of its 25 years. "But at the point where the break came, we decided to go on alone, and we survived. Now we're a well-entrenched cultural phenomenon in the United States."
After a period of uncertainty after Mr. Menotti's departure, Mr. Redden, who had been his deputy, was hired to replace him. Later Mr. Redden added the Lincoln Center job.
The festival's most recent crisis came last year, when the state branch of the N.A.A.C.P. asked tourists to stay away from the state to protest the flying of a Confederate flag over the State Capitol in Columbia. Ticket sales fell by 20 percent, and several performers, including the dancer Bill T. Jones, canceled their appearances.
The offending flag has been removed from the Capitol but still flies nearby, a compromise that has satisfied many but not all here. At some Spoleto events the N.A.A.C.P. has sponsored what it calls informational pickets and distributed brochures asking that tourists boycott South Carolina to protest its "Confederate mindset." But as Mr. Jones's decision to perform this year suggests, the boycott campaign has lost much of its force. Even Charleston's black residents appear divided on the wisdom of pursuing it.
By overcoming these and other challenges, especially financial ones, the Spoleto Festival has not only stabilized but has also become a dominant cultural influence in the Southeast, especially in Charleston.
"We really envelop this city," Mr. Redden said. "Virtually everyone is affected by it, whether they go to a particular event or not. It's a defining aspect of life here."
© 2001 The New York Times