For 17 days each summer, the sleepy seaside town of Charleston, S.C., turns into a busy hive of cultural activity with every possible venue, large and small, filled from noon to night with the sights and sounds of opera, jazz, theater, dance and more during the annual Spoleto Festival USA.
Considered one of the top such annual cultural events in the country, if not the world, the festival brings cutting-edge performers and artists from around the globe to the Southeast for an intense art marathon that’s sure to give a jolt to even the most jaded culture vulture. This year, festival organizers have crammed more than 120 performances between May 24 and June 9, making 2013 the largest and busiest Spoleto Festival yet. The fringe-style events of the concurrent side-festival Piccolo Spoleto, which announces its lineup at the end of March, will more than double the options.
To help you sort through it all, we’ve picked eight “can’t-miss” highlights from the lineup for Spoleto 2013.
1. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
Narrowing all the choices down to eight is a tough call, but picking a No. 1 is a cinch. The Bristol Old Vic production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will feature the inventive artistry of Handspring Puppet Company, which designed the horses for the stunning production of “War Horse,” which played Atlanta’s Fox Theatre last year. The production will be produced in the gorgeous 18th-century Dock Street Theater. Organizers know they have a sure hit on their hands: There are 14 performances scheduled (most productions at Spoleto run for just a few performances). We think it’s a safe bet that every single one will sell out. Get tickets early. May 23-June 9. $26-$80.
2. ‘Le Villi’ / ‘Mese Mariano’
Opportunities to see blockbuster operas such as “Tosca” and “Andrea Chénier” come around often enough, but what about great composers’ lesser-known works, those hidden gems and seminal early pieces? This double-bill presents the opportunity to see two seldom-performed one-act operas: “Le Villi” by Giacomo Puccini and “Mese Mariano” by Umberto Giordano. In Puccini’s first opera, a young man who abandons his fiancée for the temptations of a seductress is tormented by vengeful spirits after her death. In Giordano’s “Mese Mariano,” a fallen woman seeks to visit the son she gave up to an orphanage in her youth. May 25-June 7. $25-$90.
3. ‘Messa da Requiem’
Spoleto was founded in 1977 by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who died in 2007. With each passing year and each change in the festival’s organization, there are fewer connections to the artists and curators who created the ground-breaking early festivals. This makes the opportunity to see Verdi’s dramatic “Requiem” conducted by Joseph Flummerfelt a major event. Flummerfelt has been Spoleto’s Artistic Director for Choral Activities for 30 years, and this will be his farewell performance before retiring from the position. He’ll conduct the Westminster Choir, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra. June 6. $15-$65.
4. Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía
Not that flamenco needs anything to make it more dramatic, but Spain’s renowned Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía takes the art to new heights, blending their exacting take on the traditional folk form with a boldly contemporary approach to dance performance. Think castanets and frilly layered bata de cola skirts, but with a modern spin. According to the New York Times, the company’s “theatrical sophistication sets it apart from most flamenco productions.” Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía soloists Pastora Galván and Rocío Molina, who will perform in the company’s production of “Metaforo” at Spoleto, are widely considered to be two of the most exciting dancers working in flamenco today. May 31-June 2. $15-$60.
5. Behind the Garden Gate
Anyone who’s ever been to Charleston has caught occasional glimpses through wrought iron gates or beyond stone walls into beautifully lush, hidden courtyards and gorgeous, tucked-away gardens. For the first time ever, Spoleto has added an official garden tour, allowing festival visitors the opportunity to explore the secret gardens of the historic city’s finest houses. May 25. $50.
6. ‘Rebound: Dissections and Excavations in Book Art’
The emphasis at Spoleto is firmly placed on the performing arts, but there’s a small but mighty visual arts component, as well. Last year’s installation by Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto, created entirely out of ordinary table salt painstakingly poured into delicate patterns on the floor of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, turned out to be the talk of the festival. This year, the same venue hosts “Rebound: Dissections and Excavations in Book Art” featuring artists who use books as their primary material, including Atlanta-based sculptor Brian Dettmer. May 23-July 6. Free.
7. Rosanne Cash
If country music had a royal family, it would be the House of Cash. Rosanne Cash’s latest album, “The List,” is a collection of cover songs drawn from a list of 100 essential country songs her father, Johnny Cash, gave her when she was 18 and learning the ropes. She likewise draws from a rich heritage in performance with a show that can be loose, fun and joyful, but also serious, weighty and heartrending. At some point in their careers, artists often say they’re “getting back to basics,” but it seems Rosanne Cash never left them. June 2. $35-$50.
8. ‘The Intergalactic Nemesis’
What exactly does a “live-action graphic novel” look like? Apparently, it’s something to see. Austin-based writer Jason Neulander and artist Tim Doyle found they had an unexpected hit on their hands when they turned their graphic novel “The Intergalactic Nemesis” into a live performance. Three actors give voice to Doyle’s artwork projected on a giant two-story screen for this epic story inspired by the sci-fi pulp serials of the 1930s. “The Intergalactic Nemesis” tells the story of intrepid reporter Milly Sloan as she uncovers an evil plot to destroy the earth by an invading force of alien sludge monsters called Zygonians. The show, which has become a runaway success since its creation in 2010, makes a stop for a two-week run on Broadway in April just before heading to Spoleto in May. June 5-9. $25-$35.
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