“Why go to Charleston every spring?” asked a friend, after learning I’ve missed only one Spoleto Festival USA since 1983. “What do they have that Charlotte doesn’t?”
Short answer: Everything.
Wordy answer: Long-forgotten operas by masters, cutting-edge work by living composers, theater from around the world – everything from acrobats to marionettes to new dramas – jazz veterans or avant-gardists we don’t see, daring modern dance companies, internationally known ballet troupes for whom Charlotte has never been a destination.
If that’s not worth a three-and-a-half-hour drive, what is?
The festival has announced its 2018 lineup, which runs May 25-June 10; individual tickets go on sale Jan. 22. I have seen 200-plus Spoleto performances over the years and endured maybe a dozen out-and-out duds, so you might take a chance on anything you fancy. You’ll find the schedule at spoletousa.org, or you can get information at 843-579-3100.
If you’ll let me be a tour guide, here are a baker’s dozen of events I’d put first. I’ve chosen four things that run the length of the festival, three from each of the weekends. (Remember, cool things also happen mid-week.)
Bank of America Chamber Music – The festival’s best bargain, bar none. Programmer Geoff Nuttall, first violinist for the St. Lawrence String Quartet, perfectly understands his responsibilities as programmer, host/raconteur and creative leader. The lineup of world stars this year includes countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, violist Meena Bhasin, pianist Inon Barnatan (seen in a magnificent Charlotte Concerts pairing in 2015 with cellist Alisa Weilerstein) and trombonist Peter Moore, co-principal for the London Symphony. The JACK Quartet will join the St. Lawrence in a world premiere octet by composer-in-residence Doug Ballett.
“The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” – The Cornish theater company KneeHigh came to Charleston with “Tristan and Yseult” in 2006. It’s back with a happier pair of lovers: Bella and Marc Chagall. The artist immortalized them in his paintings, where they fly over Russian fields and villages. In real life, they endured pogroms, poverty and the Russian Revolution, finally emigrating to Paris in the 1920s. Director Emma Rice entwines Daniel Jamieson’s dialogue with Russian music and dance. Go down a day early, and you can see a preview performance May 24 at reduced prices.
“Pia de’ Tolomei” – Gaetano Donizetti wrote two pieces every opera lover knows (“L’Elisir d’Amore” and “Lucia di Lammermoor”), a few more they should and more than 50 that have disappeared into the mists of history. (I’m an opera geek, and I’ve heard perhaps a dozen of those.) “Pia” is new to me, but this episode from Dante’s “Purgatorio” explores one of Donizetti’s favorite themes – a jealous husband wrongs his wife, wreaking havoc beyond his expectations – and has been set in pre-World War II Tuscany for its U.S. premiere.
“Tree of Codes” – I get nervous reading a synopsis that ends with ”We don’t have the answers; we have the questions.” Still, Australian composer Liza Lim is played around the world, Chinese director Ong Keng Seng did a fine job three years ago with the modern “Facing Goya,” and they’re adapting an art book by Jonathan Safran Foer to take us on “a journey through multiple realities.” Conductor John Kennedy specializes in this sort of thing, too.
“Artifacts” – Flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reed and drummer Mike Reid came together to cut an album by this name, exploring music from the 50-year history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. That Chicago group, formed 53 years ago and still active, has created experimental music that goes beyond genres, though it might be classified as jazz. This trio will play music from the album and original compositions.
“Backbone” – The category “physical theater” can meant pretty much anything Spoleto wants from year to year. This year it means the Australian company Gravity and Other Myths, which sold out a show called “A Simple Space” in 2014. It’s back with a kind of athletic storytelling propelled by a live score created onstage, in a show that explores aspects of strength.
Miami City Ballet – If I could see just one show at Spoleto this year, here’s where I’d go. MCB has entered the top tier of American ballet companies, and this program offers two works by dead masters – George Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” and Kenneth MacMillan’s “Carousel Pas de Deux” – and two by respected living choreographers, Alexei Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH” and Justin Peck’s “Heatscape.” MCB will also devote a gala opening-night performance to Jerome Robbins in “Celebration: The Art of the Pas de Deux.”
Dorrance Dance – The sad thing about Spoleto is that dance companies usually stay one weekend, so you can’t see all the prime stuff without multiple trips. Michelle Dorrance, who has revitalized tap dancing, is an exception: Her two programs run June 1-9. The evening-long “ETM: Double Down” uses electronic floor boards to let dancers manipulate their sounds; the other show offers the philosophic “Myelination,” the whimsical “Jungle Blues” and “Three to One,” a barefoot-and-tap-shoe juxtaposition.
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder – Tenor/mandolinist Skaggs has played bluegrass for half a century, learning at the feet of Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson. He now fronts the string septet Kentucky Thunder and will perform under the oak trees of The Cistern, an outdoor venue at College of Charleston which (heat and rain allowing) will be an ideal place to hear them. This is also a one-night deal.
“The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” – The National Theatre of Scotland makes its Spoleto USA debut with a comedy that also runs across two weekends. The title character, an uptight academic attending a conference on the Scottish border, encounters The Devil and goes on a journey of self-discovery. David Greig’s anarchic play is immersive theater, which in this case means actors move around you, play live music, lead karaoke and offer you a tot of whiskey.
Craig Taborn – If you like more traditional jazz piano, try the Fred Hersch Trio or the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the Chucho Valdés Quartet. If you like a wild range of possibilities, try Taborn: His jazz sound can encompass anything from baroque music to heavy metal. (He reportedly listens to an iPod with 45,000 selections before playing.) His festival debut includes two nights of solo playing and two in a trio with bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Gerald Cleaver.
“One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures / NEW BODIES” – Certain Charlotteans lucky enough to see Matthew Bourne’s “The Red Shoes” during its Broadway Lights run caught New York City Ballet’s Sara Mearns in the main role. (She alternated with the equally fine Ashley Shaw.) The Columbia, S.C., native will test her limits again at Spoleto with two other NYCB dancers, Jared Angle and Gretchen Smith, this time in pieces by postmodern choreographer Jodi Melnick.
“Wells Fargo Festival Finale, featuring The Lone Bellow” – The finale has moved from not-so-accessible Middleton Plantation to the downtown stadium in Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park. Its debut there will offer two hours of music by local bands, a wide range of concessions, a performance by the folk-rock trio The Lone Bellow and fireworks. People who have never attended Spoleto may have the impression that it’s snooty or stuffy. It isn’t and never has been, and this is the unsnootiest, unstuffiest event of all.