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Spoleto: From opera to pop

Thanks to a space mission bearing his name, Johannes Kepler recently returned to the news 400 years after his first discoveries about the universe. Thanks to a new opera, the German astronomer will land at center stage in Charleston in this year's Spoleto Festival USA.

Spoleto will help pioneering composer Philip Glass celebrate his 75th birthday by staging his "Kepler" at this year's festival, which will open May 25. From then through June 10, the annual big bang of the arts will shower Charleston with music, plays, dance and visual art. The festival, founded in 1977, offers more than 120 performances over its 17-day run.

There will be return engagements by two favorite performing groups: Ireland's Gate Theatre and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Musical offerings will range from appearances by pop singer k.d. lang and gospel great Mavis Staples to an orchestral concert celebrating the 20th-century trailblazer John Cage. Filmmaker Atom Egoyan will direct an opera based on a dramatic episode from Chinese history. A Japanese visual artist will create an installation made solely of salt.

"Kepler" will continue a longstanding relationship between Spoleto and Glass. Since leading the way in the 1960s in what's now called minimalism - crafting works by repeating and changing simple musical building blocks - Glass has become one of the United States' highest-profile composers.

Like the late Spoleto founder Gian Carlo Menotti, Glass is a prolific creator of operas. Spoleto's current leader, Nigel Redden, thinks Glass' music attains "a kind of majesty and grandeur that captures large events."

New York's Metropolitan Opera displayed that recently when it treated Glass' opera about Gandhi, "Satyagraha," to one of its movie-theater showings. "Kepler," premiered in Germany in 2009, will have its first U.S. staging at Spoleto.

The 90-minute opera looks at Kepler not only as an astronomer and mathematician but also as a person living during the tumultuous time of Europe's Thirty Years' War. In his writings, Redden notes, Kepler imagined a celestial music of the spheres.

"At least to my ear," Redden says, "if there were a celestial music we could hear, it would sound very much like Philip Glass' music."

Here's an overview of what else is in store for Spoleto audiences:

Classical music and opera

This year's second opera is another U.S. premiere: "Feng Yi Ting," by Chinese composer Guo Wenjing. Drawing on a blend of Chinese and Western sounds, the opera depicts historical events more than 2,000 years ago, when the Han dynasty defeated warlords' aggression thanks to a woman's wiles.

The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, when it isn't performing in the pit for the operas, will play two concerts. Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" will cap off a performance conducted by Anne Manson, former leader of the Kansas City Symphony. The festival's resident conductor, John Kennedy, will lead John Cage's trilogy "Twenty-Six, Twenty-Eight and Twenty-Nine."

The daily chamber music concerts will feature violinist and host Geoff Nuttall, his St. Lawrence String Quartet and other familiar participants - including cellist Alisa Weilerstein, in her first visit since she received one of the MacArthur Foundation's no-strings-attached $500,000 prizes.

Theater

Dublin's Gate Theatre follows up on its 2009 visit - a sold-out run of Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" - with another urbane Coward comedy. "Hay Fever" centers on the aristocratic but bohemian Bliss family, which shocks its more conventional guests when they come for a weekend visit to the Bliss estate. Stephen Brennan, who played the matinee idol at the center of "Present Laughter," returns as the Bliss patriarch.

Also returning: The British company 1927, which had a Spoleto hit in 2008 with "Between the Devil and the Blue Sea." Its new offering is "The Animals and Children Took to the Streets," a fairy tale performed through a mix of live action and animation.

The playbill also includes two one-man shows. Journalist Jack Hitt, a regular on public radio's "This American Life," gives his take on brain science in "Making up the Truth." Storyteller Mike Daisey looks at technology and big business in "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" and "Teching in India."

Dance

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will make its first Spoleto visit since its new artistic director, Robert Battle, took over from longtime dancer and leader Judith Jamison earlier this season. Beyond the company's calling card, its founder's exultant "Revelations," the repertoire will be announced later.

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet will bring works by two European choreographers: France's Angelin Preljocaj and Great Britain's Hofesh Schechter.

Popular music, jazz

The pop music roster includes prominent newcomers to Spoleto. k.d. lang will perform with the Siss Boom Bang band. Mavis Staples will star in a gospel concert. The jazz series will introduce an up-and-comer, Cecile McLorin Salvant, winner of the Thelonius Monk International Vocal Jazz Competition. Return appearances include concerts by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, singer Virginia Rodrigues and double-bass player Renaud Garcia-Fons.

And a goodbye

This will be the last time festival audiences see Spoleto's largest venue, Gaillard Auditorium - at least as we know it today. It's about to get an extreme makeover.

Gaillard, which is much like Charlotte's Ovens Auditorium but even larger, has always been the home for Spoleto's biggest-scale operas and dance companies. But the theater's size, as at Ovens, works against it. The acoustics are dim, the audience spread far from the stage and atmosphere nonexistent.

"Charleston has been rich, and it has been poor. And Gaillard was not built when it was rich," Redden says with a laugh.

But Spoleto has helped spur a resurgence in Charleston's fortunes. The city, which owns Gaillard, will gut and rebuild it in a construction project that will also add municipal office space. When the auditorium reopens in 2015, it will be much more compact, with 1,800 seats on four levels rather than 2,700 seats on two levels. Think of a higher version of Charlotte's Knight Theater.

"The new theater will I think be gorgeous," Redden says. "It will be much more in keeping with what Charleston is today - and with what it has been through much of its history."

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