So here we are. At noon today, the 31st Spoleto Festival USA begins, and for the next 17 days our city will be transformed into another place entirely. At no time are Charleston’s old-world European roots more evident than during Spoleto, when the Italian-born festival drapes us in the mantle of its own beginnings, in a tiny hill town in Umbria that dates back to the Roman era. In the minds of many of us who write about it, the festival represents Charleston at her romantic best, sort of the Socratic ideal of a city, if we don’t take parking into account. Two of this year’s big operas – Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and L’ile de Merlin – take as their central themes the notion of utopian societies and their fleetingness. For the coming two and a half weeks, Charleston itself will take a step or two closer to utopia. And as with all such things, it will pass – a necessarily transient moment that serves to remind us how remarkable our city can be when she’s dolled up and pumped full of champagne.
There are surely those who pause at this blog and the several others out there and roll their eyes at all the hyperventilating coverage. But love it or hate it, Spoleto is without question the most frenetic, vibrant, passionate 17 days of Charleston’s year, two and a half extraordinary weeks during which our city’s torrid love affair with itself seems entirely justified. It’s our version of South By Southwest or Cannes. We’re allowed to swan around the rink a few times and pick up roses.
But don’t let the cynics tell you Spoleto is just another arts festival. It’s anything but. Spoleto Festival USA is to typical American arts festivals what crank is to baby powder. Envelope-pushing theatre companies from as far away as Ireland, France, the Netherlands, and the hinterlands of New York City; three full-scale operatic productions, each created from scratch just for us by internationally acclaimed artists; a dance program that draws equally from Tel Aviv, Tbilisi, Montreal, and New England; 113 of the finest young symphonic musicians on earth. There are only a handful of festivals in the world that can put together such an ambitious, challenging program. One of them lands in our city today.
Since the festival’s beginning, organizers have deliberately sought to program it so that it completely takes over the peninsula, stuffing cultural surprises into every nook, cranny, and piazza, creating an undercurrent of tension and excitement that lifts the city up and holds it there for one long moment before finally relaxing its grip and allowing us to tumble into summer. In Charleston, we can — luckily — see a play or a concert on almost any given weekend. But only once a year can we choose from a dozen or more every night, presented by some of the most accomplished artists in the world. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, one that presents itself so rarely that it can rightly be called a minor miracle.
So get out there and see something. You’ve got 17 days. Make the most of them.