The lineup for the 2015 Spoleto Festival USA was all set and ready for the January season announcement when the City of Charleston announced that the festival’s central, showpiece venue, the Gaillard Auditorium, would not be ready by May, when the festival opens. What followed was some quiet, well-managed scrambling on the part of the Spoleto staff to rework the giant Tetris game that their program had become — they moved the shows that had been scheduled for the Gaillard, canceled some special events, and went hunting for both new venues and new performances to fill the holes left behind.
The result is actually a season that looks to be one of their most promising in several years. With a strong vein of visual arts crossover running through the program, 2015 features the incomparable Shakespeare’s Globe theater company, the truly unique ballet-hip hop dancer Lil’ Buck, and the indefinable, joyously strange Taylor Mac, among many other acts.
But first, the operas. Spoleto always brings in one or two operas, and being the massive productions that operas always are, they are often — along with the classical music performances — some of the festival’s biggest draws.
This year features the world premiere of Paradise Interrupted
, a new opera by visual artist and director Jennifer Wen Ma and composer Huang Ro. Wen Ma, who was a core member of the creative team for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics; one of her most popular projects since then is turning the Beijing National Aquatics Center facility, where the Olympic water sports were held, into a giant light and color show that changes based on emoji that Chinese internet users use on their version of Twitter (the emoji are collected through a data mining program that is connected to the light system).
For Paradise Interrupted
, Wen Ma has designed a huge dream garden that will grow out of, and then disappear back into, the Memminger Auditorium stage. The score includes both Chinese and Western instruments, and the libretto is sung by the Chinese opera star Qian Yi and four Western-trained male singers.
Then there’s the baroque opera Veremonda, L’Amazzone di Aragona
. Written by Francesco Cavalli, Veremonda was last performed more than 350 years ago, and tells the tale of the Spanish King Alfonso and Queen Veremonda’s siege of the Moorish fort on the Rock of Gibraltar, with some romance, comedy, and mistaken identity thrown in. The set design is by famed Italian artist Ugo Nespolo, whose work is bright, vivid, and influenced by 1960s pop art.
This year’s theater offerings are Romeo and Juliet
by Shakespeare’s Globe, a theater company based out of the rebuilt Globe Theater in London, and When It Rains, by the Canadian 2b theatre company. When It Rains
follows two couples whose fortunes crumble, and draws from the Biblical story of Job — if, that is, Job were an atheist. We’re still riding the high from last year’s Canadian theater offering, A Brimful of Asha
by the Toronto-based Why Not Theatre, so we have to admit we’re biased in 2b’s favor.
Happily, there’s just one physical theater group coming: the Australian Casus Circus, who will be performing their show Knee Deep. The festival’s been hitting the circus thing too hard in recent year, if you ask us — a little of this stuff can go a long way. Hopefully Casus will benefit from an audience who isn’t already acrobatted-out.
Then there are the puppets. There are two separate puppet performances, one by the Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company, and another by the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. The marionettes, which are beautiful and intricate, will be acting Sleeping Beauty
, while the water puppets — which are puppets that perform in a pool of sorts — will be doing traditional, thousand-year-old, stories of heroism and valor from ancient Vietnam.
Spoleto will also include two films this year, which — as far as we and Spoleto’s director of marketing and PR Jennifer Scott could tell — is a first, although films have been shown in conjunction with festival events before. The first is City Lights
, Charlie Chaplin’s beloved, sweetly comedic silent film. The second is the 2002 Decasia
, an experimental film exploring the age and decline of the silent film. Coincidentally, much of the original silent film footage compiled for Decasia was obtained through the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collection. The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra will perform the music for both films live, on stage.
Of the dance performances, we’re looking forward to What Moves You
by Lil’ Buck, who does a kind of street dancing called jookin’. He’s coming to the festival for the first time with cellist Ashley Bathgate, a member of the band Bang on a Can All-Stars. Cellos must be Lil’ Buck’s spirit instrument, because he skyrocketed to fame after improvising a dance with cellist Yo Yo Ma.
Taylor Mac, the drag queen-vaudevillian-singer-actor and all-around over-the-top entertainer, is really getting us pumped. Sure, he’s been here before (in 2011) but with an uncategorizable performer like Mac — who sings ditties from the 1770s as well as the 2000s, while wearing things like headdresses made of huge gift bows trailing balloons — every time is like the first time. He’ll be performing at the Woolfe Street Playhouse, which is a new venue for the festival this year. The theater is also hosting the Music in Time series, which consists of two shows by the electric guitar and percussion duo the Living Earth Show.
The classical lineup, as usual, is very strong this year. Along with the favorites Bank of America Chamber Music and the Music in Time series, the centerpiece of this year’s classical offerings is J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, an epic, three-and-a-half hour choral piece representing Christ’s last day before his crucifixion. This one is obviously for the die-hard music lovers, and is something of a special event — not only because of its length, but because it’s written for a double orchestra and double chorus, as well as solo singers. The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra will be joined on stage for this concert by visiting musicians from the New York Baroque Incorporated, as well as the Westminster Choir and members of the Taylor Festival Choir and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Choir.
Finally, closing out this year’s fest will be St. Paul and the Broken Bones, who will play the Festival Finale at Middleton Place. After that — well, all we can say is that we’re glad the arts world pretty much shuts its doors for the summer. We’re going to need the rest.