The 2008 Spoleto Festival

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From the APJ.S.|

Spoleto 2008 rechristens old hall with reworked opera "Amistad"

December 30, 2007

COLUMBIA, South Carolina: An old hall will be revived for next year's Spoleto Festival USA and will host a reworked version of the 1997 opera "Amistad" about a slave revolt.

Memminger Auditorium, built in the 1930s as a reproduction of a Colonial-era theater, has gotten a $6 million update. The venue also will be home to the festival's popular chamber music series usually held at the Dock Street Theatre, which is undergoing its own $15 million renovation.

"We were trying to find something to reopen the Memminger that was off the beaten track and with a strong connection to Charleston," said Emmanuel Villaume, the festival's director of opera and orchestral music.

"Amistad" is the story of captives who take over the Spanish ship bringing them from Africa to be slaves. The ship was captured by the U.S. off New York's Long Island and several groups laid claim to the slaves, who were later freed by the U.S. Supreme Court and returned to Africa.

"We wanted an opera in it that would say to the neighborhood, which is one of the few mixed (race) neighborhoods downtown, 'This is a theater for everyone,'" said festival director Nigel Redden.

"Amistad," written by Anthony Davis, was produced by the Chicago Lyric Opera in late 1997, but it did not do well.

"I felt this was a piece that clearly meant a lot to (Davis), but it was just too big for its own sake," Redden said. "In some ways, it was a smaller opera hiding in an elephant suit."

The Spoleto production will be completely new and directed by Sam Helfrich.

"I'm scaling it down to make it leaner and stronger," Davis said. "I'm very excited about this, and Charleston seems the obvious place to do it, with its connection to the slave trade."

The festival runs from May 23 to June 8 and will offer 45 productions and 140 performances, including a multimedia piece "Homeland" by musician, composer and performer Laurie Anderson, who is known for using high tech equipment and even creating new musical instruments.

"Homeland" premiered in New York earlier this year and it has been touring worldwide ever since.

There will be several American premieres including Chinese director Chen Shi-Zeng's "Monkey: Journey to the West."

Spoleto's other opera for the 2008 festival will be "La Cenerentola," Rossini's comic telling of the Cinderella story. It was one of the most popular operas of its time. "It's a true entertainment event," Villaume said. "It's one of (Rossini's) best pieces musically."

Because of the renovations to Dock Street, there will be an outdoor theater performance for the first time in years. "Burial at Thebes" is a version of the Greek tragedy "Antigone," written in 442 B.C. by Sophocles. The recent translation by Irish poet Seamus Heaney is being performed by the Nottingham Playhouse Theatre under the live oaks at the College of Charleston.

In dance, the Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve makes its first appearance at the festival. The Swiss company will be joined by the Boston Ballet and Shantala Shivalingappa, who will do a solo dance accompanied by a classical Indian music ensemble.

"These are companies that have performed all over the world," said Nunally Kersh, festival producer, "but haven't had much exposure here."

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