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2020 Preview: Spoleto Festival USA reflects on the past and prepares for the future

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2020 is a big year for Charleston, with the Holy City celebrating its 350th anniversary. This anniversary presents an opportunity for both reflection and for urgency; we celebrate how far the city has come and recognize how much further we have to go. And Spoleto Festival USA, now in its 44th season, presents a jam-packed schedule of shows (31 to be exact) that touch on both this moment of reflection, and of this need for urgency. While the international arts festival is always full of some of the most innovative performing and visual arts you're likely to find anywhere, this year's program has several key highlights that were chosen to celebrate — and critically acknowledge — the history of both the city and the festival.

Like last year, there's only one opera on the books. But this one is, without a doubt, the festival's centerpiece. Omar is an original opera commissioned by the festival itself based on the life of Omar Ibn Said, who was taken from his West Africa homeland in 1807 and sold into slavery here in Charleston. Said's life would later be documented in his 1831 autobiography, which serves as the basis for the opera anchoring the festival this May.

The festival approached virtuosic musician Rhiannon Giddens, lead singer of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, to create this opera. Giddens is known for her folklore-inspired country, blues, and old time music. Some people will recognize her from her appearances on the hit television musical Nashville. She's writing the libretto herself, as well as he music, alongside composer Michael Abels. Giddens will also play a concert, accompanied by Francesco Turrisi, on Sat. May 24 in the Cistern Yard.

Rhiannon Giddens was commissioned to write the festival's one and only opera, Omar - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Rhiannon Giddens was commissioned to write the festival's one and only opera, Omar

Speaking of Abels, savvy cinephiles will recognize his name as the composer on Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning horror phenomenon Get Out. In a special treat, the festival has set an in-concert screening of the 2018 film at the Gaillard Center. The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra and members of the Westminster Choir will perform the score live during the movie, under Abels' conduction. Get Out is one of the most influential, creative, and frightening films of the last decade — this will be an awesome way to view the film.

The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra will also be presenting The Planets, an evening collection of musical selections conducted by Charlestonian Jonathon Heyward. One of the pieces included in the evening is "Rhapsodic Overture," written by Edmund Thornton Jenkins. Born in Charleston as well in 1894, Jenkins' father operated the once-landmark orphanage on King Street. Having Heyward conduct Jenkins' work at the Gaillard will be a fitting tribute to the city's history on several levels.

The Westminster Choir is celebrating their 100th anniversary in 2020 with concerts at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church. They will also join the busy Spoleto Orchestra in celebrating Beethoven's 250th birthday with a Gaillard production of the composer's 9th Symphony. Also celebrating a birthday is the Trisha Brown Dance Company. Turning 50, they return to Spoleto for the first time in five years with a rep program at the newly outfitted Sottile Theatre as well as a free performance in Hampton Park. Gravity & Other Myths returns to the festival after two recent sold-out runs with their next physical theater showcase: Out of Chaos. If it's anything like their previous outings, get your tickets early.

Romantics Anonymous comes from beloved director Emma Rice - COURTESY SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA
  • Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA
  • Romantics Anonymous comes from beloved director Emma Rice

Emma Rice has been a recurring name during Spoleto for many years, having brought fan-favorite shows to the festival like The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, The Red Shows, and Tristan and Yseult. This year, you can see Romantics Anonymous, which debuted in 2017 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London to positive reviews and is slated to play Bristol Old Vic and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C. before coming to Dock Street for the festival. Adapted from the French film Les Emotifs Anonymes, the story follows an emotional chocolatier and a lonely chocolate factory owner who fall in love. It's a full-on stage musical rom-com, the kind that doesn't actually make it to Spoleto very often. And you will have plenty of opportunities to see it, as it runs almost every day of the fest.

The War and Treaty play the Spoleto finale in Cistern Yard. No picnics this year, but some damned good music. - COURTESY SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA
  • Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA
  • The War and Treaty play the Spoleto finale in Cistern Yard. No picnics this year, but some damned good music.

On George Street, the College of Charleston is turning 250. The festival will use the College's Cistern Yard for its finale this year, its third stop in as many years since decamping from Middleton Place Plantation. Closing out the fest, The War and Treaty will play a standing-room-only concert in front of Randolph Hall. (Still-wet 2019 finalegoers will note that having the show there provides the finale a viable rain plan down the street.)

Elsewhere, the festival does the job of exposing Charlestonians to some of the best artistry in the world. Abdullah Ibrahim, 2019 NEA Jazz Master, will be playing a show at the Sottile Theatre, while Preservation Hall Jazz Band kick off the festival opening at the Cistern Yard. Live from Here, the Saturday night public radio variety show that boasts millions of listeners as the spiritual successor to A Prairie Home Companion, will broadcast from CofC's TD Arena. Featuring musician, songwriter, and host Chris Thile, the show will also welcome well-known and up-and-coming artists to join the stage.

The Believers are But Brothers looks at how gamers are radicalized online - COURTESY SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA
  • Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA
  • The Believers are But Brothers looks at how gamers are radicalized online

Playwright Dael Orlandersmith and journalist Alanna Mitchell are bringing hard-hitting one-woman shows about police brutality in Ferguson and the state of the world's oceans, respectively. The Woolfe Street Playhouse will host illusionist Scott Silven and a full-fledged cabaret show with renowned performer Meow Meow. And then there's The Believers Are But Brothers, a play that dives into the way online extremism and hate speech radicalize young men. It's a multimedia show that also involves the audience through communications on your phone during the performance via WhatsApp. It's an immersive and educational experience you won't want to miss.

This year's festival is literally bursting at the seams. I didn't even get into the Scottish Ballet bringing The Crucible (!) or how John Kennedy will conduct composer Max Richter's post-minimalist reimagining of Vivaldi's masterpiece The Four Seasons (!!). Top to bottom, Spoleto has programmed a lineup that, while noticeably lacking the puppets and Shakespeare of previous years, speaks to what audiences have come to expect from the festival and to what they love about the history, artistry, and the people of Charleston.

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