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Artifacts: 'Egalitarian' opera at a restored Memminger

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Every year, Charleston plays host to Spoleto Festival USA. You might have heard of it. Well, the line-up for the 2008 festival was announced on Dec. 30. It looks like the year of the Memminger.

The festival has put about $6 million into renovating Memminger Auditorium, the old Colonial-style theater built in the 1930s. It's located in a "transitional" neighborhood (read: black people continue to live there despite gentrification) along Beaufain and King streets and was wrecked by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

The first opera to be performed at the former gymnasium is also Spoleto's biggest — a revamped Amistad, a 1997 work by Anthony Davis about a revolt on a slave ship that eventually became embroiled in a legal battle that led to slaves being returned to Africa.

Spoleto officials appear conscious of the opera's "blackness" and tailored Amistad's debut accordingly. Festival director Nigel Redden told the Associated Press this staging sends a clear message to the "mixed" neighborhood around Memminger that "theater is for everyone," not just well-heeled white folks. With tickets ranging from $25 to $150, however, the effectiveness of such politically savvy egalitarianism remains to be seen.

As an opera, Amistad promises a lot, if only because it's a story about the slave trade being told in a town rife with slave trade history. Amistad was first produced by the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1997, but was a popular and critical failure. Composer Davis acknowledges its problems and told the AP he looks forward to rebuilding his work. Redden called Amistad "a small opera hiding in an elephant suit." It will be directed by Sam Helfrich.

Of the 45 productions and 140 performances over 17 days this spring, highlights also include Rossini's La Cenerentola, a retelling of Cinderella directed by Charles Roubaud. Monkey: Journey to the West is musical theater combining live performance and animation. The project is the brainchild of Chen Shi-Zeng and Damon Albarn of pop groups Blur and Gorillaz. Also in theater is Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney's translation of The Burial at Thebes by Nottingham Playhouse Theatre, which will perform outside due to renovations being made to the Dock Street Theatre.

We'll be covering the hell out of Spoleto in the months and weeks leading up to opening day on May 23. In the meantime, check out www.spoletousa.org. —John Stoehr

Visit Unscripted, a blog about the arts, culture, and ideas, at arts.ccpblogs.com.

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