Spoleto Festival USA celebrates its 30th anniversary in just a little over three months, and if you have either a mailbox or an e-mail address, chances are you've received one of their big, splashy tabloid-sized program brochures by now. Despite bumping the new program announcement from its traditional mid-November spot to six weeks later — January 1 — box office sales don't seem to have been affected for the worse. In fact, Spoleto officials say advance receipts are a full 20 percent ahead of where they were at this time last year, despite losing the chance for pre-Christmas sales (although I'm told December sales rarely amount to much anyway).
Much of the current uptick may be due to the fact of the festival's big three-oh. But there's also a box office-friendly familiarity to much of this year's artistic program. And that can't hurt.
Consider the two main operatic offerings this season: Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette and an encore of last year's sold-out smash Don Giovanni. It's hard to go wrong at the box office with any version of the star cross'd lovers' tale, and Don Giovanni — in addition to having last year's critical raves to recommend it, also benefits from the ubiquitous attention lavished on Mozart's 250 birthday this year. With its gorgeous, wholescale transformation of the abandoned Memminger Auditorium, its titillating sexual imagery, and a youthful, attractive cast (nearly all of whom will be returning) DG is as safe a bet as opera has to offer in the 21st century.
There's also a familiar ring to much of the theatre in the '06 program. The Cornwall-based Kneehigh Theatre's take on the time-honored Tristan & Yseult story comes hard on the heels of January's Tristan + Isolde hitting cineplexes everywhere. Spoleto's T&Y should land at just about the very moment when Twentieth Century Fox's DVD version appears in Blockbuster. That's what you call good timing.
Ditto for Singapore-based company Theatre-Works' world-premiere presentation of Geisha, which will capitalize nicely on Sony Pictures' recent Memoirs of a Geisha. Coincidence? Hardly. Spoleto's program guide makes an overt reference to the motion picture. With Geisha, director Ong Keng Sen (who brought his acclaimed Silver River to the 2000 festival) delivers yet another taste of the Oriental-flavored artistry that's proven so popular at Spoleto for the past three years.
The theatre lineup holds still more familiar faces: storyteller and monologuist Mike Daisey, whose Ugly American one-hander last year was a hit in the festival's Solo Turns series, and Daniel MacIvor, who follows his popular Cul-de-Sac from 2003 with a new work titled A Beautiful View.
This year's festival wastes no chance to play the Mozart card for all it's worth: in addition to Don G., his Mass in C Minor shows up (in the choral concert), and he graces three of six Intermezzi concerts.
Tie-ins to other parts of the program also abound. Symphonic concerts include Wagner's prelude and liebestod to his version of Tristan und Isolde and the love scene from Hector Berlioz's dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette. And if the carnie spirit of little people performing avant-garde versions of classic Russian theatre equals box office despair (see last year's Mabou Mines DollHouse), there's nothing less than pure gold in bringing European performance troupe Circus Flora back for an sixth engagement.
There's much that's new in the '06 festival, of course — particularly in jazz and dance and, it goes without saying, in John Kennedy's envelope-pushing Music in Time series. But if anyone was thinking the festival would break wildly from convention for its 30th birthday celebration, they should think again. The nation's edgiest performing arts festival is playing it mostly safe this year with the friendly and familiar. Even so, you can bet we'll be looking for those Mabou Mines moments.