With so many theatre, dance, opera, jazz, orchestral, choral, and chamber music events to choose from — more than 300 artists from around the world, streaming in and out of Charleston over 17 days between May 26-June 11 — planning a dip into Spoleto Festival USA is always a challenge. Even Spoleto’s general director, Mena Mark Hanna, struggles to prescribe a strategy, as hesitant as a loving mother to pick favorites.
“My suggestion for a first-time participant,” he says, sidestepping, “would be to see two things you like and feel comfortable about seeing, maybe that’s Nickel Creek (May 31-June 1) and Kishi Bashi (June 3), and two things that are really pushing the envelope for you. So maybe that’s Dada Masilo (June 1-4) and Only an Octave Apart (June 7-11).”
Nicely said. Only you can easily take in the first three events Hanna has named within three days, but you’ll need another four days before you can see singer-songwriter phenom Justin Vivian Bond and their monster opera-meets-cabaret-meets-pop collaboration with countertenor sensation Anthony Roth Costanzo.
If you happened to see the recent Carol Burnett tribute on TV, the cat is out of the bag as far as what that will sound like, if you remember the “Only an Octave Apart” duet with opera diva Beverly Sills – recreated for Carol by Bernadette Peters and Kristin Chenowith.
What it will look like can be savored in the Spoleto brochure.
The giddy Bond-Costanzo hybrid is one of the key reasons that my wife Sue and I are lingering in Charleston through June 9. Equally decisive is the chance to see jazz legends Henry Threadgill (June 6) and Abdullah Ibrahim (June 8), the Spoleto Festival USA Chorus singing Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium (June 7-8), and Jonathon Heyward conducting Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (June 9).
One other irresistible lure: the opportunity to see Maestra Mei-Ann Chen conduct Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony (June 7), along with works by Florence Price and Michael Abels — less than four months after her scintillating debut with the Charlotte Symphony.
Abels teamed with Rhiannon Giddens last year in composing Omar, the new opera that premiered at Spoleto — after an epic gestation that spanned the pandemic — and won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in May. It was a proud moment for Spoleto, for Charleston and for the Carolinas as a whole. For Hanna, it was an extra special serendipity to help shepherd that work to completion.
“I mean, it’s kind of incredible,” he explains, “to be someone who comes from Egyptian parentage, speaks Arabic, grew up sort of fascinated by opera and stage work and spent their career in opera and was a boy soprano, to then have this opportunity to bring to life the words of an enslaved African in Charleston, South Carolina. And those words are Arabic!”
We may discern additional serendipity in the programming of this year’s opera; Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti’s Vanessa (May 27-June 10), which garnered the Pulitzer in 1958. Revived at Spoleto in 1978, the festival’s second iteration — with festival founder Menotti stage directing — the production was videotaped by PBS and syndicated nationwide on Great Performances, a huge boost for the infant fest. That revival also sparked a critical revival of Barber’s work.
More inclusion lends itself to subtle themes
Omar was the centerpiece of a concerted pushback at Spoleto last year against the Islamophobia of MAGA zealots who had dominated the headlines while the new opera was taking shape. Vanessa is part of what Hanna sees as a subtler undercurrent in this year’s lineup, more about #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the repeal of Roe v. Wade.
“I want there to be a kind of cohesiveness without necessarily us being able to see what the theme is,” Hanna reveals. “If there is something that unifies a lot of these pieces, it’s about understanding that we are telling stories from our past, some of them the most ancient stories that we have in our intellectual heritage. We are looking at these stories with a different sense that takes on the reverberations of today’s social discourse.”
Among other works at this year’s Spoleto that Hanna places in his ring of relevance are An Iliad (May 26-June 3), a one-man retelling of Homer’s epic featuring Denis O’Hare; Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (June 5), as an orchestral concert and the inspiration for Masilo’s The Sacrifice; Helen Pickett’s new adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible for Scottish Ballet (June 2-4); and A Poet’s Love (May 26-30), a reinterpretation of Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe song cycle by tenor/pianist Jamez McCorkle, who played the title role in Omar last year — with stagecraft, shadow puppetry and projections by Miwa Matreyek.
“Going back to the Trojan War, An Iliad is as much about war and plague then as it can be today with the reverberations of Ukraine and the pandemic,” says Hanna. “Vanessa, is reinterpreted here through the lens of a remarkable female director, Rodula Gaitanou. The cast is just killer: You have Nicole Heaston as the lead with Zoe Reams and Edward Graves and Malcolm McKenzie and Rosalind Plowright, just a world class cast at the very, very top. And it’s also really cool to see these roles, which are traditionally sung by Caucasian people, being sung by people of color.”
Aside from the recurring motif of reclusion, so vividly resonant for all of us since our collective pandemic experience, Hanna points to a key turning point in the opera. Menotti left it mysterious and ambiguous in his libretto at a key point when Vanessa’s niece, Erika, either has a miscarriage or — more likely — an abortion.
For Hanna, that brings up an important question: “What does that mean now when we are looking at a renewed political assault on female autonomy? So these stories take on new messaging, new reverberation in 2023. And we need to retell these stories with the new lens of today.”
Especially in the Carolinas.
Long accompanied by a more grassroots and American-flavored satellite, the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, Menotti’s international arts orgy has taken a long, long time to shed its elitist mantle. Now it is moving forcefully in that inclusive direction with a new Pay What You Will program, offering tickets to about 20 performances for as low as $5 thanks to an anonymous donor who is liberating about $50,000 of ticket inventory.
Hanna brought this exciting concept to the unnamed donor, and while he hasn’t talked to them about sponsoring the program in future years, but he is pledging to continue it regardless.
“What art can do is endow you with a new experience, a transformational experience that you did not have before you took your seat,” he says. “It can help create an understanding of another side that is normally seen by one perspective as socially disparate, as highly politicized, as a discourse that’s just way too far away.
“Art can break down that barrier through the magic and enchantment of performance,” Hanna continues. “To me, having those artists onstage, representative of a demographic we wish to serve, only takes us so far. We also have to lower the barrier of entry so that we can actually serve that demographic.”
Spoleto spotlights hybrids with a genre-busting lineup
Kishi Bashi not only continues Spoleto’s well-established outreach to Asian culture, he also typifies the more hybrid, genre-busting artists that Hanna wants to include at future festivals.
“We want to try to find these artists that are like pivot artists, who occupy these interstitial spaces between dance and theatre and classical music and jazz and folk music,” Hanna declares. “And Kishi Bashi is one of those. He plays the violin on stage. He has all of these violinists on stage with him, but it’s this kind of strange, hallucinatory, intoxicating music that’s like somehow trance music and Japanese folk music, but using sort of Western classical instruments. Yet it’s very much in an indie-rock tradition as well.”
Other wild hybrids include Leyla McCalla (May 26), the former Carolina Chocolate Drops cellist who blends Creole, Cajun, and American jazz and folk influences; Australian physical theatre company Gravity & Other Myths (June 7-11), mixing intimate confessions with acrobatics; Alisa Amador (June 7), synthesizing rock, jazz, Latin and alt folk; and the festival finale, Tank and the Bangas (June 11), hyphenating jazz, hip-hop, soul, and rock. Pushing the envelope in that direction is exciting for Hanna, and he promises more of the same for the ’24, ’25, and ’26 festivals.
Until the Pulitzer win, the year had been pretty rough on Hanna, losing Geoff Nuttall, the personable host of the lunchtime Chamber Music Series at Dock Street Theatre. Nuttall was the artist who convinced Hanna to come to Spoleto. At the tender age of 56, Nuttall had become the elder of Spoleto’s artistic leadership when he died, beloved for his style, wit, demonstrative fiddling, and his passionate advocacy of the music. Especially Papa Haydn.
The special Celebrating Geoff Nuttall (May 26) concert will gather his close friends and colleagues for a memorial tribute at Charleston Gaillard Center, including violinist Livia Sohn, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, tenor Paul Groves, pianist Stephen Prutsman, and surviving members of the St. Lawrence Quartet. The occasion will be enhanced by the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra and Atlanta Symphony’s Robert Spano (plus other guests soon to be announced).
Hosting chores for the lunchtime 2023 Chamber Music series, spread over the full festival, 11 different programs presented three times each (16 performances at 11:00am, 17 at 1:00pm) will be divvied among vocalists and instrumentalists who perform at the Dock. It was totally inappropriate in Hanna’s eyes to replace Nuttall onstage this year, but he will begin to consider the charismatic violinist’s successor during the festival and into the summer. Hanna assured me that the player-to-be-named later will be a performer who participates in the music-making.
Confronting Charleston’s history of enslavement
Continuing on the trail blazed by Amistad (2008), Porgy and Bess (2016) and Omar, Hanna wants to place renewed emphasis on the Port City and its African connection. It must run deeper than seeing Vanessa delivered by people of color.
“Charleston was the port of entry for the Middle Passage,” Hanna reminds us. “And Charleston has at its core an incredibly rich Gullah-Geechee-West African-American tradition that is part of the reason this is such a special, beautiful place to live in with its baleful history. So I think that you see that this year, you see that with Gakire Katese and The Book of Life (June 1-4), you see that with Dada Masilo and The Sacrifice, you see that with Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya.”
Resonating with the brutalities of Ukraine, Ethiopia, and Syria on three different continents, the U.S. Premiere of Odile Gakire Katese’s The Book of Life may be the sleeper of this year’s festival, crafted from collected letters by survivors and perpetrators of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and performed by Katese, better known as Kiki. \
“After the unthinkable, a path forward,” the festival brochure proclaims. The finding-of-hope theme will be underscored by music created by Ingoma Nshya, Rwanda’s first-ever female drumming ensemble, founded by Katese.
“Kiki is engaging with how a country tries to reconcile with its recent, terrifically horrific past of the Rwandan genocide as someone who grew up Rwandan in exile. You see that in the work of Abdallah Ibrahim, who was really one of the great musicians of the anti-apartheid movement, who composed an anthem for the anti-apartheid movement, was in a kind of exile between Europe and North America in the 80s. And then when he finally came back to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, Nelson Mandela called him our Mozart, South Africa’s Mozart.”
Marvelous to relate, you can hear more of South Africa’s Mozart this year at Spoleto Festival USA than Vienna’s Wolfgang Amadeus — or Germany’s Ludwig von Beethoven. That’s how eclectic and adventurous this amazing multidisciplinary festival has become.
See for yourself.
Spoleto Festival USA 2023 will run from May 26-June 11, 2023, in Charleston, South Carolina. Learn more at the festival website.
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