Spoletto festival opens Friday in Charleston, S.C.

CHARLESTON, S.C. --- Final rehearsals are under way as opening day of the Spoleto Festival USA approaches, with ticket sales running ahead of last year and a newly renovated theater to revive the first opera performed in the American colonies.


The internationally renowned arts festival opens its 34th season Friday with the traditional speeches and a brass fanfare on the steps of Charleston City Hall.

On Saturday, the opera Flora goes on the boards at the Dock Street Theatre.

The Dock Street, on the site of the first theater in America, reopened earlier this year after an $18 million renovation.

"The renovation has been first rate," said Nigel Redden, general director of the festival that features more than 140 performances through June 13.

"The Dock Street is very much a home to Spoleto in that we do more performances there than anywhere else," Redden said.

The original Dock Street was built in 1736.

"Flora inspired the Dock Street in the sense that the 1735 theatrical season was so terrific, the citizens of Charleston sought to build a theater," Redden said.

The theater later burned down and several other buildings, including a hotel, occupied the site over the centuries.

The building on the site was restored as a theater in the 1930s by the federal Works Progress Administration.

Redden said ticket sales are running about 20 percent ahead of last season. Last year, despite a troubled economy, Spoleto surpassed its $2.2 million ticket sales goal. This year's Spoleto budget of about $6.3 million is up slightly from $6.2 million last season.

Among other highlights of this year's festival are the first U.S. production of Wolfgang Rihm's opera Proserpina about the goddess of springtime and queen of the underworld.

The Marionette opera Philemon and Baucis composed by Franz Joseph Haydn will be performed by the Colla Marionette Company.

Dublin's Gate Theater also performs at the Dock Street, presenting the Noel Coward comedy Present Laughter .

In a more contemporary vein, Spoleto offers performances by Die Roten Punkte, a German brother and sister act who have topped the charts in Germany and Poland. The Ebony Hillbillies, a black band that plays, among other things, bluegrass, jazz, blues, rockabilly and country, also performs.

This year's Spoleto closing will feature the Carolina Chocolate Drops, playing outdoors at Middleton Place Plantation followed by the traditional fireworks display. The group, which performed at Spoleto two years ago, plays banjo and fiddle music of the Carolinas.

Workers on Tuesday hoisted a large banner with this year's Spoleto Festival poster on the side of the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, another festival venue.

The poster by Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, is titled From Rhode Island to South Carolina .

She made the image after cutting down through the pages of an atlas showing adjoining maps of Rhode Island and South Carolina. The idea is to show unexpected relationships.

"I think we've had more discussion about that poster than any other poster we've had," Redden said.

Spoleto was established in Charleston in 1977 by composer Gian Carlo Menotti, modeled after his Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. Menotti left the Charleston festival in 1993 and died in 2007.