CHARLESTON, S.C. — From comic book art to Shakespeare and Japanese opera, the new season of the Spoleto Festival USA will be the largest ever, offering 160 performances during the 17 days the festival lights up stages across this seaside city.
The internationally known arts festival, founded by the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, will open its 37th season Friday with the traditional speeches, brass fanfare and shower of confetti on the steps of Charleston City Hall.
The festival continues through June 9, when the Red Stick Ramblers – a Cajun, honky-tonk and swing ensemble – perform outdoors before a fireworks display at Middleton Place Plantation outside Charleston.
In all there will be 160 performances by 45 artists and ensembles, compared with 140 performances last season. The city’s companion festival, Piccolo Spoleto, is staging an additional 700 performances.
The festival was founded in 1977 by Menotti as a companion to his Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. He left the Charleston festival in 1993 in a dispute over his successor and died in 2007 at age 95.
Spoleto events this year vary from a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Tom Morris and the Handspring Puppet Company to a production of Oedipus by the Nottingham Theatre. Rosanne Cash also gives a concert.
Then there is The Intergalactic Nemesis, which the festival describes as a live-action graphic novel. Original comic book drawings are projected on a two-story screen while actors voice parts to accompany sound effects.
And one opera reinforces the concept that the festival is international.
Matsukaze is the story of the spirits of two sisters condemned to wander the earth. The composer is Japanese, the director is Chinese, the lead singers are Korean and perform in German, and an American conducts the orchestra.
In addition to new performances, Spoleto has a new venue this year.
The aging Gaillard Municipal Auditorium – where the festival staged opera, dance and other performances for more than three decades – is no more. It’s being replaced with a new $142 million world-class performing arts center now under construction.
For at least two years, Spoleto is holding some performances in the College of Charleston’s TD Arena.
Festival General Director Nigel Redden said he wasn’t sure what to expect inside the venue, but the festival brought in an acoustician to check it out.
“He did tests and basically said with a certain amount of work we can make this work,” Redden said. In fact, he said, performances there will have less background noise than the Gaillard.
A band shell will be brought in for orchestral performances, including the June 6 performance of Verdi’s Requiem Mass.
That will be the final Spoleto performance for Joseph Flummerfelt who, for more than three decades, has been the artistic director for the festival’s choral activities.
Redden said that in almost four decades, the festival has continued to find ways to keep the offerings exciting.
“One of the brilliant things Gian Carlo did in creating the festival in Italy and the festival here is he made the festival the star. The festival has depended much less on stars and star vehicles than other festivals,” he said.
“Our audience comes first and foremost to the festival and then decides what they are going to do at that festival,” he added. “They might say I’ll give that opera a try, even though I can’t pronounce the name.”