Originally created 05/25/04

Curtain rises Friday on eclectic Spoleto Festival's 28th season

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Mikhail Baryshnikov in a new play. An 18-hour Chinese opera. Performance artist DJ Spooky with his own "Birth of a Nation."

Such an eclectic mix can only mean one thing: It's time for the Spoleto Festival U.S.A.

The 28th season of the world-renowned arts festival opens Friday with the traditional brass fanfare and a round of speeches from the steps of Charleston City Hall.

Spoleto Festival USA was founded in 1977 as the American counterpart to a festival held annually in Spoleto, Italy. It fills Charleston's theaters, churches, and outdoor spaces with over 120 performances of opera, theater, dance, and music, as well as the visual arts.

After all these years, the festival would seem to be nearing a comfortable middle age. But to stay fresh, it keeps pushing harder, says Nigel Redden, Spoleto's general director.

"Is it ever going to get easy? Absolutely not. It's always going to be a tightrope," he says. "If it gets too easy, there's going to be something wrong."

Producing the 1598 opera "The Peony Pavilion" was not easy. It will be performed in 55 acts on a stage featuring a pavilion atop an 1,800-gallon tank filled with plants, goldfish and ducks. The 18-hour event, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, will be presented in six episodes, with two complete cycles during Spoleto's 17-day run.

"We've never done anything like it before. I wondered about doing it, and I sort of struggled about whether it should be done," Redden says. "But one thing I felt we were one of the very few places in the United States that could think about doing it."

The opera, branded "feudal, superstitious and pornographic" in China, got its first full-length performance in nearly 400 years at Lincoln Center's 1999 arts festival.

Baryshnikov will appear in the play "The Doctor and the Patient," a new work by Rezo Gabriadze. The musical score ranges from classical to tango to Georgian folk songs. The plot centers on a journey by a doctor and his mentally ill patient.

"It's a rather different kind of play," Redden says. Baryshnikov won't be dancing, though.

"He is an electric presence on stage, and he is an extraordinary performer. To some extent it sort of fits in with what we do. We often have artists in sort of unexpected roles."

The unexpected can also be expected during "Rebirth of a Nation," the DJ Spooky piece that uses footage from D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent film, which celebrates the Ku Klux Klan. Spooky, whose real name is Paul Miller, mixes scenes from the film with new video and an audio mix of hip-hop music and original violin compositions to create a new view of the United States and its history.

Other highlights of this year's Spoleto include the Richard Strauss opera "Ariadne auf Naxos," the return of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and performances by Nina Ananiashvili and the Moscow Ballet Theater.

Along with the Strauss opera, Spoleto will present Vincenzo Bellini's 1830 opera, "The Capulets and the Montagues." The festival also offers "The Fula From America: An African Journey," written and performed by Charleston-born Carlyle Brown.

The jazz lineup includes Brazilian singer Renato Braz and the duo of trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and pianist Eric Reed.

This year's Spoleto budget is about $6.4 million. Last year's festival had ticket sales of $2.5 million.

The curtain falls on the Spoleto Festival on June 13, following a starlight concert and fireworks at nearby Middleton Place Plantation.

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