Originally created 05/24/05

Opera highlights this year's Spoleto Festival USA

CHARLESTON, S.C. - Even at a cultural event with a reputation for opera, this season's Spoleto Festival USA could be considered the year of the opera.

The 17-day festival, which begins Friday, features three new operatic productions.

"These are more extravagant operas than we have done in the past," said Spoleto general director Nigel Redden. "We wanted to see if we could do three complicated operas."

Mozart's well-known "Don Giovanni" is certainly not a new opera, but the way it will be staged at Spoleto is. The seats have been repositioned and a sloping wooden floor has been built from atop the stage to the back of the Memminger Auditorium. The audience will sit along two walls while the opera is performed and the orchestra plays in the center of the space amid small ponds, a stream and cherry trees.

"It's an opera that will make people feel they are part of the production," Redden said over whining saws and pounding hammers as the stage crew worked to finish the set.

"That's what a festival should be about. It should be about something that's unusual, that's unexpected, that's a new way of looking at something you already knew. We had to do something different with 'Don Giovanni.'... It's perhaps among the most frequently performed operas in the world."

The festival also features the American premiere of the opera "The Birds" by German composer Walter Braunfels and based on Aristophanes' satirical play, opened in 1920 in Munich but was later banned by the Nazis. While the Nazis' official reason for banning the work was because of Braunfels' opposition to the party, historians also say it may have had to do with his refusal to write an anthem for the Nazis in the early 1920s.

"It is a very romantic piece," said conductor Julius Rudel, who as a teenager came to this country from Austria with his family as the Nazis rose to power. "It's a wonderful piece, philosophical, but very colorful."

The third opera, "Sleeping Beauty in the Woods," will feature marionettes and a cast of seven singers with an orchestra and chorus.

There will be other marionettes at the 29th edition of Spoleto as well. The Colla Marionettes from Italy will perform two programs during the festival.

Among the other offerings is the drama "Mabou Mines DollHouse," directed by Lee Breuer, who adapted this version from Henrik Ibsen's classic play. In Breuer's production, all the male actors are 4½-feet tall or less while the female players tower over them.

The festival will also present "Amajuba - Like Doves We Rise," produced by the Oxford Playhouse and The Farber Foundry. The play follows five people growing up in South Africa during the final days of apartheid. Taiwan's Contemporary Legend Theatre will perform "Kingdom of Desire," an abbreviated version of "Macbeth." The show will be performed in Mandarin Chinese with English titles projected for the audience.

The dance program includes a production by Italian choreographer Emio Greco and Tony Award-winning dancer-choreographer Savion Glover while Grammy award-winning vocalist Shirley Horn HEAD:s the jazz lineup.

Spoleto was founded in 1977 by composer Gian Carlo Menotti as the American counterpart to the festival he staged annually in Spoleto, Italy. Menotti left the American festival 12 years ago in a dispute over finances and his successor.

The $7.1 million festival ends June 12 with a fireworks display followed by an orchestral concert of film music.

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