This was the year of cautious optimism for Spoleto 

Spoleto 2010: Safety First

Spoleto's avant garde offerings, like Oyster

Joshua Curry

Spoleto's avant garde offerings, like Oyster

2010 will be remembered as the year when Spoleto played it safe, if it's remembered at all. It had its milestones in the newly spruced-up Dock Street Theatre, and Geoff Nuttall proved himself worthy of his director for chamber music title after Charles Wadsworth passed him the baton last year. But there was nothing controversial, outrageous, or even risky — and those things should be part of every major arts festival's remit. Without pushing the envelope, no one's going to be curious about what's inside.

We don't blame General Director Nigel Redden for taking the safe route. Millions of dollars are at stake each year. Eighteen million dollars was spent on renovating the Dock Street, so there was no room for error there. And the city's reputation as an arts destination is also at stake, with millions more in tourism dollars riding on that rep. Nevertheless, we don't want to see Spoleto turn into a predictable grocery list of operas, one-man plays, and puppet shows.

Music and dance dominated this year's program. Classical music was the backbone of the festival, with 11 Chamber Music concerts, a superlative orchestra, and a guaranteed level of excellence from the Westminster Choir. Dance was well represented, with Giselle, I Can See Myself in Your Pupil, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Oyster, and Lucinda Childs' Dance all celebrating the form in different ways. Other kinds of high art got shorter shrift, but audiences didn't seem to mind. Although Spoleto's budget was slightly higher than last year (up from $6.2 to $6.3 million), there was an unspoken understanding among audiences that times are hard — 2008 was expensive thanks to big productions like Monkey, and the organizers had to cut back a little. The question is, where does financial responsibility end and the festival's mission to challenge audiences begin?

The quality of each production was strong enough to keep arts fans happy. Flora, the main operatic offering, had appealing characters, elements of familiar music, and a large-scale set. Giselle was a solid example of traditional ballet. Present Laughter, the Noël Coward play performed by Dublin's Gate Theatre, hit all the right farcical notes. They were the kind of shows that tour groups could be wheeled into for a satisfying experience. The kind you could bring your granny to without fearing that one singer would fellate a dwarf (as in 2005's Mabou Mines DollHouse) or batter her ears with weird cadences (2007's Faustus). There should be all-ages events in the festival, but all of the shows we saw were G-rated apart from This Is What Happens Next and Die Roten Punkte. If Spoleto is, as founder Gian Carlo Menotti intended, supposed to touch everyone, doesn't that include people who want their minds broadened?

Visual arts are an understandably low priority for Spoleto. No one plunked down $40 to see JoAnn Verburg's photography or Nick Cave's Soundsuits. But art doesn't exist just to make money. Menotti wanted his festival to immerse the entire community; Spoleto's collaborations with the Gibbes Museum and the Halsey Institute offered access to people who couldn't afford the high-dollar shows. Previous visitors still talk about installations like Places with a Past and Evoking History, but these kinds of exhibitions have been variable and irregular. We would like to see some consistency from year to year so that visitors know a Spoleto event will take place at the same locations in 2011.

In other papers, visual arts didn't get any play, but opera and music did. The New York Times covered Maestro Emmanuel Villaume's resignation and the Dock Street reopening, and, rather arbitrarily, reviewed Philemon & Baucis. This has less to do with any increased status for the festival and more to do with the NYT's stabilized finances (they couldn't afford to send any reporters here in 2009).

The Wall Street Journal reviewed three operas — Flora, Proserpina, and Philemon. Reviewer Hailey Wilson marveled at Heather Buck's voice, found Flora "jolly," and reckoned the Colla marionettes looked old-fashioned (they're supposed to!). MSNBC.com blogged a frothy interview with the Ebony Hillbillies. Charlotte's Creative Loafing critic Perry Tannenbaum found the Dock Street "comfy," but said that some of the Present Laughter performers were hard to hear. Columbia's alt-weekly Free Times gave the most accurate coverage — Flora was a "delightful trifle," Lucinda Childs' Dance felt like "a museum piece," and Die Roten Punkte was "a poor man's Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

From an outsider's point of view, the events cemented Charleston's reputation as a staid historic destination, just as the organizers intended. Nostalgia's a great draw when times are tough and the future's uncertain. Back home, The Post and Courier perpetuated the trend of tagging Charleston as a tame, retro place to go. The daily newspaper approached the whole festival from a positive angle, finding most shows rather splendid. Judging by its coverage, this wasn't the city to visit if you wanted your aesthetic sensibilities challenged.

If the programming didn't take special mental effort, getting from venue to venue took the physical kind. Whether traveling by foot or car, locations peppered across the city meant that it was impossible to see every show. Since we're known as the Holy City, the use of many different churches was suitable and necessary. Some of the venues were too far apart to facilitate travel between them all. We'd like to see more consideration of this matter in future festivals, as well as greater cooperation between Spoleto and Piccolo. A schedule from Piccolo earlier in the year would help with that.

Members of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra played enchanting music at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church. Some concertgoers refused to attend, however, because they disliked the venue. "I can't see anything," complained one Spoleto regular. The Intermezzi were stirring and popular enough to warrant performances in other, secular venues.

The College of Charleston's Sottile Theatre has been underutilized in recent years, so it was good to see it being used in 2010. In a recent interview, Redden said that his team was talking to CofC about improving the Sottile. That would be great, but the venue has proved itself capable of hosting big productions like Faustus and Monkey without any overhaul. If the college has been holding out for support from Redden, or either party is still miffed by Monkey's budget, they need to put audiences first and open the Sottile's doors to more shows in 2011.

Spoletians weren't always guaranteed good sound. Several concerts were marred by unbalanced mixes, high volume, or failing equipment. A couple of Wachovia Jazz events were particularly plagued by technical difficulties; even when Fabiana Cozza had her microphone fixed, some of her backing band's instruments were louder than others. Most of these problems were unexpected and beyond the technicians' control, but others could have been anticipated. Piccolo also had its share of problems, from crackling head mics in Mahalia: A Gospel Musical to a mid-scene blackout in Discretion. This wasn't just at the beginning of the festival, either; the blackout happened near the end of Discretion's run. No matter how good the performers were, the clumsy technical errors gave visitors a bad impression of Charleston's theater scene. More attention needs to be paid to this side of production if the festivals (particularly Piccolo) want to continue to be taken seriously.

Apart from tighter tech, the festivals need to check their mission statements before they gear up again. Menotti wanted the art of Spoleto USA to feel like the main course of a meal, not an after-dinner mint or a thin soup. To really satisfy our appetites, it needs consistency and spice. He wanted the festival to be an artistic celebration that would be unavoidable for the citizens of Charleston. Instead, we have tickets for a ballad opera ranging from a highly avoidable $100-$150 and a $30 finale on a West Ashley plantation. A premier performing arts festival also needs high-risk events to make it thrive and grow. Otherwise it will stagnate and be discounted as a snug bauble, a delightful trifle. Spoleto should have some surprises along with the comfortable familiarity of returning companies.

That isn't to denigrate the hard work of everyone involved in this year's festival, from Redden and his chums to the attendants at Middleton Place, who spent a week preparing for the finale and 12 hours making sure 3,000 people got in and out of the place without a scratch. Whether 2010's programming is remembered or not, the staff and volunteers' commitment to the arts should make an indelible impression on the city.

Funnily enough, the most controversial aspect of the festival wasn't a show at all. It was the ugly, unimaginative poster by Maya Lin, which toyed with a road map of South Carolina. But if its aim was to get people talking, it certainly did that — weeks after its debut, people were still complaining about it. The debate didn't hurt ticket sales, and it gave the press something to scribble about. Bless their hearts, some people liked it. It was the only time this year that Redden's team trusted an artist to do something unorthodox and supported it until some people grew to love it. All they need to do is apply that sensibility to other aspects of the festival, as they have done in the past.


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