Spoleto 2007 in hindsight 

Bombs Away: Immolating angels, exploding bookbags, rampaging hurricanes, disintegrating organs, and magic everywhere you looked

click to enlarge L'ile de Merlin howlingly updated Gluck's 1758 opera; Mahagonny showed it's hard out there for a ho, too; Aurélia's Oratorio turned typical theatre on its head
  • L'ile de Merlin howlingly updated Gluck's 1758 opera; Mahagonny showed it's hard out there for a ho, too; Aurélia's Oratorio turned typical theatre on its head

The 31st Spoleto Festival USA is officially in the past tense, and it's now time to get forensic on the thing. But that's less easy than it sounds. Part of the difficulty in encapsulating the festival after the fact lies in its nature; as Mayor Riley noted during the mid-festival tribute to founder Gian Carlo Menotti, the composer knew that, to be truly successful, Spoleto must be much more than merely a series of concerts. "For Menotti, the word 'festival' was not a throwaway term," hizonner observed in his memoriam. "Everything and everyone must be touched by it. Menotti knew that Spoleto must become the life and the patina of the city for 17 days." If you'll glance at a festival calendar, it's obvious organizers take Menotti's mission seriously. Toss Piccolo Spoleto's hundreds of separate events and the scores of chance encounters and random pearls of unpredictability the twin festivals generate into the mix, and you've got a whole that's much greater than the sum of its parts.

This all renders the greater impact of the shebang unsumuppable. But it falls to me to try, of course, hopeless as the task may be. And the only way to paint an accurate portrait of the festival after the fact is not with big brush strokes but with points and small observations, Seurat-style. So here goes.

Philip Glass. The commentators can harangue all they want over how the 2007 festival will be remembered going forward. 2007 will hereafter be the year of Philip Glass. It's guaranteed by the double-whammy of the minimalist composer's new American premiere here and the fact that his 50-foot face bookended the Gaillard Auditorium, to say nothing of the umptillions of posters, storefronts, program guides, bookmarks, T-shirts, and coffee mugs all with his own mug on or in them. Spoleto '07 was Glass' Being John Malkovich moment, and it'll always be remembered that way, no matter that people thought it was Bruce Springsteen on the posters.

Blogging. It may seem like an insider's observation, just shameless navel gazing, but the stats argue otherwise. There were five professional, local blogs keeping hourly tabs on the festivals this year, not including the occasional posts from The State and The New York Times. And people were reading — and watching, and listening to — them. Our three blogs had 308,967 hits from 16,768 visits, and the streaming audio clips on the Spoleto Buzz blog were played 1,056 times. Anyone with a connection to the web was awash in commentary and reviews, random observations, last-minute schedule changes, and endless gigabytes of multimedia. The P&C's self-appointed blogging team lugged a videocamera everywhere they went and techies Dan Conover and Geoff Marshall recorded a passel of podcasts in an ersatz studio in the newsroom there. Less inclined to the production and editing demands of video, I captured audio clips of dozens of festival performances, posted scads of field interviews, and recorded another dozen Spoleto Buzz podcasts with festival artists, as I did last year. The upshot: the way media outlets cover the festival — and the way people in the city experience it (and, to some inevitable degree, the way festival organizers promote it) — changed forever this year.

Spoleto, Italy. There were whisperings of a possible reunion with the festival's Umbrian birth mother immediately following Gian Carlo Menotti's death in February. This year's opening ceremony, where both Spoleto, Italy, Mayor Massimo Brunini and our own Little Joe pitched for a patchup between the two festivals, confirmed the rumors. For the moment, reestablishing old ties is complicated by the fact that Menotti's son, Chip is still in charge of the programming and purse strings at our European counterpart, if just barely. Barring his resignation (not as unlikely as it sounds, given that festival's financial situation), talk of getting into bed together again is just that: talk.

The weather. Things were fine, even splendid, weather-wise until the middle of the festival's second weekend, when tropical storm Barry swept inland south of us and pummeled the city (and Dock Street Theatre opera L'ile de Merlin) with a soaking, windblown welcome to the first day of hurricane season. No sooner had we squeegeed ourselves than we were reminded it was also high summer, with 90-plus-degree heat through the end of the festival.

Ticketmaster. This company belongs in the same shameful category as Wal-Mart and Enron. The City of Charleston needs to consider killing Piccolo's contract with these West Hollywood hoodlums and handicapping regional guys Etix's bid next year. The opening weekend ticketing snafu ought to give the Office of Cultural Affairs more than enough leverage to wriggle out of a ROFR.

Left-leaning political commentary. There was no shortage in either of this year's festivals. At the Village Playhouse, they sang, "What is Urinetown? Urinetown's a lie, a means to keep the poor in check until the day they die. Urinetown is here. It's the town wherever people learn to live in fear." (But with klezmer music.) Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny skewered unchecked materialism, and Denmark Vesey might as well have been called an "enemy combatant" at the American. L'ile de Merlin satirized hubristic notions of utopianism (some wondered if the island was in the Red Sea), Major Bang: or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Dirty Bomb was a Dr. Strangelove-smart satire of post-9/11 national insecurity, and new music concert Katrina Ballads made mincemeat of Bush & Co.'s own words.

Costumes. Women swooned over the duds in the Gate Theatre's Constant Wife — the shoes, the hats, the dresses, the handbags, even the gloves — but the rest of the '07 festival had some notable couture, too. The multicolored day-glo suits in Mahagonny were safely observed only through smoked glass. Mephistopheles and his angelic counterpart in Faustus were ... well, indescribable (see the picture above right), and few who saw Merlin will ever forget Richard Troxell's full-body smiley-face outfit as the "badass philosopher" (or the dance that went with it). Closer's Pelham Spong was radiant in fuck-me heels, bra, and fishnets, bending over during a theatrical pole dance, and Julie Ziff's inventive costuming for Urinetown was a little bit Oz and little bit Third Reich. Aurélia Thierrée's last outfit, which opened up and allowed a model train to pass on a track through her torso, was one for the history books.

click to enlarge Book of Longing was chamber concert, art exhibit, poetry reading, and theatre; Faustus, the last night puzzled and pleased
  • Book of Longing was chamber concert, art exhibit, poetry reading, and theatre; Faustus, the last night puzzled and pleased

Rotting innards. I may have been the only person who didn't care for Sekou Sundiata's medicine-meets-spoken-word rumination on struggling with kidney failure, blessing the boats. Sundiata's gifts as a performer were unmistakable, and I said as much, but the subject matter left me cold. According to several readers, though, my distaste for the theatre piece proved that I hate the organ transplant system and every person who's ever had one. Here's hoping I never need a kidney come Spoleto season.

Parking. It was a quick way to give yourself an ulcer last year, if your destination was anywhere near the CofC's Simons Center for the Arts — or the Cistern, or Theatre 220, or the Sottile Theatre. And it was just as bad this year, with the formerly spacious parking garage at St. Philip and George streets now a faded memory and whatever's going up there still under construction. And that damned bicycle-riding CofC parking cop was the bane of my existence. God forbit any of those spaces actually be used by anyone at night, while school's out...

Charles Wadsworth. The 78-year-old host of Spoleto's Chamber Music is as much a fixture of the Big Festival as the Dock Street itself, but his brand of suggestive, self-deprecating humor — or "corny palaver," as New York Times blogger James Oestreich put it mid-festival — isn't for everyone. His age makes him mostly immune to criticism. But any man 20 years younger letting loose with the same off-color remarks about the female musicians in his employ would be sued to within an inch of his innuendo.

Theatre 99's Piccolo Fringe. They're going to have to start their own festival soon. Waitaminnit, they already have. (See the Charleston Comedy Festival.) Point is, the inventory of top sketch, improv, musical, and other comedy-esque acts in Theatre 99's ginormous Piccolo Fringe could have occupied their own zip code this year. Funniest material: Upright Citizens Brigade, as per usual. Biggest surprise hit: a tie between the surrealistic sketches of the Cody Rivers Show and the whip-smart Harvard Sailing Team, none of whom went to Harvard. Biggest letdown: Human Giant, who phoned in a "performance" of clips from their show and back-patting banter about being semi-celebrities in Charleston.

Cellphones. Are people whose cellphones ring in the middle of performances evil, stupid, thoughtless, or simply minions of the Devil? And for punishment, should they be a) forced to eat their phones, b) drawn and quartered, c) buried alive with a phone whose ringtone is Beyonce's "Irreplacable"? My solution: pack 'em off to Urinetown.

Magic. Between the wonderfully unpredictable Major Bang: or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Dirty Bomb and Aurélia's Oratorio, there was more illusion on the Emmett Robinson stage this year than at a David Copperfield fan club convention.

Festival foxes. I worried that my "Most Boinkable Artist" category in last year's wrap was too, shall we say, indelicate. But a conversation with Spoleto admins and organizers at the festival finale convinced me it had to go in again. The top honors went to:

1) Heather Buck. The angel in Faustus was indeed a hottie, and a sweetheart to boot. Plus she exploded and burst into flames at the end of the opera. That's just badass.

2) Keith Phares, who played Pierrot in L'ile de Merlin (and appeared in both of the two recent Don Giovannis here). It must have been the Keanu Reeves Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure impression.

3. Rubberbandance's Lila-Mae Talbot. Cute as a button, limber, and with a French accent. What more need be said?

4. Andrew von Oeyen. Youthful blond virtuoso pianist von Oeyen is a veteran of last year's list, and if he seems a little too fond of his own picture, where's the harm in that?

5. The Constant Wife's Jade Yourell. As Constance's best friend Marie-Louise, who's not so secretly knocking boots with Constance's husband John, Jade was a beautiful, brainless bonbon. As a beautiful, brainy actress, she's even better.

Nihilism. This $20 word got bandied about a lot in the wake of the premiere of Pascal Dusapin's Faustus, the Last Night. Unless you're a fan of either Neitzsche, Heidegger, or The Big Lebowski, you may be unfamiliar with its philosophical ramifications for that opera. I wouldn't worry too much about it, though. It'll probably amount to nothing.

Kudu. That's Kudu Coffee, for those of you who missed finding this urban slice of the African subcontinent — and the unofficial watering hole and sunning spot for herds of Spoleto Festival artists — on Vanderhorst Street across from St. Matthew's Church. Great coffee, free wireless, plenty of comfy seats, live entertainment, a spacious enclosed courtyard, and within spitting distance of a handful of festival venues, Kudu was the place to go if you wanted to hang with the festival in-crowd.

Underground art. At the last minute, after much urging on my part — and coming just one week after the city's Very Important Announcement of a renewed crackdown on graffiti — graphic artist Johnny Pundt sent me this year's best subversive slant on the festivals, taking down Spoleto and the graffiti crackdown in one fell swoop. Keep Charleston Beautiful, Motherf#@cker!" it read, around a stencil of the mayor. "Spoleto 2007: Say 'No' To Unapproved Art!" I didn't see many around town, but it's the thought that counts.

Controversy. Spoleto wouldn't be Spoleto unless it chapped a few asses with its programming, and so it was. Most of the debate, however, took place within the rarified circles of music theorists and connoisseurs, not among the plebeian masses, sad to say. Faustus, the Last Night was either groundbreaking genius or unlistenable tripe, depending on which critic you asked. Glass' Book of Longing was either a delightful melding of music and literature or a nose-dive into shlocky, saccharine pap. L'ile de Merlin was a gut-bustingly sharp satirical updating of an otherwise unremarkable opera to some, a crass, unsubtle piece of pandering that sacrificed music to silly spectacle for others. Neither did Dood Paard's spare, postmodern medEia do anything to mollify the unquiet gripers. It was a banner year for "challenging" art at the festival. Menotti, rest his soul, would be proud.


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