Each summer, Charleston hosts one of the largest arts festivals in the nation: Spoleto. A special treat for the past 38 years, the festival invites talents from all over the world to captivate audiences. Nimble dancers fly and leap through the air. Talented musicians produce harmonious melodies. Actors tell stories from a different time and place. Artists mesmerize crowds and fascinate eyes with intricate brush strokes. Notable writers from Tennessee Williams to Allen Ginsberg have had their moments of fame with works showcased at Spoleto. Modern legendary performers such as Renee Flemming and Yo-Yo Ma have also graced the Holy City’s stages. But while you anxiously await the curtains to open at this year’s festival, take a closer look at the stage and you just might see a familiar face.
Originally founded by Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti in 1958, Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of the Two Worlds), displayed an annual celebration of summer music and opera in Spoleto, Italy. With intentions on having the separate worlds of American and European cultures to face each other, the idea of conjoining with a “twin” lead to the establishment of the Spoleto Festival USA, held annually during the summers in Charleston.
Taking advantage of all that Charleston has to offer, the Spoleto Festival joined forces with the College, building a strong relationship throughout the years. Former College of Charleston president Ted Stern was the first president of the board for Spoleto Festival USA. Spoleto and the College’s bond in the early years is evident, considering the festival’s first opening ceremony took place in the Cistern Yard on May 25, 1977. Arguably one of the most recognizable spots in the South, with its towering ancient oaks canopy and historic Randolph Hall in the background, the Cistern was and remains the perfect venue for those wanting to experience the exciting variety of world class music, opera and theater presented each summer. Spoleto performances have been staged on campus in the Sottile, Emmett Robinson Theatre and Stern Center Gardens – just to name a few. For the coordinators of the Spoleto Festival, it is essential to have access to these places that have such a presence in downtown Charleston. “Certainly, many memorable festival moments have been created [in] the College of Charleston venues over the past 38 seasons,” expressed Jennifer Scott, Spoleto’s director of marketing and public relations.
To grow their partnership with the College, Spoleto now looks beyond the campus venues and forges relationships with the students themselves. Students who are part of the College’s Maymester course, Music and the Arts in the Spoleto Festival USA, are educated on how the original Italian festival made its way to the United States and are taught the rich histories of the arts.
Ensuring that students are fully engaged in their studies, coursework includes attending events and crafting reviews. Senior Michelle Nichols looks back on her Spoleto Maymester experience as one that was worthwhile and extremely entertaining. “We got free tickets to attend an opera and play, were able to see a dress rehearsal, and [got] discounted tickets for a dance performance.” Nichols and her fellow classmates received a brief introduction to music, dance, art and theater, were introduced to guest speakers who were skilled performers, directors, musicians and even set designers who informed students on working in the performing arts. Aside from classes, Spoleto offers an extensive list of opportunities not limited to apprenticeships and internships, but also the exclusive chance to actually be in the spotlight. Stepping up to the barre, Maggie Bailey’s big break with Spoleto began two seasons ago as a featured dancer in Stefano Viziolo’s opera, Mese Mariano/Le Villi. Spoleto provided rare exposure to true professional settings and masters within a range of artistic disciplines, something most aspiring dancers dream of, and the College of Charleston alumna was given the chance to see just how much collaboration, organization and teamwork goes into a full scale production. “I was also able to work with an international choreographer, Pierluigi Vanelli. It was a very exciting experience,” Bailey said.
Reaping the many benefits of Spoleto, Bailey realizes the immense significance of taking part in a festival of such esteemed caliber and encourages other students to get involved any way they can. “Regardless of what part of the festival students will be volunteering or working in, they will be working with a wide range of people, which is invaluable experience when you are student.”
Bailey passed the torch to freshman Bailey McFaden, a dance major who was offered a rare yet momentous opportunity. “I definitely believe that our partnership with Spoleto is beneficial to students. It’s giving us multiple opportunities to experience the arts world on a larger level than Charleston alone.” With the helpful connections between the Spoleto Festival and the College’s Dance Department, what originally began as an internship endeavour for McFaden became an audition for an opera that had not been presented to audiences since the 1600s: Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona.
As well as performing in a number of the College’s own dance productions, McFaden views these moments, along with Spoleto, as valuable experiences, ones that garner steady preparation for the future and acquire hands-on techniques while under the guidance of professional artists. “I will always encourage my colleagues to step out of their comfort zones and apply to take part in the festival. Not only does it build up your resumé, but it also gives you a once in a lifetime experience that will stay with you forever,” admitted the young dancer.
Another group of students thriving on these unforgettable experiences are those within the College’s Music Department. Participating in Charleston’s own Piccolo Spoleto, the “little” festival is the perfect complement to the international scope of its parent festival, giving students even greater opportunities to showcase their talents. With 700 events in 17 days, Piccolo Spoleto transforms Charleston into an exhilarating celebration of performing, literary and visual arts. Unlike the international talents that grace Spoleto’s stages, Piccolo Spoleto solely utilizes the talents selected from a regional pool, highlighting the diverse cultural validity within South Carolina’s Lowcountry. With this in mind, Piccolo’s Young Artists Series is designed to showcase the top talents and expose hidden gems found at the College. Coordinating with the College’s Department of Music, guests are presented with weekend concerts that cover a variety of musical genres and styles, utilizing performers of piano, violin, cello, classical guitar and voice.
Appearing every year is the College’s Concert Choir. The award winning ensemble, who showcase rich and warm tones throughout the Southeast and at several national conferences, not only represent, but exemplify the artistry being cultivated at the College. Under the direction of conductor, Robert Taylor, the Concert Choir regularly performs with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, delighting audiences with warm choral tones a standard repertoire of classical and contemporary music. Subsequently, the opportunities presented by the Piccolo festival shape lasting benefits that greatly impact the campus as a whole. “Exposed to international talent from literally all over the world during the weeks leading up to and during the Spoleto Festival, our students benefit most from performing during the [festivals],” admits Voice and Opera professor David Templeton.
The Spoleto and Piccolo Festivals justifiably pride themselves on variety, cultural representation and innovation. The art festivals manage to present some of the highest artistic caliber in the nation while providing original performance opportunities for established and passionate young artists. While the festivals allows students to showcase their talents to the world, it is the intricate artwork, treasured plays, captivating choreography and harmonious melodies that are valued by crowds and receive the ultimate standing ovation at Spoleto Festival.
This article was first published in the April issue of The Yard.