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Spoleto Festival 2020 has opera, cabaret, theater, dance, concerts and Charleston emphasis

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Cabaret performer Meow Meow takes over the Woolfe Street Playhouse during Spoleto Festival 2020. Karl Giant/Provided

The 44th annual Spoleto Festival USA coincides with a couple of big anniversaries: The city of Charleston’s 350th and the College of Charleston’s observance of 250 years in higher education.

Both the city and the school are essential to the sprawling arts event, which announced the 2020 lineup today. Spoleto Festival’s identity is intertwined with Charleston’s, and its programming is only possible because it has use of the college’s venues and dormitories.

Italian composer and impresario Gian Carlo Menotti established the festival in Charleston in 1977 because of those venues (and others, such as the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium and Dock Street Theatre). The College’s president at the time, Ted Stern, teamed up with then-Mayor Joe Riley and several other civic leaders to convince Menotti that Charleston was the best option in all of the United States.

At the time, downtown Charleston wasn’t much of a tourist destination. King Street was run-down. The amenities were lacking. The city had few good restaurants, nice shops or fancy hotels. But Riley and Stern and the recruitment team helped Menotti see the potential. The rest, as they say, is history.

At the time, Spoleto Festival was half of a two-festival partnership. In 1958, Menotti had founded the Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of the Two Worlds) in the small and charming town of Spoleto in central Italy. A couple of decades later, the two festivals were sharing artists and programming. This helped forge links to artistic centers such as New York City, from whence many of the musicians came.

Charles Wadsworth oversaw a chamber music series in both places. The Westminster Choir performed at both events. Opera productions were mounted in both Spoleto and Charleston.

And from the beginning, Spoleto Festival USA included dance, theater, popular music, visual art shows and more.

As the festival drew established and up-and-coming artists and patrons, its host city became a destination for those interested in arts and culture. What followed was a renaissance: Neighborhoods improved, retail improved, culinary options improved, the local arts scene improved.

Of course, Spoleto Festival was not the only factor; city and community leaders worked hard to transform Charleston from a sleepy backwater steeped in history into a vibrant place of increasing value. And with change came challenges: gentrification, runaway development, higher cost of living, tensions that arise when the interests of permanent residents conflict with those of transient visitors.

But credit Spoleto Festival for its willingness to address social and political concerns through art. Over the years, the festival has strived to present art installations and events that appeal widely and tackle difficult issues, whether it’s the #MeToo movement, race in the South, conflict in the Middle East or existential matters.

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Rhiannon Giddens, composer of the opera "Omar," was to perform with her partner, multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, at Spoleto Festival. File/Karen Cox/Provided

This year, the festival will pay tribute to Charleston history by premiering the newly commissioned opera “Omar,” composed by Rhiannon Giddens, co-composed by Michael Abels, directed by Charlotte Brathwaite and conducted by John Kennedy. The opera is based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim from what is today Senegal who was brought to Charleston in 1807, then escaped to North Carolina.

“Omar” will be presented at the Sottile Theatre, which is set to re-open in the spring after renovation work.

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Shakespeare's Globe was meant to bring its production of the musical "Romantics Anonymous," directed by Emma Rice, to the Dock Street Theatre for Spoleto Festival 2020. File/Steve Tanner/Provided

As usual, the festival has lots of theater, dance and music in store. Somewhat out of the ordinary, though, is a musical theater production at the Dock Street Theatre, “Romantics Anonymous,” directed by Emma Rice and presented by Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s adapted from the French-Belgian film “Les Emotifs Anonymes” and features music and lyrics by Christopher Dimond and Michael Kooman.

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Something else a little different this year is a cabaret performance by singer/dancer/actress Meow Meow at the Woolfe Street Playhouse. Meow Meow (Australia-born Melissa Madden Gray) has been making a splash with her unusual “kamikaze” style of performance and her powerful voice in New York, Sydney, Berlin, London, Edinburgh and other cities.

Other theater will include “Until the Flood,” a one-woman play by Dael Orlandersmith inspired by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; “Sea Sick,” another one-woman show about climate change and sea-level rise, based on Alanna Mitchell’s book; “Wonders at Dusk” featuring illusionist-storyteller Scott Silven; and “The Believers are but Brothers,” a play about online radicalization written and performed by Javaad Alipoor.

The Scottish Ballet, Trisha Brown Dance Company and Ballet Flamenco featuring Sara Baras return to the Spoleto Festival with new works. Tap dance ensemble Caleb Teicher & Company makes its debut (Teichner is a veteran of Dorrance Dance).

In the physical theater category are two groups this year, the Australian company Gravity & Other Myths presenting “Out of Chaos” and the Quebec-based Machine de Cirque making its festival debut with the whimsical “La Galerie.”

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The Cookers take the stage in the Cistern Yard for a night of jazz during the upcoming Spoleto Festival. Provided

Jazz artists on the way to Charleston include the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Aruan Ortiz and Don Byron Duo, The Cookers, Abdullah Ibrahim, and the duo Linda May Han Oh and Fabian Almazan. Also programmed is “A New Orleans Jazz Celebration” and a show exploring the Great Migration titled “Two Wings” produced by pianist Jason Moran and singer Alicia Hall Moran. “Two Wings” features filmmaker Julie Dash, singer-composer Toshi Reagon and the group Imani Winds.

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Australian bassist Linda May Han Oh was scheduled to perform with Cuban-American pianist Fabian Almazan at Spoleto Festival USA 2020. Instead, the couple will present a virtual concert. File/Provided

The roots and Americana music lineup includes Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi performing tunes from their recent album “there is no Other”; The Wood Brothers; and Steep Canyon Rangers. The festival finale will feature The War and Treaty.

Conceptual artist Fred Wilson presents his installation “Afro Kismet” at the Gibbes Museum in conjunction with the festival. The work examines the underappreciated contributions of Africans to Turkey and the Middle East. Also on view at the Gibbes will be Omar Ibn Said’s original manuscript and a new work by Wilson inspired by Ibn Said’s life.

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Omar Ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim who was brought to Charleston from Senegal, wrote a short autobiography on which a new opera is based. Library of Congress

This year, Ludwig van Beethoven is celebrated around the world on the occasion of the master composer’s 250th birthday anniversary. Spoleto Festival will celebrate with the monumental Ninth Symphony. Much more classical music is on tap, from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and Edmund Thornton Jenkins’ “Rhapsodic Overture” conducted by Charleston native Jonathon Heyward to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons Recomposed” by Max Richter.

The Westminster Choir celebrates its 100th anniversary with dynamic programming, including a special concert titled “The Stations,” which features images from photographer Tom Kiefer’s provocative series about the migrant crisis called “The American Dream.” And Geoff Nuttall continues to thrill Dock Street Theatre audiences with chamber music new and old, familiar and unknown.

“Omar” co-composer Michael Abel will enjoy the spotlight at a screening of the movie “Get Out,” for which he wrote the score. It will be performed live by the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra.

Not incidentally, Chris Thile will be back in Charleston on June 6, but not to join the festival lineup. He is recording an episode of his public radio show “Live From Here” in the Holy City. Likely, he will borrow a few of the musicians in town.

And so goes the 2020 Spoleto Festival. For the 44th time it will enliven and enrich Charleston, reminding us of our good fortune and dramatic evolution as a primary arts destination in the Southeast. Just as the city is essential to the festival, so is the festival an integral part of the city.

At its best, the Spoleto Festival recalls history as it makes it.

For a full schedule, tickets and additional information, go to spoletousa.org.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.

Adam Parker has covered many beats and topics for The Post and Courier, including race in America, religion, and the arts. He is the author of "Outside Agitator: The Civil Rights Struggle of Cleveland Sellers Jr.," published by Hub City Press.

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