It started as a way to mount a major opera in a safe, socially distanced way.
But anyone who knows opera folks knows they tend to go big. And the faculty, staff, students and partners of the College of Charleston have done just that.
On April 10 and 11, the first-ever “College of Charleston School of the Arts Festival: Arts under the Oaks” will treat Lowcountry audiences to a full complement of arts experiences — all socially distanced. It all happens under the oaks of Stono Preserve, the nearly 881-acre College of Charleston property along the Stono River and the Intracoastal Waterway in Meggett.
The initial aim was to launch a new opera initiative at the college, which represents a collaboration with its theater department and the Charleston Symphony to mount full-scale works of opera. When the pandemic nixed its planned Sottile Theatre launch in February, an alternative was born.
"We're trying to do (this) not just for us but also for the community," said Saundra DeAthos-Meers, director of opera at the College of Charleston.
Featuring performances by the college’s department of music alongside the department of theatre and dance, the daylong programming will be the same on both days. The event will include main stage performances and sideshow pop-up events that span arts disciplines.
Among the main stage shows are “Unbeatable,” a musical theater showcase of classic and contemporary songs directed by theater faculty member Laura Turner. It will carry its beat-bent theme through three main groups of songs that play on beats or rhythms, mixing in audience participation, some dance and uplifting stories.
There's also dance. “Finding Place” is a dance concert comprised of original pieces choreographed by students, which is directed by dance professor Kristin Alexander. It investigates the notion of self, particularly in times of isolation and constant change.
Then there is that opera that got the outdoor extravaganza going. The chosen work, Mozart's magnificent beguiling comedy "Le Nozze di Figaro,” is the first major production of College of Charleston Opera. Under the leadership of DeAthos-Meers, orchestra director Yuriy Bekker and associate professor of Theatre Evan Parry, “Le Nozze di Figaro” will be performed social distance-style by voice students, with choreography by Gretchen McLaine and Pamela O’Briant alongside professional and student orchestral musicians.
For DeAthos-Meers, the aim was to keep the momentum of the new opera initiative and ensure students had a chance to practice their chosen art form, one for which they have devoted countless hours and considerable energy.
Having worked on other local opera productions during the pandemic, such as the outdoor opera Mount Pleasant presented in the fall by Charleston Opera Theater, DeAthos-Meers remained hopeful.
"You just figure it out," she said. "They're going to walk away with an enormous amount of respect for themselves in their accomplishments."
She was not alone in her aim to do so. According to DeAthos-Meers, college President Andrew Hsu remained equally committed to the success of the endeavor.
"I have an amazing ally in President Hsu, who is a huge opera fan," she said.
The students have been rehearsing outdoors in the college's Cistern Yard, making big music behind their masks, with protocols in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
"Knock on wood, we have done very, very well. We have not had any outbreaks," she said.
There's more, too. Along with the main stage shows, side show events will be interspersed on the grounds of Stono Preserve. Think skilled fight choreography and sonnet recitations. There is kid-friendly fare as well, with the children's opera “Three Little Pigs," which is based on the music of Mozart.
Visitors can also tour Stono Preserve, the college's living laboratory for deeper dives into topics from marine biology to Lowcountry history.
To help make the day outdoors more comfortable, guests should bring items such as sunscreen, hand wipes, bug spray, chairs or blanket, and clothing for variable spring temperatures. Portable restrooms will be on site. Guests may bring their own food and water as there will be no food or beverage concessions available; alcohol is not permitted. Attendees should also be aware of the rugged, natural terrain at Stono Preserve, as they will be fully immersed in the rustic outdoors.
Tickets are available for the in-person event at full- and half-day costs. Tickets for the general public are $50 all day and $25 half-day (morning or afternoon options).
Tickets will not be sold at the gate. The concert is 10 a.m.-6 p.m. April 10 and 11 at Stono Preserve, 5297 Dixie Plantation Road, Meggett.
Performance schedule and ticket links are available at go.cofc.edu/artsfestival. For more information, contact the George Street Box Office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 843-953-4726. A livestream option will be available.