Festival opening heralds the arts

Approximately 700 people gathered outside Charleston City Hall Friday for the opening ceremonies of Spoleto Festival USA.

Undaunted by overcast skies and a continuous rumble of thunder, an estimated 700 locals and visitors convened Friday at Charleston City Hall for the opening ceremonies of the 35th Spoleto Festival USA.

Remarks from Martha Ingram, chairwoman of the festival, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and Fred Child, host of American Public Media's radio show "Performance Today," were followed by a closing pas de deux, "Rain Is Falling" by Fernando Bufala and Cristina Casa of the Corella Ballet of Spain.

Among the themes struck during the one-hour opening event were broad brushstrokes: the transformational power of art, the physical and emotional benefits of immersing yourself in such arts events as the Spoleto and the Piccolo Spoleto festivals, and the discoveries that emerge from the philosophy of art for its own sake.

Amid the ringing of the bells at St. Michael's Church, the usual buoyant atmosphere prevailed for this kickoff to the festival, which runs through June 12, with attendees expressing a wide array of festival plans and preferences.

Not surprisingly, Piccolo Spoleto, the official outreach arm of the Spoleto Festival, is especially alluring to families.

"This year, because I have young children, we are most looking forward to the free concerts and the events at Marion Square," said Charlestonian Anne Pinckney. "Some years we attend Spoleto events for adults, but this year it's just Piccolo."

Added local resident Beth Compton, "We like to participate in a lot of Piccolo Spoleto events with our children, with an emphasis on live performances such as theater. We also enjoy going to improv performances."

Joining her from Myrtle Beach was Cherie Compton, who praised "the atmosphere and excitement" of Charleston during the dual festivals.

For others, attending the festivals was to be a brief but concentrated fling.

"Usually we come down for the art shows at Marion Square, and it's always a treat to come back and see what's new," said Rugby Hodgkins, who splits time between Charlotte, Hickory and Cashiers, N.C. "We'll only be here until Monday this year, but plan to take in as much as we can."

Martin Gramling of Charleston was eager to enjoy the Spoleto Festival production of a Mozart masterwork.

"I think 'The Magic Flute' looks really interesting; it's what I'm most looking forward to this year," he said. "Also, the chamber music concerts always are exceptionally well done and among my favorites."

Spoleto devotee Martha Brim of Columbia called the festivals a must-see on her yearly calendar of arts offerings.

"I'm going to attend (Kneehigh Theatre's) 'The Red Shoes' tonight, and hope to see a lot of other things," she said. "I've been attending Spoleto pretty much every year since I moved to Columbia in 1983.

"As I was interviewing for a job there I read about Charleston and Spoleto and knew that I wanted to come back to South Carolina to live. I've been coming to the festival ever since."

Others extolled the delights of such disparate events as the Festival of Churches, the prospect of the Spoleto musical spectacle "The Gospel of Colonus," and the productions of Piccolo Spoleto's Theatre Fringe.

Setting the tone for the day was Alabama-born musician and radio personality Child, also the announcer-commentator for the PBS program "Live from Lincoln Center," host of NPR's "Creators @ Carnegie," a contributor to the network's "All Things Considered" and a host for live broadcasts of concert events from New York City, Los Angeles and London.

He cited studies that reveal that enthusiastic followers of the arts, "regardless of age or income level, are happier and less stressed" individuals, while celebrating the artistic impulse and the potential for discovery that is at the heart of being engaged in the world of the arts.