Spirit of Spoleto!

For about two weeks, the annual Spoleto Festival USA turns Charleston, S.C., into one big arts camp.

The people of Charleston, S.C., built porches to keep cool, churches to get close to God, and theaters to give their imaginations a workout.

This interest in performing arts is especially evident during late May and early June, when Charleston hosts the annual Spoleto Festival USA, which ends this Sunday. For 17 days, throngs of arts-minded tourists range over the historic district, eating, shopping, and theater-hopping with an efficiency that Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard himself might have envied. The good news for people who can't make it to Charleston is that many of these top-drawer productions will be traveling to summer arts festivals elsewhere.

This year, the genteel Southern city got its collective socks knocked off by 40 South Africans performing Bible stories in raucous and exhilarating song and dance. "Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries" takes its cue from the mystery plays put on by tradesmen in medieval England to teach about Christianity. Broomhill Opera director Mark Dornford-May and musical director Charles Hazlewood used Old English texts as a platform, and then piled on a polyphony of voices, rhythms, and languages – the Bible characters speak at times in English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, or Zulu. The music is a glorious mix of African and Latin chants, lullabies, even a popular song or two, with emphasis on percussion: drumming, thumping, and banging.

At Spoleto, the buzz surrounding "The Mysteries" was as persistent as crickets on a hot summer night. Clearly, that production, and Bizet's "Carmen," with which it was performed in repertory, were two of the hottest tickets in town. And the buzz will only increase when the Broomhill Opera takes the two works to New Haven, Conn., next week.

"The Mysteries" brought together a diverse group of performers, all but four of whom are black and many of whom grew up in the townships and were not used to working with people of different races. "In 18 months, they became a proper [theatrical] company," said Mr. Dornford-May in an interview. Should the camaraderie displayed by the cast be taken as good news for South Africa's future? Dornford-May, who happens to be white and English, was circumspect.

"South Africa will lead the world in terms of race relations," he says. "Blacks were treated terribly [during apartheid], but they have decided not to pay back for that – which makes the situation rather more hopeful."

Cast member Zorro Sidloyi from Capetown agrees, saying, "Everything takes time, but the way we are in the cast is the way it will be: one nation with different cultures."

Insightful view of technology's impact

While Spoleto theatergoers were thumping their programs in time to "The Mysteries," not far away another kind of alchemy was taking place. "Three Tales," by minimalist composer Steve Reich and video artist Beryl Korot, provided a topical and disturbing look at the impact of technology.

The production, which next travels to the Netherlands and in the fall visits the Next Wave festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, is a complex piece. So much is happening visually and aurally that it needs to be seen more than once, Ms. Korot says.

Broken into three segments, "Three Tales" uses fast-paced video images and propulsive music to explore the human arrogance behind such events as the 1937 Hindenburg explosion, the atom-bomb tests in Bikini Atoll in the 1940s and '50s, and, finally, cloning and biotechnology. Woven throughout are verses from Genesis in which God tells man to "be fruitful and multiply" and "subdue" the earth.

The message of Korot and Reich is one of vigilance, but ultimately not of pessimism, in the face of rapid change – a message all the more powerful because it comes from two people who owe their own livelihoods to technology. The music is some of Mr. Reich's finest, with an edgy quality that adds weight and context to the visual images.

"Three Tales" became the conscience of this year's Spoleto festival, never straying far from a musical and visual entertainment, but always poking audiences in the ribs as if to say, "What about this?"

When asked if pieces like "Three Tales" might have an impact in the scientific community, or on national policy, Reich shrugged playfully and said, "Hey, I'm just a composer." More seriously, he added that artists don't have much power to affect governments. But it's important for people to know that "science isn't unstoppable. If people think something is dangerous, they should speak out. We really do have free will."

The logistics needed for "Three Tales" were extensive. Loops of electrical cable lined both the walls and floors of Memminger Auditorium, and a battalion of technical staff provided knowledgeable support.

Spoleto organizers must have been pleased that this year's festival was on a solid financial footing: Brisk ticket sales and a more stable budget made it possible to stage performances of this caliber and complexity.

The festival wants to put to rest its history of financial problems, and press reports indicate that officials have raised about $18 million toward future programming, an endowment, and a building restoration. The current yearly budget is about $2 million.

Caught up in the emotion of 'Afterplay'

A decidedly lower-tech production took place at the charming Dock Street Theatre. "Afterplay" imagines two lonely characters, each from a different Chekhov play, who cross paths in a Russian cafe. While familiarity with Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" and "Uncle Vanya" helps, audiences will find themselves caught up in the emotional heart of Brian Friel's short play (it was the second of two Chekhov-inspired works here; the first was a comedy, "The Bear").

Mr. Friel, like Chekhov, is more concerned with subtext – in "Afterplay," trivial conversation hides deeper yearnings and fears. The play is a gem of restraint, repressed longing, and love sought but barely acknowledged. John Hurt, well known to movie and TV audiences, brought a gentle, befuddled humanity to his role, and Penelope Wilton exuded a genteel desperation that won the audience's sympathy. The two actors were in top form.

Also worth mentioning is Richard Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," which was notable for its extraordinary singing and spectacular staging by Chen Shi-Zheng. The young Chinese director was the toast of the town, and his other production, the Chinese opera "Ghost Lovers," enjoyed praise from critics. In "The Flying Dutchman," the stylized movement – with an economy of gesture that recalls Japanese Noh theater – added to the tension.

Mostly high points

Every festival has its high and low points, and Spoleto 2002 had a few of the latter. This year's other big opera, "Così fan Tutte," was quickly forgotten. Broomhill Opera's "Carmen," which earned mixed reviews, was not as appealing as "The Mysteries" – cast members seemed less sure of themselves. Overall, however, the festival's sheer variety and consistently good performances shone through.

Running concurrently with the festival, Piccolo Spoleto was designed to offer performances at lower prices. Piccolo brings in acts that are funkier and less mainstream. As a result, the audiences are younger and more diverse.

One of the joys of Spoleto is the sense of community among artists and patrons. The city feels like a big arts camp, with performer sightings in cafes and hotel lobbies. Charleston residents seem to welcome the visitors, not to mention the dollars, and take the crowds with good grace. Charleston and Spoleto have achieved a very satisfactory arrangement.

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