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40th Spoleto Festival: 'Porgy and Bess' Production Celebrates Charleston's History

By Steve Nagel s.nagel@classicalite.com on Jan 05, 2016 07:52 PM EST

Held annually in Charleston, South Carolina, The Spoleto Festival U.S.A (a 17-day showcase of opera, theater, dance, classical, and jazz music) will enter its 40th year upon its return this May. To honor the city that has hosted it since 1977, the 40th Spoleto Festival’s program will include a production of George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, set on the fictitious “Catfish Row” in Charleston. The Porgy and Bess production, which has been over a year in the making, will celebrate Charleston's history at a time when the city needs it most: in the wake of the Emanuel AME Church Shootings.

With roots in its “twin” -- the Festival dei Due Mondi, staged in Spoleto, Italy since 1958 -- the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. was originally set in Charleston at the request of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti who, having founded the Italian festival, sought to establish a counterpart in the United States. Charleston was chosen for its Old World charm, intimate feel, and numerous theaters within walking distance. Now, after many seasons of exciting Charleston residents with world-class arts productions, the Spoleto Festival is turning 40 this May and is celebrating with a grand production of George Gershwin's seminal opera Porgy and Bess at the Gaillard Center -- a choice that reflects a key point of Charleston's history. As the Charleston City Paper points out, "the last time Porgy and Bess was performed at the Gaillard — way back in 1970 — marked the first time the venue hosted an integrated audience."

The Porgy and Bess production was initially planned for last year's festival, but was cancelled due to unfinished renovations at the Gaillard. Now, with renovations complete, the production will be scheduled for the 40th Spoleto Festival's 2016 schedule, and is poised to carry more weight, considering Charleston's history, in the wake of the Emanuel AME Church shooting last June.

Referring to other Spoleto events that were planned in direct response to the shootings, the Spoleto Festival’s General Director Nigel Redden had said, "it’s impossible not to acknowledge the traumas of 2015”. Among the responses will be elements of an exhibition at the Gibbes Museum of Art, called “The Things We Carry: Contemporary Art in the South”, and a multimedia work by Visual Artist Carrie Mae Weems called "Grace Notes: Reflections for Now". Though unintended, the Porgy and Bess production -- George Gershwin's opera concerning the hopes and struggles of black America, now a century behind us -- may yet prove to be a valued artistic "afterword" for the shooting, so as to bolster the morale of the state and to celebrate Charleston's history, both its fiction and its harsh realities.

The New York Times also reported that the 40th Spoleto Festival will open with a preview of a new production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and a jazz lineup that will include Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, Ms. Salvant, and Pianist Jason Moran, among other renowned talents.

Tickets for the 40th Spoleto Festival, held from May 26th-June 12th, will go on sale beginning January 14th.

[This article reflects a January 6th, 2015 edit, correcting a false claim that the Spoleto Festival's staging of 'Porgy and Bess' was "in response to" the Emanuel AME Shootings.]

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TagsSpoleto Festival USA, George Gershwin, The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, Festival, Gian Carlo Menotti