Odile Gakire Katese is an artist from Rwanda who brings the U.S. premiere of a musical work called The Book of Life to Spoleto Festival USA 2023 | Photo provided

The reinvention of age-old tales is a prevailing theme in the 2023 lineup for Spoleto Festival USA, which will feature more than 100 performances May 26 through June 11.

Tony Award winner Denis O’Hare will offer a one-man performance in An Iliad, a reinvention of Homer’s epic poem. South African choreographer Dada Masilo presents a redux of The Rite of Spring featuring a blend of ballet and Tswana dance, a form native to Botswana. Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti’s psychological opera Vanessa will return to Spoleto after 45 years, this time with a female director and designer. 

“This year we are excited about presenting the work of multi-hyphenate artists — artists who are breaking boundaries and are defying classifications, artists that can’t be easily labeled,” said Spoleto Festival USA spokesman Jenny Ouellette said. “The season is really exemplified by these artists who are eager to try new things and experiment and premiere new works.”

Artistic homecomings are in store during festival director Mena Mark Hanna’s second season for Charleston’s Quentin Baxter, who will take center stage with his quintet, as well for acclaimed conductor Jonathon Heyward and pianist Micah McLaurin. 

There will be a memorial concert and benefit in honor of Geoff Nuttall, the festival’s late director of chamber music who hosted the festival’s chamber music concerts at Dock Street Theatre since 2010. He died in October. 

Grammy-winning Bluegrass trio Nickel Creek will perform for two nights. Distinguished jazz icons Henry Threadgill and Abdullah Ibrahim also will perform as well as next-generation talents such as Immanuel Wilkins and Courtney Bryan. A finale event at Firefly Distillery will be a concert by the genre-bending R&B group out of New Orleans, Tank and the Bangas. 

Overall, more than 300 artists and companies will travel to Charleston from over 10 countries this season, Ouellette told the City Paper.

“This season is focused on showing international and diverse voices — diverse in age, background and cultural identities. It’s really a collision of cultures, people and ideas coming together in Charleston.”

International acts heading this way

Renowned South African choreographer Dada Masilo will present a work called “The Sacrifice.” Masilo has long been fascinated by fusing the vocabularies of contemporary dance with classical ballet to create new movement languages. In this work, Masilo blends Tswana dance, a form native to Botswana, with contemporary ballet.

Also hailing from South Africa, Abdullah Ibrahim is a distinguished pianist and world-respected master musician. He performed in 1994 at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration and was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2019.

“He doesn’t tour much, so it’s your chance to see him as he is making a rare stop in the U.S.,” Ouellette said. Ibrahim was one of the artists on the lineup for the canceled 2020 event, so Ouellette said the festival is thrilled to finally welcome him this year. 

Odile Gakire Katese is an artist from Rwanda who brings the U.S. premiere of a musical work called “The Book of Life.” 

“This one-woman performance is fascinating,” Ouellette said. “Katese is surrounded on stage by eight drummers, an all-female drumming ensemble. In Rwanda, drums had been reserved for men, but Katese started the first female drumming ensemble.

“Katese is this cultural entrepreneur, an artist, a playwright and really a phenomenal activist. This piece is based on a collection of letters she accumulated that are written by survivors of the Rwandian Genocide in 1994 and also by the perpetuators. This work asks, after the unthinkable, what happens next? How does a country move on and heal? It’s a heavy work, but it’s also one that is full of joy and hope.”

Another international act (and world premiere) is Out of Chaos by the Australian physical theater company called Gravity & Other Myths. The group is returning to Spoleto after sold-out runs at the festival in 2014 and 2018. Hard-edged, explosive acrobatics collide with intimate, verbal confessions to create insight into what it feels like to be onstage in real time. The artists described Out of Chaos as their “boldest and most ambitious [work] yet.” 

Opening the festival’s Front Row Series, the amplified music series in the College of Charleston’s Cistern, is the London-based artist Ebony Bones. 

“In the past, the Front Row Series has been very Americana and Bluegrass focused,” Ouellette said. “This year, we are trying to break down and expand what that means. Ebony Bones mixes afrobeats, punk, hip hop and classical music … She is this chameleon-like artist who also creates amazing costumes with high-fashion concepts. This will be a really experiential concert in the Cistern Yard.”

Opera reimagined

This year’s opera is Vanessa, offering four performances at the Charleston Gaillard Center. The work has deep ties to the festival and makes a triumphant return to Spoleto for the first time in 45 years. The libretto was written by Spoleto founder Gian Carlo Menotti. 

Vanessa receives a contemporary retelling by director Rodula Gaitanou and scenic and costume designer Cordelia Chisholm. 

“Vanessa is this recluse in the countryside, waiting for her lover to return. It’s a story that focuses so much on female characters, and yet it was written by men, and in 1978 at Spoleto, directed by men,” Ouellette said. “This year, it will be presented with a female director, Rodula Gaitanou and designer Cordelia Chisholm. Gaitanou has reimagined this more from the female perspective and dives deeply into these characters.”

Last year, the festival welcomed the world premiere of Rhiannon Giddens’s opera Omar, which has had wild success since and continued its run across the country.

American tenor Jamez McCorkle made headlines for his critically acclaimed appearance in Omar at Spoleto in 2022. McCorkle will return this year with a new work called A Poet’s Love, presented at Queen Street Playhouse. This season also marks the first time Queen Street Playhouse is a venue for the festival.

“He is going to sing and play piano in a new stage production and world premiere that will be whimsical and magical,” Ouellette said. “For people who missed their chance to see him in Omar last year, or for people who loved him in Omar last year, this will be a really cool chance to see him perform.” 

Familiar faces

Some repeat guests offer return performances at the festival this year, such as Quentin Baxter, a Charleston native and drummer in Grammy Award-winning band Ranky Tanky.

“This is a homecoming concert for Quentin Baxter and he’s really at the center of it,” Ouellette said. “He will also bring to the stage his band, as well as three special guests, including Bobby Watson, another Grammy winner who is from Kansas City.

“This concert will be a great mix of acts from Charleston and more nationally known names,” Ouellette said.

Another familiar face Charlestonians will look forward to seeing is Jonathon Heyward, a Charleston County School of the Arts graduate who is forging a career as one of the most exciting conductors on the international scene. He currently serves as music director designate of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Heyward will conduct the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra at the Gaillard with three works, including a piano concerto featuring Micah McLauren, a young virtuoso who is also from Charleston and now performing all over the world.

The finale event at Firefly Distillery features Tank and the Bangas, marking its second year performing at Spoleto. Tank and the Bangas is a New Orleans-based R&B band capable of shifting from classic soul and funk to hip-hop, reggae and rock. It won the NPR Tiny Desk Contest in 2017, and in November 2019, it was nominated in the Best New Artist category for the 2020 Grammy Awards.

“It will be such a fun way to end the season,” Ouellette said. “People can bring picnics, and bring chairs and blankets to watch the concert, and the fireworks, with drinks supplied by Firefly.”

Tickets start at $25 and are available for purchase today at 10 a.m., online at spoletousa.org or by calling (843) 579-3100.

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