First there was talk of sharing an opera, now there’s none.

Dan Wakin, the classical music reporter for The New York Times, is in Italy covering the Festival of Two Worlds, the counterpart to Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA. He writes that the two festivals are considering sharing an orchestra next year, at a cost that was smaller than first thought. As for an opera, which was the big news during this year’s American festival, that’s off the table.

Mr. [Giorgio] Ferrara [director of the Festival of Two Worlds] estimated that the total cost would be roughly $300,000 to maintain the orchestra. “The numbers aren’t so stratospheric,” he said. That is something of a turnabout from the festivals’ initial announcement of plans to cooperate, in April, when he suggested that bringing the American orchestra here would be too expensive. At the time, talk was of sharing an opera production, but that is off the table for the immediate future [italics mine]. Perhaps a Charleston production from next summer could be brought here, Mr. Ferrara said, or vice versa.

In Charleston this year, news of the so-called “reunification” of the two festivals had many in a tizzy, including The Post and Courier‘s Dottie Ashley. Problem is, Ashley took language couched in ambiguity to be the language of certainty. When Nigel Redden, director of the American festival, discussed “exploring” options, he was hedging his bets, as he ought to when talking to the media.

If an opera is off the table, what then is the significance of “reunification” beyond the symbolic? Sharing an opera was the cornerstone of the festivals’ partnership before Gian Carlo Menotti left in a huff in 1993. It was what gave the American festival a certain swagger, a glamorous sense of international cosmopolitanism. But now, with this latest news from Italy — that an opera is off the table for the time being — calls into question the whole notion of “reunification.”

It also underscores the absence of a kind of journalistic skepticism when it comes to reporting about the arts. As I note in this post prior to the start of this year’s festival, the press release announcing the alleged reunification does not say they will share operas.

It says that they “agreed to explore” the idea. It doesn’t say that the American festival will reunite with its Italian sister. The press release says that they “announced plans for the structure of a partnership [italics mine] between the two festivals.”

There’s a difference between a partnership and the structure of a partnership.

Nigel Redden, director of Spoleto Festival USA, was equally cagey in an interview yesterday with City Paper: “We are going to announce some kind of plan, if that’s the word, some kind of framework, for collaboration in the 2009 festival.”

So it seems a bit of caution is to be used until we know for sure what this news means. Bottomline: They will not share money, organizational structure, and many other resources. The “reunification” still appears to be largely symbolic, something, to be sure, that has value unto itself, but something that shouldn’t be over- or understated.