It seems each year that spring is hardly upon us before we’re overtaken by the mad rush of Spoleto season, breaking over us like a rogue wave, leaving us sputtering and breathless, sprawled in the sand, feeling lucky not to have lost our swim trunks in the ordeal. Love it or hate it, Spoleto is without question the most frenetic, vibrant, passionate 17 days of Charleston’s year, two and a half extraordinary weeks during which our city’s torrid love affair with itself seems entirely justified.

Don’t let the cynics tell you Spoleto is just another arts festival. It’s anything but. Spoleto Festival USA is to typical American arts festivals what crank is to baby powder. Envelope-pushing theatre companies from as far away as Ireland, France, the Netherlands, and the hinterlands of New York City; three full-scale operatic productions, each created from scratch just for us by internationally acclaimed artists; a dance program that draws equally from Tel Aviv, Tbilisi, Montreal, and New England; more than 100 of the finest young symphonic musicians on earth. There are only a handful of festivals in the world that can put together such an ambitious, challenging program. One of them lands in our city this weekend.

Since the festival’s beginning, organizers have deliberately sought to program it so that it completely takes over the peninsula, stuffing cultural surprises into every nook, cranny, and piazza, creating an undercurrent of tension and excitement that lifts the city up and holds it there for one long moment before finally relaxing its grip and allowing us to tumble into summer. In Charleston, we can — luckily — see a play or a concert on almost any given weekend. But only once a year can we choose from a half dozen or more, presented by some of the most accomplished artists in the world.

Of course, not everything in Spoleto or its fringe-style sibling, Piccolo Spoleto, is for everyone. Those indisposed to laughing until the worry of wetting oneself is no longer merely a hypothetical concern, for instance, are warned away from most all of Theatre 99’s Piccolo Fringe. Allergic to transcendental chamber music? Avoid Piccolo’s Spotlight Concert Series at all costs.

And you don’t have to participate. You can stay on the couch, not bother with the traffic and the parking, save yourself a little green, watch The Sopranos, order a pizza, trim your toenails. But you’d be missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime, one that presents itself so rarely that it can rightly be called a minor miracle. Pioneering minimalist composer Philip Glass, for instance, last premiered a music theatre work at Spoleto in 1990. If you pass on his Book of Longing this year, there’s a slim chance he’ll be back with a new one in another 17 years.

If you’re smart enough, aware enough, and — let’s cut right to it — alive enough to appreciate the opportunity the next two and a half weeks represents, we’re here to help you. Our infinitely useful Buzz-O-Meter provides blurb-length synopses of what we subjectively consider the two festivals’ best bets. Lengthier preview features delve deeper into those that call for it. A complete calendar of performances and events for Piccolo and Spoleto, bundled with a cross-referenced map, make the whole portable package the single most useful guide to the entire 17-day shebang you’ll find anywhere in town.

Trust us, we’ve done the heavy lifting here. Relax, take a deep breath, wade in … and hold on to your swim trunks. —Patrick Sharbaugh

What You Need to Know

  1. There are two festivals running concurrently. One is called Spoleto Festival USA and is its own production entity. Spoleto’s where you’ll find Philip Glass premieres and big opera productions. The other, Piccolo Spoleto, is produced by the City of Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs. Piccolo augments its big sister with a wide variety of events, performances, plays, productions, and parties that range from free to $35. The Buzz-O-Meter in the following pages breaks down more than 100 events from both festivals. An info box at the end of each blurb will tell you which festival the performance is part of.
  2. The Buzz-O-Meter is the City Paper’s concise and critical preview of Spoleto 2007, encompassing both Spoleto Festival USA and its fringe sibling Piccolo Spoleto. Use this guide to help you decide what to do over the 17 days of the festival. The three-star Buzz-O-Meter ratings are based upon advance reviews, previous appearances, and chatter among Spoleto watchers. It’s a rather unscientific approach to the whole thing, but it should be fun to read and might even turn you on to something you wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
  3. You can avoid service charges by buying tickets to all performances in person at the Gaillard Box Office at 77 Calhoun St. Both Spoleto and Piccolo box offices are open daily during the festival, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Or you can order your tickets online or over the phone. Buy tickets direct from Spoleto Festival USA at 579-3100 or spoletousa.org. Piccolo tickets can be purchased through Ticketmaster at 554-6060 or at piccolospoleto.com.
  4. Most everything takes place downtown, and when it doesn’t we’ll note a general geographic area in the informational blurb.
    A pull-out schedule with a map is located in the center of this newspaper (unless someone got to it before you did). Keep this with you for easy reference to what’s happening where, when, and how much it costs. A printable map can be found be clicking here.
  5. Visit spoletobuzz.com (or click the link on charlestoncitypaper.com) for constant updates throughout the festival. Our overview critic Patrick Sharbaugh will be blogging about his experiences, conducting podcast interviews with various artists, and posting multimedia packages. Critics Lindsay Koob, Fernando Rivas, Robert Bondurant, Nick Smith, and Jennifer Corley will also be writing daily. For Spoleto music updates visit Eargasms, and for the latest around town check out our Spoleto Party Blog
  6. For reviews of shows, check back here on our website. We’ll be posting them to the web the day after their premieres.