After two years of powering through a down economy, Spoleto Festival U.S.A. is set to stage what General Director Nigel Redden calls one of their largest festivals yet.

“People don’t come to festivals because they cut back fiscally and because they’re sort of restrained and watch every penny,” Redden says. “Obviously, we need to do that in order to survive in the long term, but basically people come to festivals because they’re good and rich in variety and rich in offerings. They’re going to have a fascinating time, and I think that’s what we’ve emphasized this year.”

This year’s line-up is diverse, bold, and ambitious, including a few familiar faces as well as many fresh ones.

  • The Red Shoes

Ireland’s Druid Theatre makes its festival debut with The Cripple of Inishmaan, written by Martin McDonagh and directed by Tony Award winner Garry Hynes. Redden says he’s been trying for years to get Hynes to the festival. “She is certainly one of the great directors working in contemporary theater anywhere in the English-speaking world,” he says. “She is very true to a text and gets something special out of actors. There’s a trick to a certain type of Irish theater where the language has to be right … Garry manages to do that brilliantly.”

UK’s Kneehigh Theatre (2009’s Don John, 2006’s Tristan & Yseult) returns with The Red Shoes, a grisly take on the Hans Christian Andersen classic — the New York Times called it “another ringing testament to the theatrical inventiveness and exploratory intelligence of Kneehigh.” Solo theater shows include County of Kings: Beautiful Struggle by hip-hop theater artist Lemon Anderson as well as East 10th Street: Self Portait with Empty House by Edgar Oliver.

In the musical theater genre, Lee Breuer directs The Gospel at Colonus, a modern reworking of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, set in a Pentecostal church. Expect foot-stomping gospel music. “It’s a bit of a change for us,” Redden admits. “I had worked on it about 30 years ago, when I worked in Minneapolis. An early version came to workshop there… so it’s a bit of a homecoming as far as I’m concerned. [Director Lee Breuer] felt that setting this Greek play in the context of a church made an enormous amount of historical sense as well as a kind of intuitive theatrical sense. It makes the whole story come alive in a way that I think is quite brilliant.”

  • The Magic Flute

Like last year, the festival boasts three operas, each with its own distinct vibe. The Spoleto Festival Orchestra, led by former festival music director Steven Sloane, performs Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The festival’s new resident conductor John Kennedy conducts the orchestra in Emilie, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s homage to Enlightenment scientist Emilie du Chatelet. Marianne Weems of New York’s Builder’s Association theater company will direct. And the festival honors founder Gian Carlo Menotti by taking a fresh look at The Medium, which will be directed by John Pasco (2010’s Flora).

This year’s festival also includes a circus category — Australia’s Circa presents a blend of acrobatics, choreography, and humor.

The dance series showcases Spain’s Corella Ballet and choreographer Emmanuele Phuon’s Khmeropedies I & II, which takes a fresh look at the ancient Cambodian Khmer dance. Shen Wei Dance Arts also explores Cambodian culture, and Jerome Bel offers a visual autobiography of contemporary dancer CÉdric Andrieux.

  • Taylor Mac

This year’s classical music offerings are plentiful, as usual. The Bank of America Chamber Music Series, led by Geoff Nuttall, continues along with John Kennedy’s Music in Time series and Intermezzi. Taylor Mac returns (we last saw him in 2008) with Comparison Is Violence or the Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook. Another edgy late-night offering comes from indie-poppers Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, who will perform with a band under video projections of Andy Warhol’s silent film portraits. Their show is called 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. Bela Fleck and the Original Flecktones and the bluegrassy Del McCoury Band (who will play at the finale) add some down-home flavor to the mix. Nineteen-year-old Grammy nominee Sarah Jarosz will also make her debut.

  • Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue

The Wachovia Jazz Series is now the Wells Fargo Jazz Series, but expect the same level of jazzy greatness. Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue combines jazz, funk-rock, and hip-hop — Shorty’s in the running for a Grammy for best contemporary jazz album. Dianne Reeves and Karrin Allyson return after previous appearances, while others, like Norwegian pianist Ketil Bjornstad, Brazilian accordionist Toninho Ferragutti, Italian pianist Danilo Rea, and Argentinean jazz duo Willy Gonzalez and Micaela Vita are making their festival premieres.

  • Winter Stories

The Festival partners with the Halsey Institute to present Paolo Ventura’s Winter Stories. The artist uses photographs, miniatures, and detailed sets to depict scenes from the memory bank of a fictional Italian circus performer reminiscing on his life.

Stay posted to our Spoletobuzz blog for more information on Spoleto 2011. May 27 will be here before we know it.