Each spring, thousands visit the city of Charleston to partake in the Spoleto Festival USA, one of America’s biggest performing arts festivals. For 17 days and nights, this festival delights the Holy City with the best artistic performances with more than 150 performers from around the world.
Opera, theater, dance, jazz—the Spoleto Festival USA has it all, and the lineup is more diverse than ever in its 41st year. From highly-anticipated fan favorites to up-and-coming productions, this year promises to be even better than the last, which is incredible, considering that last year’s sales were record-breaking.
If you plan to attend this year’s festivities, then understanding the full vision of the event is essential. Spoleto’s rich history and dedication to the arts are inspiring and allow you to fully appreciate the talented performances that come to town every year.
In this insider’s guide, we will give you the scoop on the history of the Spoleto Festival USA and highlight some of the must-see premieres this year. Whether you are a Charleston local or an out-of-town attendee, consider this your go-to guide for festival this year.
The History of Spoleto Festival USA
Since 1977, the Spoleto Festival USA has been captivating audiences in Charleston and enriching an already vibrant community. First founded by Pulitzer-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti, the three-week event was originally intended to be an American counterpart to the Festival of Two Worlds in the small town of Spoleto, Italy.
The founders wanted a city that would mimic the small-town charm of Spoleto, Italy, while also providing enough theaters and accommodations to host the festival. They found their ideal location in Charleston, a city that is known for its picturesque neighborhoods and historic charm.
The Holy City’s abundance of churches, theaters, and early dedication to the performing arts made it the perfect setting for the festival. In addition, the city’s vibrant community and small-town atmosphere were similar to the small Italian town, which further cemented the founder’s decision to make Charleston the home of the festival.
The Mission of the Spoleto Festival
Since its beginning in 1977, the Spoleto Festival has been committed to showcasing only the best artistic performances and supporting young artists, helping them foster their passion for the arts in all forms. It also brings a significant impact on Charleston’s economy and regularly invests in both local businesses and the community.
Dedication to Young Artists
Spoleto has supported young artists since its inception and encourages them to pair up with more experienced performers so that they can learn new skills. The festival offers many exciting opportunities for blossoming artists to advance their careers, including auditioning for the seat in the Spoleto Festival Orchestra or the Westminster Choir.
Giving Back to the Local Community
Spoleto’s mission also gives back to the city that it has called home for over 40 years. Though the event brings international fame and economic success, the festival also directly invests in the local community.
Spoleto has not only played a key role in preserving historical landmarks, such as the Dock Street Theatre and the Middleton-Pinckney House, but it also continues to educate the local community through programs that help inspire a deeper appreciation for the performing arts. Most notably, their Open Stage Door program distributes complimentary tickets to community-based organizations so that they may be part of the Spoleto experience.
Historical Charleston Theatres, Churches, and Event Spaces
Charleston boasts many elegant theatres and churches that serve as the venues for the 17-day festival. These prominent event spaces not only provide the lowcountry with a place to view world-class performances but, also offer a glimpse into the history of Charleston.
Here is a list of beloved Spoleto venues and some notable performances taking place around town.
Charleston Gaillard Center
The recently renovated Charleston Gaillard Center will once again host Spoleto’s featured opera this year, an extravagant production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Dates for the performance are May 26 and June 1, 4, 8.
The Gaillard Center will also present the Westminster Choir, Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra’s performance of Mozart’s Great Mass.
Last, don’t miss a special, one-night-only performance by American roots musician Rhiannon Giddens on June 9th at Gaillard Center!
Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul
Conducted by Joe Miller, the Westminster Choir performs at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul. This fan favorite is considered one of the most-loved traditions of the festival.
College of Charleston Cistern Yard
Performances at the College of Charleston Cistern Yard this year include Terrance Blanchard, featuring the E-Collective, on June 3rd for a one-night only performance. Multi-Grammy winner Terry Blanchard and the E-Collective create a perfect ensemble that combines jazz, funk, rock, R&B, and blues music.
College of Charleston Sottile Theatre
Israeli dance company L-E-V, is set to perform OCD Love at the College of Charleston Sottile Theatre on June 2, 3, and 4. Led by choreographers Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar, the production explores love through the lens of obsessive compulsive disorders.
Monchichi, the duet that blends hip-hop with contemporary dance, will also be performing at Sottile Theatre on May 26-28.
Dock Street Theatre
The historic Dock Street Theatre will host the Druid production of Waiting for Godot, which begins on May 25. It will also host the American premiere of Antonio Vivaldi’s opera Farnace, which begins May 27.
Notable Premieres and Fan Favorites
From the very beginning, Spoleto has encouraged artists from all backgrounds and ages to participate and explore their creativity to its fullest. As a result, each year brings a remarkably diverse lineup that relies on both traditional and contemporary performances to delight audiences.
Those who attend Spoleto regularly will recognize a few reoccurring performances, but there is always excitement surrounding new premieres. If you are attending the event this year, here are the anticipated performances premiering at Spoleto:
New York tapper Ayodele Casel’s world premiere, While I Have the Floor, explores identity, language, communication, and artistic legacy. Casel will also be participating in the popular “Conversations With” program, an intimate conversation with participating artists who open up about their creative processes and the experience at Spoleto.
Cinema and Sound
Fans will welcome back acclaimed pianist Stephen Prutsman, who performs the original scores for the world premiere of Cinema and Sound. The program blends silent film and a live soundtrack for a particularly innovative performance at the Woolfe Street Playhouse.
The U.S. premiere of Antonio Vivaldi’s most popular 18th-century opera, Farnace, is a highly-anticipated performance this year. Produced by Garry Hynes, the mythical Roman war drama will star Anthony Roth Costanzo, a legendary countertenor.
An opera full of dark comedy and seduction, the U.S. premiere of Royal Opera House’s Quartett will be sure to captivate audiences. Composed by Luca Francesconi, conducted by John Kennedy, and directed by John Fulljames, you won’t want to miss this performance at the Memminger Auditorium.
Over the years, many regular attendees of Spoleto have their favorites events that they look forward to attending every year. Last year’s Porgy and Bess was an enormous hit in Charleston and was a signature performance of the 40th anniversary of Spoleto.
Performances aside, there are also activities and events that Spoleto fans love to attend. Here are other favorites that will please all ages and backgrounds:
The “Conversation With” program gives audiences a chance to hear from the visiting artists and get an inside glimpse into their creative thought processes. The artists will be interviewed by CBS correspondent Martha Teichner, and each presentation lasts for approximately an hour. Fans will get to hear from their favorite artists, including director Garry Hynes and pianist Stephen Prutsman.
The sessions are free as long as attendees register in advance.
Fans of Spoleto not only get to watch artistic performances, but they can join in themselves. With the “Master Classes” program, the performing artists teach both experienced and beginners dancers the art of their craft.
This year’s classes are being led by Company Wang Ramirez, L-E-V, Company Class with Gallim Dance, and Hillel Kogan. Get tickets while you can!
Held in the Simons Center Recital Hall at College of Charleston, Jazz Talks gives audiences the chance to listen to an intimate conversation between notable jazz musicians. This year’s discussions will include the following:
Fud at 100: A Centennial Celebration: Charleston mayor John Tecklenburg discusses the legacy of his great-uncle Joseph “Fud” Livingston alongside historian Karen Chandler and music critic Larry Blumenfeld on May 28.
Trumpeting Truth – A Conversation with Terence Blanchard: Larry Blumenfeld will return to discuss arts, advocacy, and social justice issues with Grammy-winning trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard.
These events are free if you register in advance.
Spoleto Finale at Middleton Place
Of course, no one should miss Spoleto’s grand finale across the Ashley River at the historic Middleton Place. Attendants will get access to the full lineup of local and regional bands, headlined by breakout band The Revivalists. Additionally, ticket holders will also get to explore the beautiful gardens and refined lodgings of one of Charleston’s treasured National Historic Landmarks.
The Piccolo Spoleto Festival
Charleston’s existing dedication to the performing arts is one of the reasons why Spoleto Festival USA founders chose the city to host this yearly event. It isn’t surprising, then, that the Piccolo Spoleto was created to offer even more cultural opportunities.
What Is Piccolo Spoleto?
In 1979, Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. launched the Piccolo Spoleto Festival to highlight Charleston’s local performing artists. While the main venues feature artists on a national and international level, this series gives attention to regional, less known artists. Plus, most of the events are free and family-friendly!
The festival runs concurrently with its parent event, which means that everyone can easily fit some of these popular Piccolo events into their schedule.
Are you in the mood for some improv? This comedy extravaganza is held each year at Theatre 99 on Meeting Street and features top comedic artists with original performances. Although most Piccolo events are family-friendly, this one is more suited toward adults.
Piccolo Fiction Spotlight
Are you a fan of the written word? The Piccolo Fiction Spotlight invites South Carolina writers to submit their brief short stories for a chance to be published in the Charleston City Paper, broadcast on S.C. Public Radio, and be read in the historic Charleston Music Hall.
The Spotlight Concert Series
The 13-performance program features classical arrangements by The Charleston Renaissance Ensemble, Chamber Music Charleston, and the Charleston Piano Trio with violist Miles Hoffman.
The Sundown Poetry Series
One of the oldest Piccolo Festival series, the Sundown Poetry Series offers local and regional poets the opportunity to gather for free evening readings. After the readings, many authors stay for a Q & A sessions to discuss their work. This event traditionally takes place at Dock Street Courtyard on Church Street.
Ready for Spoleto Festival USA?
If you happen to be in Charleston during the festival, then you should definitely explore some of the amazing artistic performances happening in the Holy City this spring. With over 160 ticketed events, there is something for everyone at Spoleto to enjoy.