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It's Spoleto With a Southern Accent

April 06, 1986|CHARLANNE F. HERRING | Herring, formerly of Thousand Oaks, Calif., lives in Winston-Salem, N.C.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — On May 23 this history-steeped city will be transformed into a sun-drenched Mediterranean village, not unlike its sister city, Spoleto, Italy. In 1977 Italian opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti established a festival of the arts here, patterned and named after its prototype in Spoleto, Italy.

The Spoleto, U.S.A. festival takes place annually the last two weeks of May and the first two weeks of June. It brings to Charleston nationally and internationally renowned artists in opera, ballet, jazz, drama and the visual arts.

Menotti explained that he wanted the festival to be a "fertile ground for the young with new ideas, and a dignified home for the masters."

This year's 10th anniversary celebration honors its founder on his 75th birthday with an all-new production of his Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, "The Saint of Bleeker Street," which will be directed by Menotti. The musical conductor will be Romanian-born Christian Badea, internationally recognized as one of today's outstanding young conductors of opera and symphony.

Guest Artists Listed

Guest artists will be the Scottish Ballet performing "La Sylphide" and the reorganized National Ballet of Spain, both making their debuts in the United States, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with piano soloists Misha Dichter and Jose Feghali. Musicians returning to perform at the gala birthday festivities include cellist Yo-Yo Ma and soprano Renata Scotto.

It seems quite appropriate that this cultural center of the Southeast during the 18th and 19th centuries was chosen by Menotti for the setting of such a series of events. The Dock Street Theater, which hosts the Spoleto operatic productions, is the site where the first opera was performed in America in 1735.

Today the city boasts two opera companies, two ballet companies, several theater groups, a symphony orchestra, a contemporary dance company and numerous chamber music and choral associations. Those and much more attract visitors to this charming historic landmark all year.

As one young artist declared when explaining his choice of Charleston as his home and workplace. "The light is different in Charleston. The water, the gardens, the low skyline enhance it."

Tour of Historic Sites

The oldest part of the city is on the tip of the peninsula formed by the Ashley and Cooper rivers, where most of the more than 2,000 historic buildings are. Many of them are private homes but a few are open to the public and offer guided tours. Maps are available at the Visitor Information Center, 85 Calhoun St.; open daily 8:30 to 5.

A delightful way to get acquainted with the historic district is in a horse-drawn carriage, which is likely to tease you into believing you are visiting a century or so before your time. You may find yourself peering around corners, as I did, expecting to see ladies in sweeping hoop skirts and gentlemen in gray flannel uniforms.

Forty-five minute tours are given daily from 9 a.m. to dusk by the Charleston Carriage Co., 96 N. Market St.; the fare is $8 for adults; children 3 to 12, $4. Reservations advised April 1-Aug. 30, call (803) 577-0042. Bicycle rentals are also available. Palmetto Carriage Works offers 50-minute horse-drawn carriage tours daily 9 to 5 for $8, ages 2-12, $4. It's at Rainbow Market on Market Street; free shuttles from hotels and the Visitor Information Center. Call (803) 723-8145.

Gray Line Water Tours provides a narrated 2-hour cruise to such sites as Forts Sumter, Moultrie and Johnson, port facilities, the naval base, Cooper Bridge and the lovely homes along the Battery. Tours begin daily at 10, 12:30 and 3, Mar. 1 through Labor Day; at 10 and 2 after Labor Day through Oct. 31; at 2 p.m. Nov. 1-Feb. 28. The fare is $6.50, seniors $5; ages 6-11, $3.25. Call (803) 722-1112.

Plantation Wealth

Some of the greatest attractions in Charleston are outside the city. Much of the wealth that built the historic cultural and trade center came from plantations in the surrounding area. Rice and indigo were the principal crops during the 17th and 18th centuries, and in the late 1700s cotton took over as the staple of the Charleston economy.

A series of hurricanes that killed the rice plantings, along with the boll weevil's destruction of the cotton plants, virtually put an end to the plantation era. Many of the plantations have become truck farms that grow tomatoes for the northern market, and a few have become tourist attractions.

I drifted to sleep to the music of crickets and tree frogs chirping to the irregular bass drumming of a bullfrog who inhabits the river side. The musky smell of moist earth mingled with the pungence of pine to perfume my mornings and my evenings, and the lemony-sweet scent of magnolias permeated each warm midday.

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