One of the operas produced at this year’s Spoleto USA festival is Flora, an Opera. In the form of a ballad opera, Flora is significant because it is the first opera performed in the United States, making its inaugural appearance in Charleston in 1735 on the second floor of a tavern. Flora was presented again the next year in the Dock Street Theater, which was built specifically as a home for opera, music, and theater in response to the popularity of Flora.
How fitting that the first opera presented in the US is coming home to the newly renovated theater that was its first home.
MOST PEOPLE probably don’t realize that Spoleto is one of the few festivals in the world that produces its own opera and presents other forms of artistic expression. I didn’t either until my Spoleto 150 class at the College was so informed by Nunnally Kersh, Producer of Spoleto USA. Nor did I know that Ms. Kersh lives in Charleston and is co-owner of the fabulous Hominy Grill with her husband, Robert Stehling. Proof, I suppose, that southern cooking and the arts can coexist.
We also heard a wonderful story from Ellen Moryl, director of the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs, and the person in charge of Piccolo Spoleto, who talked about the early days of Piccolo Spoleto when Gian Carlo Menotti, Spoleto’s founding father, learned that Piccolo intended to include chamber music by young musicians. Ms. Moryl explained to Menotti that the musicians, in return for a paltry check but the priceless exposure to Spoleto audiences, were expected to perform community outreach to the children of Charleston. The maestro darkened his expression, she reported, and she feared the worst. Then, in a flash of inspiration, she responded by observing that the young performers would introduce chamber music to the kids, who would one day return the favor and buy tickets to Spoleto events. Menotti thought a bit, smiled, and gave his assent to the performances. History is full of such small actions, hurriedly decided, that result in great events.
Our class concluded with Emmanuel Villaume giving a brief history of how he came to be the Spoleto USA Director for Opera and Orchestra. Having determined early in his career to be a conductor, Villaume’s break came when he was introduced to Spiros Argiris who offered him a position as an assistant during the Spoleto Festival in Italy. One day near the end of the festival, as the orchestra was preparing to perform a Mahler symphony for the finale in the town square, Argiris told Villaume to lead the orchestra during a balance check (the process of balancing the microphones to ensure that all instruments will be heard properly). What was supposed to be a brief interlude of conducting turned into a lengthier performance as he began to enjoy the conductor’s role. Ten minutes became twenty and Villaume “had the time of my life.” Gradually, reality returned and he brought the orchestra to a halt. Unbeknownst to Villaume, standing behind him was Argiris and the great Menotti who, had been listening to every note—and the rest is history.