Bands you've never heard of are converging on the Center City with their heavy metal, their leathers, their gladrags and their cowboy hats for NASCAR's annual Speed Week celebration. Whether you join the teeming crowds on Tryon Street, surrendering to the redneck carnival ambiance, or whether you merely approach within a two-mile radius of the Square, you will hear these bands before they leave.
Men and women of Charlotte don't have to worship grown men who proudly wear caps sporting the logos of beers that go for 40 cents a can. There is an alternative to wading through a sea of empties while gaping at souped-up cars promoting Home Depot and Viagra.
But not nearby. You need to hop into your escape vehicle and head for Spoleto Festival USA -- and its faithful sidekick, Piccolo Spoleto -- down in Charleston through June 11.
SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA
Now preparing to unveil its 30th edition, Spoleto was brought to the Port City by opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who had founded the original Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, way back in 1958. Instantly, the festival brought a new infusion of continental charm to a city whose artistic associations stretched no further than Catfish Row, replicating the Italian festival's mix of opera, symphony, chamber music and dance onstage -- with a side order of visual arts.
Old World elegance and conservatism were also in Menotti's formula, with the occasional spice of subversive edginess, exciting emerging artists and prestigious American and World premieres. It's so right that new history should be made along the cobbled streets of this conscientiously preserved city.
Arthur Miller, Philip Glass, Kurt Weill, Ottorino Respighi and Athol Fugard are among the elite who have had their work premiered at Spoleto. Modern American musical styles also have found their voice. Ella Fitzgerald, Abbey Lincoln, Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Gary Burton, Woody Herman and Dianne Reeves are among the jazz royalty who have jammed.
Country music was expelled from the festival lineup after 1981. Eventually, jazz became a sticking point between Menotti and Spoleto USA, and there was an artistic parting of the ways in 1993. While that hasn't thrown open the doors to folkies or even pensioner rockers, the once-contentious jazz sector has blossomed, dance has set up a grassroots outpost alongside the expected ballet troupes, and theater programming has been enriched with smaller guerilla groups and solo performance artists.
The envelope keeps stretching. DJ Spooky's multimedia Rebirth of a Nation besieged Charleston in 2004, and Savion Glover tapped Spoleto to submission with his Improvography in 2005.
Ready for some hip-hop theater? This year, Danny Hoch brings his polymorphic powers and his New York attitude down South for a chameleonic evening at Emmett Robinson Theatre. Hoch is that rare performance artist whose name is spoken in the same breath as Eric Bogosian, Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin.
Rhapsodic romance also beckons down at Spoleto with the grandly operatic Romeo et Juliette by Charles Gounod at Gailliard Auditorium and a stage version of Tristan at Dock Street Theatre. Mozart gets a pleasing nod during his 250th birthday year with a reprise of last year's intensely sensual Don Giovanni, environmentally staged at moldering Meminger Auditorium.
If a romantic getaway isn't your style, you and your family can all run away to the circus. Created in 1986 at Spoleto, Circus Flora is celebrating its 20th anniversary with an explosion of clowning, acrobatics, musicians, animals and the world-famous Flying Wallendas. But you'll need to hurry, hurry, hurry. Circus Flora begins camping out at Ansonborough Field on Thursday night and ends its limited engagement next Tuesday.
Hoch isn't the whole show. Long before he arrives during the final week with Hip-Hop Theatre (June 8-11), Kneehigh Theatre will take up residence at storied Dock Street Theatre with the American premiere of the production that wowed London audiences at National Theatre, Tristan and Yseult (May 26-June 11). Wagner notwithstanding, this familiar story of love potions, jealousy, unquenchable passion and noble sacrifice has its origins on the coast of Cornwall, so this Cornish company's revival returns the love legend to its roots.
Meanwhile, Spoleto will be staging a world premiere of its own, uniting pioneering Asian director Ong Ken Sen with Japanese kabuki ace Gojo Masanosuke, computer sound artist Toru Yamanaka and African American actress Karen Kandel. At Robinson Theatre, Geisha (May 26-30) promises to blend ancient tradition with contemporary style. The exotic, enticing result is already scheduled for a July rendezvous in Lincoln Center.
Nobody who has given even superficial notice to the modern dance scene will fail to recognize that Paul Taylor Dance Company (May 27-28) is the headliner. If recent PT sojourns at Spoleto have been a tad frivolous, the troupe's unquestioned virtuosity will now be unleashed upon Promethean Fire, Taylor's response to 9/11 -- and Stokowski's mighty orchestration of Bach's Toccata. On the other hand, Three Epitaphs promises to deliver some sophisticated wit, and Oh, You Kid! will whisk us back to the era of flappers and ragtime.