Well-Cultured Charleston

Sunday, April 24, 2005

At the Spoleto USA Festival in Charleston, S.C., culturati can get a year's worth of performing arts compressed into 17 days. During the 29th annual event, the city's population more than doubles as up to 80,000 patrons line up to see opera and theater, listen to classical and chamber music or watch dancers and marionettes. -- Andrea Sachs

WHEN/WHERE: May 27-June 12, at 10 venues in downtown Charleston, plus Middleton Place, an 18th-century plantation outside the city.

WHY GO: Let us count the ways. Spoleto is the only American arts festival hosted by an entire city; it features American premieres and new twists on old standards by nationally and internationally acclaimed artists; and it replicates those Old World cultural festivals that are so common in Europe yet so rare in the New World. Indeed, the festival originated in 1958 in Spoleto, Italy, before its U.S. counterpart began in 1977.

TICKETS: Prices run the spectrum, from $10 to $110. Since seats are limited, purchase in advance. However, many performances are repeated at different times and days. High-demand tickets also may free up closer to performance day, so keep calling the box office to inquire.

Tickets can be ordered by phone (843-579-3100), online ( http://www.spoletousa.org ) or in person at the Spoleto Box Office in Gaillard Municipal Auditorium (77 Calhoun St.).

SHOW TIME: With more than 130 performances overall and up to 12 shows scheduled daily, picking and choosing can be stressful. If you want to be ahead of the cultural pack, check out an American premiere , such as Walter Braunfels's opera "Die Vögel" ("The Birds") or "Amajuba -- Like Doves We Rise," a play about post-apartheid South Africa as told through the actors' personal experiences. . . . Try a modern take on a classic , such as the "Mabou Mines DollHouse," which plumps up Ibsen's drama with short-statured males and women twice as tall speaking with faux Norwegian accents. . . . . Puppets are always fun, especially when there are 100 marionettes belting out an operatic "Sleeping Beauty in the Woods" . . . With 13 chamber music programs, you can see a new concert almost daily -- or the same one twice . . . If all else fails, let the time of day dictate your selections. Nigel Redden, Spoleto's general director, recommends chamber music in the morning, intermezzi or dance in the afternoon and opera at night.

FREE CULTURE: The festival holds a series of free lectures . Some are pre-show talks (you can attend even if you're not a ticket-holder), such as the "500 Years of Chinese Opera" discussion and demonstration by Qian Yi, director Hsiu-Wei Lin and performers from Contemporary Legend Theatre. Others are stand-alone events, like the "Conversations With" program, starring journalist Martha Teichner and festival artists, or an evening and reception with actress Hazelle Goodman (call 843-579-3100 to reserve) . . . The opening day ceremony at the Old Exchange Building includes the release of balloons, a performance by a festival artist and the pealing of bells from a nearby cathedral.

LITTLE SPOLETO: The City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs hosts the concurrent Piccolo Spoleto Festival , featuring local and regional performers and 700 events. All of the standard disciplines make an appearance, such as ballet, blues and American crafts, but some of the more unusual offerings include religious music sung in Gullah, a poetry walk on the peninsula and a montage of movies shot in Charleston.

Ticket prices vary, but some events, including a sunset concert with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and the Salsa on the Market Block Party, are free. For info: 843-724-7305, http://www.piccolospoleto.com ; for tickets, 843-554-6060.

SLEEPS AND EATS: Most of the venues are within walking -- or pedicab -- distance, so for optimum cultural hopping stay downtown. However, be warned: Beds book up early for Spoleto, especially opening weekend (tip: Go the following weekend).

Charleston Place (205 Meeting St., 800-611-5545, http://www.charlestonplace.com ) is steeped in southern charm, with double rooms from $319 a night. Other good options include Ansonborough Inn (21 Hasell St., 800-522-2073, http://www.ansonboroughinn.com ; from $169) and Planters Inn (112 N. Market St., 800-845-7082, http://www.plantersinn.com ; from $225). For less expensive lodging, try the Hampton Inn Historic (345 Meeting St., 843-723-4000, http://www.hamptoninn.com ), from $139.

Charleston Place's Charleston Grill has a late-night menu and live music, plus patrons might be able to eyeball some of the festival performers. And for a bit of European flair during your meal, try 39 Rue de Jean (39 John St.), a French bistro that serves late and loud.

INFO: Spoleto Festival USA , 843-579-3100, http://www.spoletousa.org . Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau , 800-774-0006, http://www.charlestoncvb.com .

© 2005 The Washington Post Company