CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Spoleto Festival USA opens its 36th season Friday and among the planned performances is an opera by American composer Philip Glass to commemorate his 75th birthday and his long relationship with the internationally known arts festival.
The Charleston festival is staging the American premiere of "Kepler," about the famed German astronomer Johannes Kepler. Only the score has previously been performed in this country.
"We had been talking about various different things and this seemed the most appropriate," said festival General Director Nigel Redden, who first met the composer 40 years ago. "It's the American stage premiere but it's also the premiere of a new version and it's in English. Philip, I think, was anxious to have it done in English to make it more accessible."
Glass has had a long relationship with Spoleto. Among other performances over the years, the first American production of his "Book of Longing," based on the poetry of Leonard Cohen was performed in 2007. A year earlier, a minimalist fanfare by Glass was performed at the opening ceremonies on a so-called car-illon. The car-illon consisted of a line of BMWs, each with a speaker on the roof and a license plate displaying the note it played.
"This festival was founded by a composer and we feel increasingly it's desirable to have composers here," Redden said.
The Spoleto Festival USA was founded here in 1977 by composer Gian Carlo Menotti as a companion to his Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. He left the Charleston festival in 1993 in a dispute over his successor and died five years ago at age 95, still estranged from the festival he started here.
The festival's opening ceremonies are Friday and during the following two weeks there will be more than 140 shows by 60 groups and performing artists on stages across the city.
A second Spoleto opera is the American premiere of "The Phoenix Pavilion" by Guo Wenjing, a contemporary Chinese composer. It features an orchestra of four traditional Chinese instruments blended with Western instruments.
The visual arts offering is the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art's show by Motoi Yamamoto, who uses salt to create large-scale art installations that resemble – depending on how you view it – lace, waves or mazes.
The Charleston installation won't be completed until the night before the festival opens, because Yamamoto works painstakingly sitting on the floor to create patterns for the installation. But Yamamoto sees his work as a form of meditation.
The Japanese artist estimates it will take 120 hours to complete using about 400 pounds of salt.
Clemson University architecture students designed a stairway and an overlook so patrons can get a better look at the salt design that Yamamoto creates to match the floor space available. Yamamoto began working with salt to keep alive the memory of his sister who died of brain cancer at age 24.
The show at the Halsey runs through July 7th when the public is invited to come and scrape the sand off the floor and then spread it into the Cooper River near the South Carolina Aquarium.
But for Yamamoto, that's all part of the art.
"I am happy, not sad," at the end of a show, he said. "At the ceremony, people go to the sea and I can imagine the cycle of the salt is like the cycle of life."
Spoleto Festival USA: http://spoletousa.org/home/