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Egghead zone! 

Spoleto is becoming the Carolinas' worst-kept secret

Last September, the Music Critics Association of North America convened its annual conference in Toronto, where I joined them for the first full presentation of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle in Canadian history. Next week, the organization heads south, converging on Charleston, S.C., for Spoleto Festival USA.

After 30 years, MCANA has discovered the best arts festival in the New World. You can't keep a secret from anybody these days!

The infestation of music critics in the Port City will inevitably affect the entire ecology of the festival founded by the late Gian Carlo Menotti in 1977. I'm warning you: Get your tickets to the Stockhausen concert now or you'll miss the American premiere of his latest work, Himmels-Tür (June 2).

OK, bad example. You may be more into Kenny G than Karlheinz S.

But if you're seeking to get in touch with your inner highbrow, the best arena in America is under siege. At this year's Spoleto, beginning on May 25 and running through June 10, MCANA meets for our saturnalia May 30 through June 2.

That really does make it more difficult to snag bargain-priced midweek tickets to a couple of the Bank of America lunchtime chamber music concerts. Anyone who has experienced the bonhomie of series emcee Charles Wadsworth, who occasionally participates on harpsichord, will certainly want to make sure their seats at storied Dock Street Theatre are secured.

We're also likely to dangerously inflate demand for a couple of performances of the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, at elegant Sottile Theatre, not to mention the long-overdue American premiere of Gluck's L'Ile de Merlin at Dock Street. Most endangered of all perhaps is the American premiere of contemporary French composer Pascal Dusapin's Faustus, The Last Night.

Best bet among the operas -- as well as the only ticket I experienced any difficulty obtaining -- is the Gluck, who wrote some of the best operas we have prior to Mozart.

If you're not an opera aficionado, there are plenty of alternatives among Spoleto's catalog of 49 attractions and 130+ performances. There's theater, dance, jazz, choral music and a wide range of classical concerts. You do lose some of the cache and snob appeal of a night at the opera when you settle for those other art forms -- and there's no replacing that top-of-the-line sticker shock.

You want cheap thrills in Charleston? They're as plentiful in the arts as they are in the eats. Go ahead and do the funky walk-in restaurants, and find yourself a Piccolo Spoleto booklet, filled with over 700 arts events scheduled over the same 17-day period as the main festival.

Some of Charlotte's own performing arts make annual pilgrimages to Charleston, showcasing their talents amid Piccolo's regional lineup while getting a chance to peep in on the royals of national and international stature. Remember: Most of the artists -- even those like Savion Glover -- don't just slip in and out of town in tinted-glass limos. They walk the same cobbled streets as the rest of us, eager to experience the artistry, the ambiance, the inspiration and the excitement themselves.

Even suffering the heat. Hell, I couldn't imagine Savion breathing without sweating.

Ooops. Glover was at Spoleto last year. Philip Glass is this year's resident immortal. Here are the highlights.

Theater

Dublin's Gate Theatre has a special relationship with Spoleto -- and a fine track record. So their production of Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife (May 24-June 10) figures to be another festival hit. It's a stylish comedy, to be sure, set in 1920s London with plenty of women, fine clothes, and understated consternation about marriage and infidelity.

Major Bang (May 31-June 3) promises to deliver a dose of nuclear paranoia in contemporary New York, where Kirk Lynn mines true stories of a catastrophic backpack left on a subway and one Boy Scout named David Hahn, who built a nuclear reactor in his parents' garage. medEia (June 1-5), brought to us from Amsterdam by the Dood Pard ensemble, doesn't promise much more comfort, retelling the old Greek tale of Jason and that wholesome housewife Medea.

I'll also be interested to see blessing the boats (May 26-29) by latter-day griot Sekou Sundiata, recounting his survival of kidney disease -- with the aid of a transplant.

Dance

No opera this year at cavernous Gaillard Auditorium. Instead, a couple of prestigious choreographers from the Middle and Far East will bring their ensembles. First, the Batsheva Dance Company (May 26-28) from Tel Aviv will perform a collage of Ohad Naharin's meatiest pieces -- to music ranging from Dean Martin to traditional Hebrew chants. Then Shen Wei Dance Arts (May 31, June 2) will present Shen's Connect Transfer, using their bodies as paint brushes.

All of the dance at Spoleto is great, so I'll confidently recommend the hip-hop inflected choreography of Victor Ouijada and his Rubberbandance Group (May 25-28) at the Emmett Robinson. Odille and Odette, Georgia-style, invade Big Gaillard for the final days of the festival as the State Ballet of Georgia (think Tbilisi, not Atlanta) make their American debut in Swan Lake (June 7-10), starring Nina Ananiashvili.

Jazz

Got to admit, I fell hard for Brazilian singer Renato Braz when he made his American debut at Spoleto in 2004. So I'll forsake my MCANA colleagues when he comes back to Gaillard (June 1). I'm not a big fan of Ahmad Jamal (June 3), but I'm sure plenty of you baby boomers are.

I'll be more excited about rushing over to the Sottile to catch whatever I can of bandoneon master Dino Saluzzi (May 28) after my dose of Gluck. Anja Lechner adds cello to the haunting, intriguing mix. I do plan to return from Charleston with a heavy helping of uptempo swing, thank you very much, so I'll take care of that early in my visit with hot songstress René Marie (May 25-26) under the live oaks and magnolias of The Cistern, the best open-air venue anywhere for jazz.

Music

Glass sees things through with the American premiere of Book of Longing (June 6-8), set to Leonard Cohen's new poetry collection of the same name. Glass will sit at the keyboard himself under Sottile's art deco stars, amid an ensemble of singers and musicians plucked from indie rock, classical and new music circles.

Among the Big Gaillard concerts, I'm hate missing the Mahler-Strauss-Dukas program (June 5) the most. The students of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra are one of the best festival/youth orchestras on the planet, and conductor Emmanuel Villaume always seems to draw the best from them. There's a Brahms-Ravel (May 31) at Sottile that I'll need to skip for Shen Wei, but you can go.

I'll console myself with one of the late-afternoon Intermezzi featuring a Rossini-Bottesini-Tchaikovsky combo (May 30) at the St. Matthew's Lutheran, a new home for the series. If you're skipping Saluzzi-Lechner, try the pellucid pianoing -- and conducting -- of Andrew von Oeyen in the Beethoven Concerto #1 (May 28).

Aside from the earthshaking Stockhausen recital, I'm intrigued by a couple of other editions of the late-afternoon Music in Time series. For instrument haters, watching The Bowed Piano Ensemble (May 26) saw at the guts of a Steinway could be an orgasmic experience. And I'm already signed up for The Well-Tempered Accordion (June 1).

Can't get enough of Dusapin and Weill after blowing your life savings on their operas? Series director John Kennedy will fix you up with a Dusapin and Weill concert (June 5). Finally, if you're missing the fireworks, pomp and pop of Symphony in the Park while you're far from home, do the Festival Finale (June 10) at beautiful Middleton Place under the stars overlooking the Ashley River.

Key Web sites: spoletousa.org and piccolospoleto.com.

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