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The Ulysses Festival - birth and beyond

by Rachel Sutherland

March 12, 2012

The Ulysses Festival includes 22 events over 35 days. Click here for a schedule of Ulysses-related activities.  


The Ulysses Festival, Charlotte’s new Spring festival of the arts, may have started out a fabulous accident of sorts, but the same can’t be said for its future. 


Let’s start at the beginning. The birth of 'Ulysses the festival' mirrors the life cycle of the butterfly from which it draws its name: it started small, changed shape and form, only to emerge after gestating, rich with color, contrast and beauty. 


Some time ago, a casual conversation about upcoming programming between James Meena, director/conductor of Opera Carolina and Tanya Davis Sparks, artistic director of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra revealed both groups were scheduled to perform works by composer Peter Tchaikovsky in 2012.  


Opera Carolina was set to debut its first Russian opera — Eugene Onegin — and Meena suggested the groups cross-promote. Symphony Maestro Christopher Warren-Green joined the discussion, and what would eventually become Ulysses began to take shape. 


The initial collaboration between the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, N.C. Dance Theatre and Opera Carolina quickly spiderwebbed out of Uptown and across county and state lines. Ulysses’ organizers set out to unify and celebrate the arts community in an unprecedented fashion. 


Support through collaboration


“Ulysses is a reflection of Charlotte’s positive outlook on the future and the role art plays in the future of the community,” says Meena, the driving force behind the festival. “For the cultural community, it is an opportunity to speak to new audiences and to strengthen the ties that already exist between the many organizations that call Charlotte home.” 


A planning team — including representatives of the symphony, orchestra and dance theatre, as well as contract design and media specialists — spent the latter part of 2011 finalizing the festival, which grew to include 22 events over 35 days and includes regional cultural partners like Wingate University, the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, the Light Factory, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the Mint Museum.


“The difference between Ulysses and other attempted festivals is that this partnership began with the partner organizations themselves,” Meena says. “Rather than a top-down mandate to create something, Ulysses is a child born from the partner organizations having recognized the benefits to our collaborating and creating something that does not replace our current programming, but enhances it.”


Great works and working together 


The festival takes its name and inspiration from that of the beautiful Ulysses butterfly, a symbol of Spring, wonderment, rebirth and promise. The inaugural festival not only celebrates the first time so many arts groups have come together thematically, but also the local debut of great works, including N.C. Dance Theatre's Sleeping Beauty and Opera Carolina's Eugene Onegin, which is also the first Russian opera brought to stage in the group's 63-year history.


“The Ulysses Festival is a great example of organizations getting together to provide vibrant, diverse and enriching cultural experiences for residents and visitors to enjoy,” said ASC President Scott Provancher.  “Our community loves festivals and the Ulysses Festival provides programming that is not only entertaining, but educational which is a bonus. I look forward to the Ulysses Festival having great success and becoming a tradition in Charlotte.”


Last month more than 1,200 people met Ulysses for the first time at a free community day at Levine Museum of the New South on Feb. 25. Multi-generational families were drawn to the celebration of all things Russian, which included dancing, live music, crafts, shopping and cuisine. 


“We in this community recognize the power of collaboration and advocate for it,” Meena says. “And so, when a collaborative effort is created that is positive, and that enhances the cultural assets already in our community, it is no wonder the community would embrace it.”


Future in the works


That synergy was present during a January meeting at North Carolina Dance Theatre. Crowded into the boardroom were the biggest names in the Charlotte arts scene: NCDT’s Jean Pierre Bonnefoux, CSO president and executive director Jonathan Martin, Light Factory executive director Marcie Kelso, CSO musical director Christopher Warren-Green, Wingate University’s Laura Kratt and James Meena among others. 


The room crackled with creative energy as the group, including festival sponsors, brainstormed ideas and thematic ideas for 2013 and beyond. The collaborative spirit was alive and well as ideas were bandied about without fear of reprisal or judgment.  


“Time will tell,” Meena says, “but we hope Ulysses is a conduit through which attendance is enhanced, and through which programming can be created that is unique and exciting for audiences, the organizations and the community at large.”


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