CHARLESTON, S.C. — CHARLESTON, S.C. -- It's modesty, not necessity, says Gian Carlo Menotti, that mothers invention.
And in the arts world -- as everyone knows today -- "modesty" translates directly into money.
Mr. Menotti was telling three stories at once to explain that 1992 Spoleto U.S.A. will see Donizetti's "Il Duca d'Alba" with sets from the 1882 Rome premiere of the opera.
"It was the second or third year of the Spoleto Festival in Italy," begins the esteemed octogenarian. "And we were completely broke.
"Thomas Schippers, our young conductor, had come upon 'Il Duca' in the Donizetti museum, and -- although it had been performed only once, he liked the score and felt strongly that it should be revived."
Donizetti, however, had put "Il Duca" aside to work on other projects and never got around to finishing the opera that is based on a text by Eugene Scribe.
Mr. Schippers worked out a conclusion from the composer's sketches.
Next Mr. Menotti -- pockets still empty -- asked Italy's film genius Luchino Visconti to direct the Spoleto "Duca."
And it was Mr. Visconti who, sharing the hope to keep expenses low, suggested scouting around for existing sets.
That's the point at which the remains of the 1882 "Duca" were found in Rome.
Mr. Menotti put them back together for his Italian festival and this year he brings them to Charleston, where the production debuts on May 22, the second day of the 1992 American half of the Festival of Two Worlds.
Second opera of the forthcoming season is Richard Strauss' "Elektra," for which Mr. Menotti has chosen Germany's avant-garde Guenter Kraemer as director.
Mr. Kraemer, a major force on the European stage today, makes his American debut with this staging.
Deborah Polaski, heard here last year in works by Mahler and Wagner, sings the title role.
("She's already been engaged by the Met for next season," chuckles Mr. Menotti with satisfaction. "We do bring good luck to our artists!")
The maestro turned next to the season's play, in recent years the last piece to be fitted into the mammoth puzzle of the Spoleto program.
"Writing for the theater has been marked by a certain decadence in recent years," sighs Mr. Menotti. "I read a play almost every night, and I always fall asleep asking 'Where is the O'Neill, the Tennessee Williams, the Giraudoux or the Anouilh of today?'"
And, says Mr. Menotti with a note of despair, if he finds a good drama, someone else has already spoken for it.
Despite these odds, however, he feels that he has found a winner for Spoleto 1992: Tom Murphy's "The Gigli Concert" -- a drama in which music from several recordings by the late, great Italian tenor are heard.
"Gigli' was first seen in Dublin's Abbey Theater in 1983. The play has not yet reached America's East Coast.
Mr. Menotti, of course, heard Gigli, who died in 1957, in person. Justdon't ask him when!
"It was a long, long time ago!" he laughs.
The '92 Charleston program lists seven dance companies, making this part of Spoleto a festival unto itself.
"This will be the American debut for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo," says Mr. Menotti. "The company was re-formed by Princess Caroline of Monaco just seven years ago, and we're planning on the presence of the princess along with the ensemble to Charleston."
Mr. Menotti saw the company rehearse in Europe and was excited by its work.
Pushing beyond traditional dance is Poland's Teatr Ekspresji, yet another group coming to America for the first time to perform at Spoleto.
"They're utterly fascinating in their combination of pantomime, ballet, drama and the dynamics of sport," says Mr. Menotti, who saw the company at the Edinburgh Festival near his Scottish home.
"They comment grippingly upon the solitude of modern man and his search for identity."
And France's Philippe Genty, often called "the Steven Spielberg of the stage," brings his puppets to Charleston next month.
"The manner in which Genty mixes puppets with real people is enchanting," Mr. Menotti says. "I told him I wanted to come back stage to see how he does it, but he wouldn't allow it!"
Mr. Menotti only has time to list the jazz greats slated for Charleston this year -- Ramsey Lewis, Stanley Turrentine, Kellye Gray and Patti Brown are among them, to mention the twice-daily chamber music concerts in the stayed intimacy of the Dock Street Theatre and to point to the continuing participation of Joseph Flummerfelt and the Westminster Choir -- along with Spiros Argiris, music director of the entire program.
He also speaks happily about the work of Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj that will be on display at various sites in Charleston during the three-week festival.
"Mitoraj is much discussed in Europe," he comments. "Some like him and some don't; he's a neo-classicist -- a beautiful craftsman whose works are very moving.
"And pay particular attention to all the new conductors," Mr. Menotti admonishes. "They are the pick of Europe, and in Charleston America will have its first chance to see many of them."
Does Menotti personally preview every bit of the Spoleto program?
"Heavens no!" he laughs. "I'd be dead if I did!
"Obviously, I take some risks, but then I'm noted for that; after all, I took a risk with Thomas Schippers -- and another with Yo-Yo Ma!"
Regarding the overall state of Spoleto, ravaged a year ago by administrative dissent that rivaled Hurricane Hugo in force, newly appointed executive director Marcus Overton speaks both of serenity and turbulence.
"Of course we feel the recession," says the former manager of performing arts at Washington's Smithsonian. "Yet we are in good financial condition.
"More important, however, is my feeling that Spoleto U.S.A. is now undergoing the trials of late adolescence in an attempt to establish its mature identity.
"We're asking who we are, what we want to do and where we want to go from here."
For complete program information on Spoleto U.S.A. and tickets call 1-803-577-4500.