Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who helped establish the internationally known Spoleto Festival USA in South Carolina nearly four decades ago, took a final bow Friday as he opened his last festival.
It was Riley who helped persuade the late composer Gian Carlo Menotti to establish the performing arts festival in Charleston as a companion to the composer’s Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy.
Riley has opened every festival now for 39 years. Friday’s was his last because Riley, who has served as mayor longer than anyone else in Charleston’s 345-year history, retires at the end of the year. This year’s festival continues through June 7.
“There is nothing like the Spoleto Festival USA in the world, and for everyone who participates, when the festival is over, they are changed,” Riley told the hundreds gathered in front of Charleston City Hall.
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“And for the city that gives the festival, when the festival is over, it is changed as well,” Riley added. “For a great arts festival overwhelms its sponsoring city with unrelenting, day-and-night exposure to the driving quest for excellence.”
Riley said that whether designing buildings, starting programs for the poor or children, or creating new economic opportunities, “a city just can’t accept mediocrity after having been exposed to this festival.”
Spoleto Board Chairman Ed Sellers joked that, because of Riley’s hard work, it has never rained during the opening ceremonies. He later presented Riley with a framed edition of this year’s Spoleto Festival poster signed by those who have worked on the festival through the years.
Jane Chu, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, noted that the endowment funded Spoleto when it was still in the planning stages before the first festival back in 1977.
“I think we know a good thing when we see it,” she said. “Charleston was the ideal location, similar to the beautiful Spoleto, Italy. Charleston had a well-established community with cosmopolitan tastes. It was intimate in size and was and continues to still be known for its hospitality.”
After Riley declared the festival open and confetti showered the crowd, the London-based acting company Shakespeare’s Globe performed the prologue from its new production of “Romeo and Juliet,” which is one of this year’s Spoleto’s offerings.
Among other festival productions are the contemporary opera “Paradise Interrupted” as well as composer Francesco Cavalli’s baroque opera “Veremonda, the Amazon of Aragona.” It’s the first time the Cavalli work is being performed in America and the first time anywhere in 350 years.
Emmylou Harris performs with country artist Rodney Crowell, while the jazz program is headlined by Grammy-winner Dianne Reeves.