- Associated Press - Saturday, May 21, 2016

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - From the iconic opera “Porgy and Bess” to remembering the victims of the Mother Emanuel AME Church tragedy, the new season of the Spoleto Festival USA resonates with the spirit of the city it has called home for four decades.

The 40ths season of the renowned festival has set a box office record and opens with the traditional brass fanfare and speeches on the steps of Charleston City Hall on Friday. It runs through June 12.

It features the first Spoleto production of “Porgy and Bess,” the well-known George Gershwin opera set in Charleston.

It’s also the first Spoleto production to be staged in the Gaillard Center, the city’s $142 million performing arts center that opened last fall and is the single most expensive municipal project in Charleston’s almost 350-year history.

The opera sold out in two weeks - a Spoleto record - and it will be simulcast on a large-screen television outside in the city’s Marion Square on Memorial Day night.

“I think everyone who is involved with it thinks it’s going to be very special because its ‘Porgy and Bess’ in Charleston and its “Porgy and Bess” done by the Spoleto Festival after the Mother Emanuel killings,” said Nigel Redden, the festival’s general director.

He said members of the cast will sing at the church during the festival’s run.

The production is being designed by Jonathan Green, the local artist known worldwide for his colorful paintings of black residents of the sea islands of the nation’s southeast coast. Several buildings around the city, dubbed “Porgy Houses” have been decorated with West-African designs that appear in the staging of the opera.

The festival opens three weeks before the anniversary of the shootings of nine parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, which is just down the street from the Gaillard. A white man has been charged with murder in state court and numerous federal charges.

One festival production is a multimedia project by artist Carrie Mae Weems entitled “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now.” It includes songs, texts, spoken words and video projections raising questions about the role of grace in a democracy.

It was inspired in part by President Barack Obama last year singing “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of Emanuel victims.

Jazz singer Rene Marie will also include a song, “Be the Change,” during her May 29 concert at the Gaillard Center. It was commissioned by the festival and inspired by the community’s show of unity in the aftermath of the shootings.

The Memorial Day performance of “Porgy and Bess” is being dedicated to the memory of Ethel Lance who was one of the Emanuel victims. She had worked at the old Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, which the new performing arts center replaced, for 34 years before retiring in 2002.

The festival is also presenting “Afram or Swita the Beauty” by black Charleston-born composer Edmund Thorton Jenkins who achieved fame in Europe in the 1920s. It’s thought to be the first time it’s been performed and is being staged as a cabaret review with dance and songs.

Other Spoleto productions include Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Ernest” staged by Dublin’s Gate Theatre, a performance by jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant and a performance by the soul band Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats during the festival finale on the banks of the Ashley River.

Redden says he expects the festival will meet its ticket sales goal of about $3.7 million by the time the festival opens. The record for ticket sales is $2.9 million.

The Spoleto Festival USA was founded in Charleston in 1977 by Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti, modeled after and as a companion to his Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy.

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