- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - It will be a poignant scene on Friday when the new season of the internationally renowned Spoleto Festival USA opens with a brass fanfare and speeches on the steps of Charleston City Hall.

It will be the last time that Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who helped bring Spoleto to Charleston almost four decades ago, proclaims the opening of the performing arts festival that runs through June 7.

Riley, who has served as mayor longer than anyone in Charleston’s 345-year history, retires at the end of the year. Riley helped convince Gian Carlo Menotti to establish the festival in Charleston in 1977 as a companion to the renowned composer’s Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy.

“Clearly the Spoleto Festival USA would not have happened without Mayor Riley,” said Nigel Redden, Spoleto’s general director. “Also without question the festival would have collapsed at various times in its history without Mayor Riley.”

Riley, now 72, was elected mayor only 18 months before the first Spoleto was staged. He knew that Menotti, who died in 2007, was looking for an American city to stage a companion to his Italian festival.

“With Charleston it was love at fight sight and he found Charleston appealing and understood it would be the perfect backdrop,” Riley recalled, saying his job was to marshal local support.

“There was concern about this being too ambitious for Charleston and getting involved in a large activity in a foreign country and whether it would be an economic disaster,” the mayor added. “My job was to work through all that and persist and to not let it fail.”

Riley says he never doubted it would work “but that doesn’t mean there weren’t anxious moments and wondering whether anyone would show up for the first opera.”

The mayor said Charleston, with its historic buildings and quiet gardens and alleys, proved the perfect locale.

“It was a place where the festival could become part of the community and the community could become part of the festival and it wouldn’t be lost,” he said. “If this festival would work any place in America, then it would work in Charleston.”

So is Spoleto the greatest legacy of a man who has overseen a renaissance in Charleston during four decades as mayor?

“It’s hard to say,” Riley said. “I am proud of so many achievements. That’s for the citizens or those who write the history of the city to decide.”

This year’s 39th Spoleto season includes the world premiere of the contemporary opera “Paradise Interrupted,” directed and designed by Jennifer Wen Ma, who worked on the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Spoleto is also staging - for the first time in America and the first time in more than 350 years - composer Francesco Cavalli’s baroque opera “Veremonda, the Amazon of Aragona.” First performed in 1652, it’s the story of the Spanish siege of a Moorish fortress on the Rock of Gibraltar.

Among other performances, the London-based acting company, Shakespeare’s Globe, performs a new production of “Romeo and Juliet” while the Scottish Ballet presents its adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Emmylou Harris performs with country artist Rodney Crowell while the jazz program is headlined by Grammy-winner Dianne Reeves.

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