CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — The 40th season of the Spoleto Festival USA opened Friday amid tributes to the men who established the internationally known art festival and remembrances of the nine people fatally shot in a city church last year during a Bible study.
Hundreds gathered under a bright sun in front of City Hall as Mayor John Tecklenburg lauded former Mayor Joe Riley and composer Gian Carlo Menotti for launching the festival in 1977 and sparking an arts revival in Charleston.
"The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonard Da Vinci. The age of Elizabeth was also the age of Shakespeare," Tecklenburg said.
"We know firsthand that the age of Riley was also the age of Menotti and Spoleto. We know that our city's great flowering of arts and culture, of civic pride and progress — in short our modern renaissance — could never have happened without them," he said.
Riley worked to convince Menotti, the Italian-American composer, to create a festival in Charleston modeled as a companion to his Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy.
Menotti died in 2007 at the age of 95. Riley retired earlier this year after 40 years as mayor — the longest-serving mayor in the city's almost 350-year history.
This year's festival runs through June 12 and features the first Spoleto production of "Porgy and Bess," the iconic George Gershwin opera set in Charleston.
The nine victims of last June's shootings at Emanuel AME Church will also be remembered during the festival.
"We're mindful of that very difficult anniversary that will face us in three weeks," said Edward Sellers, chairman of the Spoleto board. "We have to acknowledge the unthinkable events that sometimes occur in life, especially the event of June 17 at Mother Emanuel."
The nine victims were taking part in an evening Bible study when they were gunned down. A white man has been charged with murder in state court as well as numerous federal charges including hate crimes. Both state and federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against the defendant, Dylann Roof.
Jazz singer Rene Marie's Saturday night Spoleto concert at the city's new Gaillard Center will feature a song "Be the Change" which was commissioned by the festival in the wake of the tragedy.
A multimedia production by artist Carrie Mae Weems is entitled "Grace Notes: Reflections for Now" and 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 the victims and the church's pastor.
The Memorial Day performance of "Porgy and Bess" is being dedicated to another victim, Ethel Lance. She worked at the old Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, which the new performing arts center replaced, for 34 years before retiring in 2002.