Spoleto grabs center stage

The cast of the opera 'Aufstieg Und Fall Der Stadt Mahagonny' ('Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny') rehearses Tuesday at the Sottile Theatre.

The 31st Spoleto Festival USA opens at noon today with a double dose of anticipation.

First, the opening returns to its original site in front of Charleston City Hall at Meeting and Broad streets.

And for the first time in the festival's history, the event's keynote speech will be delivered in Italian by Massimo Brunini, the mayor of the Umbrian town of Spoleto, Italy.

But those who don't speak Italian have nothing to fear. They will still be able to understand the speech because Giovanna DeLuca, an assistant professor of Italian at the College of Charleston, will serve as translator.

"This is all working out just beautifully," said Spoleto general director Nigel Redden. "It's so appropriate that the refurbishing of City Hall has been completed just in time for the festival opening and especially with Spoleto Mayor Brunini as guest speaker."

The opening ceremony for Spoleto will be the public debut for the renovated City Hall, at least for the exterior of the building, as workers rushed to finish final touches, such as painting the handrails Thursday.

The $10.2 million construction project at 80 Broad Street is not complete, and plans to hold a City Council meeting in City Hall on Tuesday have been postponed. A public grand reopening ceremony is planned for June 12.

Work is still under way on City Hall exhibits and the audio and video systems in City Council chambers, according to Steve Livingston, director of the city's Parks Department.

City Council was scheduled to return to City Hall in April, but the date was pushed back several times, and the first scheduled meeting there is set for June 19.

Some surprises with the amount of marble that needed to be replaced contributed to the delay, but the building is open to the public, Livingston said.

For the past two seasons, the ceremonies had been held in front of the Exchange Building at East Bay and Meeting streets.

The 17-day arts festival, which runs through June 10, was founded in 1977 in Charleston by composer Gian Carlo Menotti as a sister festival to the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy. The two festivals parted over artistic differences in 1993, but the friendship is now being renewed after the death of Menotti in February.

Redden said ticket sales so far for this year's 120-event festival are the strongest in the festival's history.

To seat as many as possible at the opening, 600 folding chairs will be placed in front of City Hall.

Speakers including Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and Spoleto board chairman Eric Friberg will be seated on the marble balcony.

The ceremony will open with a performance by the Charleston Symphony Brass. Other entertainment will include the national anthem sung by John Hancock, who plays the role of Faustus in the American premiere of the opera "Faustus, the Last Night," which opens Saturday.

Closing the ceremony, which will last less than an hour, will be the traditional chiming of the bells of St. Michael's Episcopal Church and a balloon drop from the roof of City Hall.