Associated Press Writer

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (AP) Even in bad times, the show must go on: the Spoleto Festival USA opened Friday with a brass fanfare and tributes to 80-year-old Charles Wadsworth, who retires this year after directing chamber music at Spoleto festivals for half a century.

"We all know that these are tough times for America in general and the arts in particular," actress Jane Alexander, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, told some 1,000 people gathered outside City Hall to launch the festival that runs until June 7.

This year's Spoleto budget is $6.2 million down from $8.4 million last year in yet another sign of the U.S. recession. But Alexander brushed aside the economic gloom as she declared, "Charleston today is a celebration."

This is "a day that marks the beginning of a brief time when we can all set worry aside and let ourselves be transported by the beauty and the passion of artistic performances," she added.

Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. opened the 33rd season of the festival.

"We need the arts even more when times are trying. We need their challenge, their inspiration, their nourishment and their beauty," Riley said.

He paid tribute to Wadsworth, saying Spoleto would never have succeeded in Charleston without him. Before the first Charleston festival, Riley recalled, local officials worried Spoleto might not succeed and he called on Wadsworth for guidance.

"He said 'Go for it. It will work,'" Riley recalled.

As Riley held Wadsworth's arm in the air, the crowd applauded.

Wadsworth began hosting chamber music at Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, and since 1977 in Charleston after composer Gian Carlo Menotti established the festival here. Menotti left the Charleston festival in 1993 and died in 2007.

"There have been these incredibly happy times since we started in 1977," said Wadsworth, who turned 80 on Thursday and now hopes to devote more time to composing. "It's been an amazingly important part of my life."

Despite budget cuts, festival general manager Nigel Redden has said crowdsfestivalgoers should see no effect in the quality of the performances staged across Charleston.

"We have had to cut the budget, which we have done. But I don't think the audience is going to perceive how we have cut it," he said earlier.

But this year there is only one opera Gustave Charpentier's seldom-staged "Louise" instead of the two, or sometimes three, the festival staged during good times. And staff members volunteered to take salary cuts while some staff positions were left vacant.

Other Spoleto offerings include "Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre's 20th Century," an operetta bringing together director Jay Scheib and World/Inferno Friendship Society, a New York punk band.

Britain's Kneehigh Theatre is staging "Dear John," a theater production inspired by Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater also makes its fifth Spoleto appearance, performing this weekend as part of the company's 50th anniversary tour.

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Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.