The Spoleto Festival Orchestra traces its origins to the highly successful Italian opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti (b. Cadegliano, Italy, July 7, 1911). The composer of several operas with unusually direct and clear expression and great dramatic (some say melodramatic) power, Menotti had gained unprecedented success when, rather than be content with a handful of performances at a regular opera house, he took the chance of mounting and promoting them in the manner of Broadway musicals. He booked his English-language operas The Medium, The Saint of Bleeker Street, and The Consul into individual theaters and each became a box-office hit, and his Amahl and the Night Visitors was the first opera directly written for television (NBC network, December 24b, 1951).
In 1958 he founded The Festival of Two Worlds in the small and poor town of Spoleto, Italy, with the intention of presenting American music and musicians. Two Worlds became a success and one of the best-known of the many European music festivals, with Menotti as its director and often staging the operas himself. In 1993 Menotti passed the directorship of the Festival to his adopted son, Francis Menotti.
In 1977 he sought an American counterpart for the performance of music including opera, ballet, orchestral, choral, chamber, jazz, and theater performances in a city possessing the old-world charm and plentiful churches, theaters, and other performance venues. He found it in the old port city of Charleston, SC, and began the series that became known as the Spoleto Festival USA. It has also become a major summer event in the U.S.'s cultural calendar, with a wide variety of literary and visual arts. Charleston enlarged the concept by founding a companion festival, Piccolo Spoleto, of similar length.
However, there is no link between the two Spoleto Festivals and Menotti has not participated in the American version for several years. In fact, he has publicly urged the Major and Council of Spoleto to lodge a protest over Charleston's appropriation of the Italian town's name.
A Spoleto Festival Orchestra is formed every year for the Charleston event. Its members are recruited among the finest orchestral instrumental students in American conservatories and music schools, who must pass an in-person audition after being recommended. Spoleto Festival Orchestra members have gone on to positions in ensembles such as the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Spoleto Festival USA holds an annual charity auction every year to raise funds for the cost of the orchestra.