"Do you know that I went with George to the performance that opening night?" declares Kitty Carlisle Hart over drinks on a sun-drenched veranda here. It is the opening day of the annual Spoleto Festival of the arts.

"George," by the way, was George Gershwin. And the work was "Porgy and Bess."

It is the first visit of Hart, that enduring presence of stage and television who now chairs the New York Council of the Arts, to this city in which Gershwin's 1935 masterpiece is set.

And that gets her to thinking about Gershwin. "You know, there were several of us he was especially close to. He was always awfully busy but he would ask us to come up to his place to sing. It was supposedly because if we sang, it would help him while he was doing his orchestrating. It was sort of the way other men would say to a young woman, 'How would you like to come up and look at my etchings?' "

Hart learns with delight that Porgy's Catfish Row still exists. In fact, now it is one of the chic parts of this stylish city. At the once-desperate locale where Sportin' Life seduced Bess and from which the poignant Porgy set off to find her in New York, there are now two boutiques.

One is named "Porgy" and one is named "Bess."

Hart holds court on the massively columned front porch set in a veritable park of the antebellum palazzo that is the home of composer Gian Carlo Menotti while he is presiding over the festival he founded here nine years ago and which he runs.

On arrival, Hart touches Menotti on the arm and comments, "Gian Carlo, this place is positively imperial." And, indeed, the drawing room that leads off the veranda, in deep reds and gilt, recalls in scale, shape and style those grand, formal drawing rooms at places like the White House.

Menotti responds resignedly, "Unfortunately it is not mine. And, anyway, it is now up for sale," so he may lose it. He adds, though, that the bathrooms leave much to be desired.

Hart has been invited to the festival to provide star quality to the multitude of special events that accompany each year's opening of Spoleto. This weekend's events range from a huge reception by the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain to a select formal Sunday afternoon picnic for about 100 of Charleston's finest on the majestic grounds of Drayton Hall, the 18th-century plantation up north on the Ashley River that is regarded as the finest remaining American example of Georgian Palladian architecture (entertainment was by bagpipe).

"We always try to have somebody like Kitty," explains Spoleto general manager Philip Semark in conversation on the veranda, "and last year she couldn't come." This year they made it easier by transporting her by helicopter from uptown Manhattan to the airport and then furnishing a private jet "that had every luxury I could imagine," she says.

"And really all I had to do here was to help open the festival, and make a little speech," which comes easily to a person who for the past 10 years has been the chief of the nation's second-largest arts budget (now $40.3 million, second only to that of the National Endowment for the Arts).

How did this American offshoot of the famed summer festival that Menotti started at Spoleto, Italy, in 1956 come to be located here? Charleston is a handsome and determinedly traditional town where the first shots of the Civil War were fired -- a town where Drayton Hall could be the country place of the same family for six successive generations.

Setting up an American Spoleto wasn't really Menotti's idea. Perhaps yet another such project would seem too much for one of the world's most prolific composers and producers (a recent Kennedy Center honoree).

"There was a special reason why we did it," Menotti recalls. "After 20 years of receiving mostly American support for the Italian festival, both my board and the National Endowment came to me and said they felt they couldn't keep helping if we could not do something in America as well.

"I asked them to come up with a list of potential sites, which I got from Walter Anderson and Nancy Hanks of the Endowment. I was to inspect them.

"Well, the first one on the list was Charleston because the list was alphabetical. I had never even been here before. And when I came I was so carried away that I never went to any of the others. Charleston was so wonderful -- the intimacy, the charm, the way people still walked everywhere they went."

At first Menotti envisaged Spoleto, U.S.A., as a branch of Spoleto, Italy. But that has changed, as this festival has grown. It goes on this year until June 9.

"We are now getting about 100,000 people a year," says Menotti, "and audiences are far more sophisticated. There are people from as many as 50 countries."

Financial support has been substantial. To the $3.1 million budget this year, the city gave $60,000, the county gave $12,000 and the state contributed $200,000. Thirty to 35 percent of Spoleto's budget comes from contributions.

Also, the social side has become important to the financial. Spoleto has become The Thing to Do in this part of the country -- "So much so," observes Menotti a bit wearily, "that I was telling Phil Semark the other day, 'Somehow we have to remember to keep putting on performances between all these parties.' "

This year's festival is not immune, though, to the financial pressures afflicting the arts in general these days. "Escalating costs" forced cancellation of the play "Inner Voices" by the late Eduardo de Filippo. The replacement will be "Tent Meeting" from the recent Humana Festival of New Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Other highlights include a new production of Puccini's "The Girl of the Golden West," directed by Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford ("Breaker Morant" and "Tender Mercies"). Handel's "Ariodante" will be seen in a new production by the Concert Royal and the New York Baroque Dance Company. There will also be seven other dance companies beginning with the Los Angeles-based Lewitzky troupe and the Rochester-based Bucket Dance Theatre. In addition, there will be numerous chamber music concerts and a wide range of other works.

Menotti says higher costs are reducing the feasibility of interchanges between the Italian and the American festivals.

Hart says the situation is no different in New York, though she adds that her council did better raising funds in Albany this term than last.

At this point, the conversation is brought to a halt by an increasingly pungent smell of garlic from somewhere in the house.

"I cannot stand that smell," declares Menotti testily, and he heads for the kitchen. Returning, he wears a stern expression.

Asks Hart, "Have you ever known a cook who closed the door? The only time my cook does is when I'm vocalizing."