The hills are alive: Phoenicia hosts the International Festival of the Voice

Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice (August 2-5) will feature a performance of Madama Butterfly by internationally renowned singers including lyric soprano Yunah Lee, tenor Richard Troxell and baritone Louis Otey.

The third annual Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice opens on August 2 with an “operatic comedy.” Divas Unleashed brings the spirit of Saturday Night Live to a rarefied artform, shaking things up with slapstick and lots of action, including some swordfighting. Festival co-founder Maria Todaro wrote the script with Michelle Jennings, and the two sopranos also star in the spoof, singing the ten most famous arias in opera history in high heels and gowns while one bangs the head of the other against the piano.

Afterward, at 10 p.m., everyone at the performance has the option of attending a Japanese-themed dinner catered by Diane Reeder, founder of the Queens Galley soup kitchen in Kingston, in the park under a Full Moon. The culinary theme of the dinner anticipates the performance of Madame Butterfly on August 4. Puccini’s much-beloved masterpiece promises to be a festival highlight, given the international distinction of the cast: It features celebrated Korean/American soprano Yunah Lee, tenor Richard Troxell, Nina Yoshida Nelson (playing Suzuki, a role that he played in London) and Louis Otey, with Metropolitan Opera maestro and Festival music director Steven White conducting the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra.

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That event perfectly encapsulates a Festival goal: to bring top artists to this quaint hamlet and gorgeous Catskills Mountain setting while supporting the local community with all its quirks and rare talents. For example, Woodstock Chimes owner Garry Kvistad, who has made a business out of his art and whose creations continue to nourish his art, will accompany the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra on percussion.

Another high point is the Voices of Distinction performance on August 3, which this year will feature professional singers from the Great White Way, including veterans of Les Miserables and The Fantasticks, belting out popular Broadway hits. Also featured onstage will be just-discovered local talent Lucia Legnini, an Onteora High School ninth-grader. “She gets to do a duet with an established singer, which will be a great experience,” said Todaro, noting that the event is designed to promote young local talents by offering them the rare opportunity to perform with seasoned professionals.

The Festival, which is centered at Parish Field, nestled in the foothills of Mount Tremper, will spill into the village, giving local businesses a boost. At 10 p.m. on August 3, Gryphon Rue will perform his experimental folk music at Sportsman’s Alamo Cantina in the Festival’s first “late lounge,” followed by Ambrosia Parsley, an alternative rocker who has opened for or collaborated with Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Elvis Costello and other pop greats, on August 4.

On the mornings of August 3 and 4, renowned dramaturge Cori Ellison will share fascinating insights on Madame Butterfly and Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes at Mama’s Boy Coffee Shop. The latter is preparation for the afternoon performance on August 4 of the lieder recital of Love’s Kingston, featuring tenor Barry Banks, Festival co-founder Kerry Henderson, mezzo-soprano Toby Newman and soprano Kimberly Kahan, accompanied by international piano duo Duo Lontano. Ellison’s subject on the morning of August 5 will be Peter Schickele, the composer, performer, radio personality and local resident whose music will be celebrated by six choirs and a nine-foot concert grand later that day.

The Boston-based Cambridge Chamber Singers (they were founded by alumni of the Harvard Chamber Singers) will perform Gregorian chants and other early music at 11 a.m. on August 4, followed by local singing choir Prana, who incorporate Mongolian throat-singing and other exotic a cappella styles in their performance, at 1 p.m. A performance by Voice Theater of Lovers, by Irish playwright Brian Friel, follows at 2 p.m. Uncle Rock, Poulenc’s one-woman opera La Voix Humaine, Story Laurie (joined by her husband, Ira McIntosh), a talk by novelist/dramatist Carey Harrison on how recitation of poetry has changed over the last century and two barbershop groups, ‘Round Midnight and Voices of Gotham, round out the program.

Todaro credits the international stature of artistic director Louis Otey with the Festival’s success in luring top talent to the mountains. “It’s extremely difficult,” she acknowledged. “We’re begging them to come.” The performers are paid a fraction of what they would normally get for a gig, and many pay their own expenses. But once here, “They fall in love with the community and mountains and area.”

The dedication of 120 volunteers is crucial to the endeavor. “”People are so supportive,” she said. The organization recently obtained nonprofit status, so it will be able to apply for grants, which is a big step forward. Meanwhile, the audience continues to grow, with 5,600 people attending in 2011, up from 3,000 in 2010. A survey conducted last year revealed that 67 percent of the audience is from the area, with the rest coming from New York, primarily Brooklyn. Besides running print ads, the Festival is being promoted in social media channels: All the young people on the staff “are blasting things on Facebook.”

Todaro noted that the Festival germinated as a benefit concert by three local opera singers, herself included, to raise funds for playground equipment. Eight hundred people showed up, even though it was raining. The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice is one of several arts-related events that are helping the area achieve a critical mass as a cultural hotspot, luring people from near and far. For us locals, it’s a wonderful excuse to step out into the summer night and be transported by the sublime splendors of the human voice.

The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice will be held August 2 through 5. Follow signs in the village for directions to parking and events. There are a variety of ticket prices, including a twofer for the evening performances for $32. Radio station WKZE is offering a limited selection of discounted tickets. Visit www.phoeniciavoicefest.org for ticket prices as well as a complete calendar listing and description of events.

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