Now in its fourth year, the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice, held Thursday, August 1 through Sunday, August 4, continues to attract top talent to its main stage, situated in a spectacular setting with a view of the surrounding mountains, and various village venues, including a church, coffee house, and playhouse. Last year’s performance of Madame Butterfly was judged outstanding by all and this year’s opera, Verdi’s Rigoletto, promises to adhere to the same high standards of singing and creative inspiration. The opera will be semi-staged — that is, choreographed for action and with dramatic lighting, but sans set — by Beth Greenberg, from New York City Opera. Festival co-founder Louis Otey, who has performed at top opera houses in Europe and the U.S. (he now resides full time in Phoenicia with his wife), will play the title role, with an unusual twist: “I want to portray Rigoletto as every man, because every man feels he has some deformity,” Otey said. “I want to make a universal statement about man and his difficulty with love.” Barry Banks, fresh off the stage at the Royal Opera House, in London’s Covent Garden (other recent gigs include Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan Opera), will play the role of the first duke, while Nancy Allen Lundy, who just made her debut at the Scala, will play Gilda. Rigoletto will be performed under the stars on Saturday, August 3 at 7:30 p.m.
More world-famous opera singers will be on stage Friday, August 2, starting at 8 p.m., for the festival’s “Voices of Distinction” performance featuring the music of Wagner, their exquisite voices bringing Wagner down to scale and debunking the myth that the German composer is just about big voices singing to large orchestras for hours on end. The singers are Alfred Walker, Jeanne-Michele Charbonet, Eduardo Villa and Victoria Livengood. They are coming to Phoenicia from as far away as Santa Fe and North Carolina and have sung in the leading opera houses, according to Otey. They’ll be accompanied on piano by the duo Babette Hierholzer and Jurgen Appell.
The performers “aren’t coming for the money, though my promise to them is that when we have the money, they will be first people to be hired for fair fees,” said Otey. They’re coming to support the cause of opera and the vocal arts, which he said many believe is rooted “in grass roots efforts like ours. We were built from the ground up with the community, which has been very supportive and involved in every step. People are willing to come because they sense something is being grown in the right way, with the right values. Singing is the most important thing. It’s not about a huge mechanical set or crazy way of staging…it’s about the singing.”
To counteract the most unfortunate aspect of Wagner, his anti-Semitism, “Art of the Cantor” is scheduled earlier, at 5 p.m. Friday, August 2. The performance and workshop will feature Jack Mendelson, cantor of the synagogue of White Plains, along with his wife, son (who is also a cantor) and student. The subject of a PBS documentary, Mendelson was trained as an opera singer but felt called to the ministry. “He’s got such a range of musical emotions,” said Otey. “He’s funny, instructive, and deep. In some ways the performance will resemble a service.”
“The Spirit of Sepharad,” performed at 3 p.m. on Saturday, August 3, also promises to be instructional as well as delightful. Vocalist and guitarist Gerard Edery, violinist Meg Okura, and bassist/cajonist Sean Kupisz will trace this ancient music and dance tradition from medieval Spain to Africa to the Middle East. At 5 p.m., also on Saturday, August 3, pianist Justin Kolb, who is also the festival’s organizer, and playwright Carey Harrison will collaborate on a fascinating chapter of Liszt history — the composer’s piano transcriptions of opera music by Wagner and Verdi. Kolb’s pyrotechnic piano display will be interspersed by readings by Harrison of excerpts of Liszt’s journals and letters to Verdi and Wagner.
On Sunday, August 4, Cori Ellison and other speakers will recap some themes touched upon in the Wagner and Verdi performances at a 10 a.m. breakfast. The talk will also preview what to listen for in Verdi’s Requiem, performed on the main stage at 4 p.m. that afternoon. The final performance of the festival, the Requiem promises to be sublime event, with four world-class soloists and 120 choristers.
Other highlights are a gospel concert, featuring eight voices from New York City, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, August 2; the Cambridge Chamber Singers, perennial favorites, on Saturday, August 3 at 11 a.m.; and Master Class, a play about diva Maria Callas by award-winning playwright Terrence McNally staring Irene Glezos. (“She happens to be Greek,” which is appropriate because “only the Greeks can understand the Greek mentality,” joked Otey.)
Last year’s festival attracted 5,000 visitors, and Otey predicts even more will attend this year. No matter how big it gets, however, the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice retains its connection with the community. Otey said that while people are driving from Manhattan, Albany, the Berkshires, and Boston, “our main demographic is Ulster County,” which accounts for 70 percent of attendees.
For a full listing and description of events, participating artists, venues, dates and times, and ticket prices, visit www.phoeniciavoicefest.org.
Phoenicia Festival of the Voice, August 2 through 4. General admission tickets to the main stage events are $25, $55 VIP; some events are less, at $15. A pass with VIP tickets to all events is $350, $500 for a couple; as of press time only 33 passes were available. www.phoeniciavoicefest.org or call (845) 586-3588.