Gearing up at Voice Fest

Maria Whitcomb, Voice Fest intern. (photo by Violet Snow)

Maria Whitcomb, Voice Fest intern. (photo by Violet Snow)

“We’re training a new generation, a new breed of artist,” said Maria Todaro, mezzo-soprano and executive director of the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice. “They are equally balanced between the right and left side of the brain. They have the creativity and disconnect from reality that you need as an artist, and the super-Cartesianism and rationale that you need to be organized.”

As the festival brings its sixth year of world-class vocal music to Phoenicia, from July 29 to August 2, participants will include youngsters educated by the Catskills Academy for Performing Arts (CAPA), a year-round series of community programs sponsored by the festival. Eight CAPA students and several other interns will be performing and helping to run the festival, with chances to meet opera star Frederica von Stade, jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan, Emmy-nominated actor and Broadway singer Ron Raines, an American Idol finalist, a former Miss America, and a multitude of other professional musicians. This year’s offerings revolve around the theme of American music, with opera (Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, Italian-American Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium), musical comedy (Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music), gospel, barbershop, theater, Native American music, and other genres.

At the festival office on a Monday morning, two weeks before opening day, 20-year-old intern Maria Whitcomb recalled her first year working with the festival in 2013. “I was writing a patron newsletter and program notes, and once the festival started, we were in charge of everything on stage. We helped rig lights and sound. We put up music stands and chairs, sometimes really fast.” She also performed as a non-singing extra in Rigoletto, wearing a giant prom dress and unexpectedly facing an improvised dip and kiss from tenor Barry Banks as the rakish Duke of Mantua. “I just had to roll with it,” she said. “It taught me a lot about what it takes to be a performer.”


Whitcomb, a Kingston High School graduate, is now a vocal performance major at Syracuse University, where she also studies in the first music industry program established at a U.S. college. This year, while at school, she has continued to write newsletters for the festival, as well as doing market research. One of her final projects was a 50-page marketing plan describing how the festival could work with various media outlets. On July 31, she’ll be one of the students in a sample master class, demonstrating to a festival audience how an instructor prepares singers for a concert.

Participants in the CAPA apprenticeship program receive vocal coaching and training in business skills that prepare them to work in the real world. One CAPA student, Lily Arbisser of Woodstock, who worked on supertitles for the Voicefest, now has a job doing supertitles at the Met. She will sing in the July 31 festival production of The Medium. Another young Woodstocker, Alexandra Bailey, will play the daughter of Dylan Thomas in the August 1 world premiere workshop performance of Do Not Go Gentle by Robert Manno.

Other CAPA youth programs include a children’s choir that meets weekly in Phoenicia and a five-day intensive music camp scheduled for the week before the festival. Organizer Justin Kolb, a classical pianist and festival board member, is recruiting a total of 20 kids, aged seven to 12, to study vocal music July 20 to July 24 at the Emerson Resort in Mount Pleasant. The program costs $185, with five slots available for scholarship students. For information or to register, contact Kolb at 845-486-3588 or

While educating young people, the festival also benefits from their labor, paying apprentices a small stipend to help out with a variety of administrative tasks. Interns are key to a show that runs on a bare-bones budget, luring stars to enjoy the mountain air and camaraderie, while charging only $25 a ticket for most performances. A surprise benefit of having enthusiastic young interns, said Todaro, in her French-accented English, is the effect on seasoned performers. “The kids who are working with them are like puppies on flame — they’re so excited, and it reminds the established artists why they started. They arrive thinking, ‘Here I am in the sticks, doing a favor,’ and then we see them transform.”


The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice will take place Wednesday, July 29, through Sunday, August 2, with performances at the Parish Field and other locations around Phoenicia. For details and tickets, see