When founders Maria Todaro, Louis Otey and Kerry Henderson first launched the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice in 2009 as a fundraising event to build a playground, they called it “Opera under the Stars.” As it turned out, the only stars on view were onstage; it thundered and rained, but an audience of 500 demanded an encore. The unexpectedly large turnout got the three opera singers thinking that this gathering might have legs, and in a mere six years the Festival has turned into a spectacularly successful ongoing cultural extravaganza in the heart of the Catskills. It returns this week, from July 29 to August 2, with an eclectic array of offerings that celebrate nearly every conceivable aesthetic application of the human voice.
While the organizers’ stellar connections within the opera world make it possible to lure top names in that field to Phoenicia for the Festival – the great mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade headlines this year – it’s the diversity of the performances, lecture/demonstrations and panel discussions that make the event so appealing to so many. Even those with a low saturation level for voices raised in the operatic style can always find something here that will intrigue and gratify. The five-day Festival is jam-packed with such tidbits as workshops on Appalachian shape-note singing, Inuit throat singing and other forms of indigenous vocal music of North America and Hawaii, demonstrations of ventriloquism and the glass armonica (invented by Benjamin Franklin), gospel, barbershop, pop and chamber concerts.
The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice kicks off on Wednesday evening with a tribute to Broadway and the American Songbook titled “Voices of Distinction: Red, White and Blues!” There’ll be jazz from Jack De Johnette and Sheila Jordan, a piano rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue by Justin Kolb and lots more. On Thursday there’s live theater, including a concert performance of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, starring Tony nominee Ron Raines and former Miss America Susan Powell, as well as Souvenir, Stephen Temperley’s play about the famously bad singer Florence Foster Jenkins.
The world premiere of Robert Manno’s opera about Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle: The Last Days of Dylan and Caitlin, is scheduled for Saturday afternoon. Two performances of Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-acter The Medium happen on Friday and Saturday, and Carlisle Floyd’s operatic adaptation of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men on Saturday night. Von Stade and Peter Schickele will be among the celebrity participants in a vocal tribute to contemporary composers on Friday night titled “American Classics: Live and in Person,” which will feature premieres of two works by Robert Cucinotta and Tom Pasatieri.
The venues for these varied events, all within easy walking distance of one another, include the Festival Stage, Phoenicia Parish Field, the Phoenicia United Methodist Church, the St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, the Shandaken Theatrical Society Playhouse and Mama’s Boy Coffeeshop. Admission is free to a few events; ticket prices otherwise range from $5 to $75 each, with a $170 Da Capo Pass getting you into all main stage events.
To see the full schedules or purchase tickets, call (845) 586-3588 or visit www.phoeniciavoicefest.org.
Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, July 29-August 2, downtown Phoenicia; (845) 688-1344, www.phoeniciavoicefest.org.