“We want to demystify opera and counteract the idea that it’s just for the elite,” said Maria Todaro, co-founder and executive director of the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, which features many kinds of music but emphasizes the organizers’ opera roots. “To demystify, we have to create a deeper relationship with the community.”
Now that the festival office occupies the entire ground floor of the 1894 House on Phoenicia’s Main Street, it has become the locus for events involving the community, from voice lessons and choir practice to a series of public gatherings that will kick off with a Halloween concert on Saturday, October 31, at 7 p.m. Todaro and her husband, baritone Louis Otey, will perform songs by opera witches and villains. Pianists Justin Kolb and Nancy Kamen will play, and the audience is invited to come in costume.
Next summer will mark the seventh annual Voicefest, which takes place over five days in early August, presenting world-class performers at a bandshell imported to Phoenicia’s Parish Field. To scratch the seven-year itch, Todaro is revisiting the festival mission statement, seeking a broader audience, and strengthening the business model of the organization.
Three new board members have been recruited to help the festival grow. Paul Llobet, M.D., executive director of Margaretville Hospital, is the new president of the board. “He and his wife are young doctors, and he’s brilliant,” said Todaro. “He went to Tibet, and he studied in Central America then gave back to the community there. They have a vested interest in developing the area.” Michael Cioffi, who has rebuilt the Phoenicia Diner into a flourishing business, is now a vice president of the festival board. With his background as a set designer for TV and film, Cioffi also brings an understanding of the performance world. David Hirschman, a New Jersey-based commercial realtor, will serve as second vice president. “David is stepping into retirement,” explained Todaro. “He wants to make a difference, and he has chosen us. We’re also creating a Vision Consortium of ten people to identify other board members for next three ears. We’re panning for gold.”
Todaro has been consulting with a range of established professionals. She sits down from time to time with Nigel Redden, who runs Lincoln Center’s Summerfest and Charleston’s Spoleto Festival. Mark Scorca of Opera America gave her “priceless advice on board-building.” Local advisors include Dave Scarpino, CEO of HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley, and Ingrid Kulick, director of the Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “They are mentoring me,” said Todaro. “It’s important to get professional guidance.”
As for the mission statement, Todaro has just asked her co-organizers to reexamine their individual goals. She is all set to express her own: “My joy is to bring the best out of people by exhorting and uplifting, and through the power of the human voice. I meet communities and individuals where they are and then push them to be even better.”
She loves Phoenicia’s rough-and-ready quality and is stimulated by the challenge of bringing high art to a wider audience while conserving what she calls the music’s “sacred aspect.” Thus, an operatic Halloween, in which Otey will sing songs by characters such as Mephisto from Faust and the villainous Dapertutto from The Tales of Hoffmann, plus some Sweeney Todd. Todaro’s characters will include the witch from Oedipus Rex, Carmen, and the devilish Lola from Damn Yankees. Jazz pianist Nancy Kamen, who recently moved to the area, will perform, and Justin Kolb, the festival’s treasurer and an internationally known concert pianist, will play Mussorgsky’s spooky and beautiful Baba Yaga. Snacks and Bloody Marys will be available.
On November 8, an afternoon High Tea Party will highlight the theme of next year’s festival, Shakespeare and the British Isles. “We have to have a meeting about clotted cream,” noted Todaro. Robert Albrecht and Tess Brewer will perform acoustic music. Cookies, scones, and tea will be served, and everyone is expected to wear elegant hats.
Other “Gatherings at 90 Main” planned for the coming months include a young talent concert, music by guitarist and songwriter David Marley, French lessons plus wine-tasting, lectures on Shakespeare, storytelling with Gioia Timpanelli, and a talk by Kolb on marketing for musicians. An opera film series will begin in January with a showing of the Indian movie Omkara, which is a Bollywood version of Otello, the opera scheduled for next summer’s festival.
The events are designed for fun and accessibility, vital aspects of relationship-building, said Todaro, adding, “We want to have an ongoing dialogue with the people who support us–not just in summer but all year long.”
“Villains and Witches of Opera” will be presented on Halloween night at 7 p.m. at the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice office, 90 Main Street, Phoenicia. The audience is invited to dress in costume. Admission is free. Seating is limited, so RSVP at 845-688-3291 or eventsat90Main@PhoeniciaVoiceFest.org