“If people were going to concerts more and bathing in art, there would be less mess in the world,” said Maria Todaro, the co-founder and executive director of the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice. “I see how we transform people, and that’s why I’m motivated to do this work.”
Always inspired by the healing power of music, Todaro, an opera singer, is especially interested in working with young people. This year’s festival, running from Thursday, August 4 to Sunday, August 7, highlights the theme of Shakespeare and the British Isles, with an abundance of youthful energy brought to performing and running the events.
The opener, on Thursday, August 4, on the main stage in Phoenicia Park, will be “Rock the Beatles!” Students from the Paul Green Rock Academy will take on some of the most vocally challenging selections from the Beatles’ psychedelic era. With Todaro recently taking on the job of vocal coach at the academy in Woodstock, John and Paul’s lyrics will resonate splendidly off the ring of mountains around the stage.
Todaro also has private voice students, and she has chosen five promising young singers to be featured in a Master Class. They will work one at a time with a master singer to refine a single vocal piece. Audience members will see what is involved in the complex process of developing a voice. Included are Phoenician resident Tori McCarthy, currently directing Oklahoma! at STS Playhouse, and powerhouse baritone Chris Vallone, who appeared with the multitalented McCarthy recently in the musical drama The Last Five Years at STS.
At the festival, Vallone has a supporting role in Kiss Me Kate, and McCarthy will be singing in the ensemble. The star of Cole Porter’s adaptation of the Shakespeare classic, The Taming of the Shrew, will be Miss America 1981 Susan Powell, now a highly respected opera singer who made her Carnegie Hall debut earlier this year. She will play opposite her husband, Richard White, who voiced the villain, Gaston, in the Disney film Beauty and the Beast and has performed on Broadway.
The opera this year will be Verdi’s Otello, with Shakespeare’s tragic hero performed by tenor Limmie Pulliam. When Todaro and her husband, Louis Otey, heard Pulliam sing, “We both cried,” she said. “It’s one of those voices that you hear one note, and your entire body shakes.” With the Metropolitan Opera’s focus on HD productions of its operas, a physically large singer like Pulliam tends to be overlooked, and Todaro feels the Met has sacrificed spectacular voices in the process. “Someone like Pavarotti might not have been able to make a career today. Here we reconnect with that concept that voice is first. I love Limmie’s physique. Otello is a general, and his corpulence makes sense for a warrior.”
Desdemona will be sung by Eleni Calenos, a Greek soprano whom Todaro calls “the hottest number on the planet. She just got rave views in Tosca.” Iago is Daniel Sutin, an international performer who recently sang at the Met in the title role of Wozzeck. Singers from local choirs auditioned for the chorus of 100 people that will appear onstage, including Bennett Elementary School music teacher Harvey Boyer, who also heads this year’s “Working with Masters” day camp for kids.
A few weeks before the festival, the camp will immerse 40 children in intensive study of jazz and classical music, at the Emerson Inn in Mount Tremper. “Harvey is building a treble choir to start in the fall,” said Todaro. “Between Harvey and Paul Green, we’ll have classical, jazz, and rock orchestras and choirs, with some kids in all three.”
Sing Out!, a youth choir from Connecticut, will perform Friday evening on the outdoor stage. They will also join the choir for Otello, with the children’s voices adding a distinctive color to the sound.
The festival also nurtures young people who might want to become arts administrators. Twenty-five young interns help with production, marketing, and finding housing for the artists. “A huge investment in youth is part of our mission statement,” said Todaro. “I’m already planning my succession. We’re training young people in their 20s to take over by their 30s.” Maria Whitcomb, one of last year’s interns, is spending this summer on scholarship at the Janklow Arts Leadership Program at Syracuse University.
The festival will close with young Celtic musicians brought over from Ireland and Scotland, singing traditional musical forms in their native languages. The ensemble An Crann Óg, is from Donegal, a region where Gaelic is still widely spoken. Award-winning soloists will also perform.
The Shakespeare theme will be elaborated with a talk on Hamlet by veteran Shakespearean actor, director, and teacher Carey Harrison, who will also dramatize Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden,” accompanied by the celebrated Justin Kolb, performing the pyrotechnics of Richard Strauss on piano. Lauren Flanigan will sing American composer Thomas Pasatieri’s Three Shakespeare Monologues, bringing to life Juliet, Lady Macbeth, and Desdemona. The Cambridge Chamber Singers return with Elizabethan period music. To explore the background of famous Shakespearean works, try out the morning Latte Lectures at the Parish Field, addressing Otello, Kiss Me Kate, and Muse of Fire, a production by local young Shakespearean actors.
The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice will be held August 4-7 at the Phoenicia Park and in other venues around the hamlet. Most tickets are $25 to $35, with $5 admission for youth 18 and under, and some events are free. To see a complete schedule and to reserve tickets, visit https://www.phoeniciavoicefest.org.