The Phoenicia Festival of the Voice returns for its seventh season beginning Friday, August 4 and finishing Sunday, August 6. This year’s theme highlights France, beginning with opening event Voices of Distinction: A French Affair, which will feature music popularized by Édith Piaf, Jacques Brel, and more, and continuing with a world premiere reading of the opera Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers) originally penned by French author Alexandre Dumas, as well as a performance of the iconic Puccini opera La Bohème, famously set in Paris.
According to Maria Todaro, opera singer and cofounder and director of the Festival, themes are “decided based on what’s in the air at the time. When we did our Spanish year, that was the crowning of King George, so we used this as a pretext to do something fun…it helps us to focus and give a sense to the season.”
This year, the Festival will showcase the young talent Todaro and her team have discovered, alongside the international stars that are headlining several events. These young people are “able to do it; not just sing a little song to be cute. It’s like those guys are pros already. They could sing at jazz clubs in New York and put everybody else to shame,” said Todaro.
Young people are not only featured as performers in the Festival, but are also instrumental in working behind the scenes to make the Festival happen. Todaro said, “We have about twenty-four interns; lots of youth working. When you give [young people] a little bit of leeway to be responsible — when you trust them, basically — the creativity is insane. The sky’s the limit. It always keeps us in advance.”
Phoenicia’s small size does not inhibit celebrities from the opera world from participating in the Festival, according to Todaro. “I think the artists this year are unbelievable. It’s crazy to even imagine, that we have, at this level, these big international stars that are coming in,” she said.
Voices of Distinction: A French Affair, which will take place at 8 p.m. Friday, August 4 at the Phoenicia Park’s Main Stage, features opera star Lauren Flanigan, the Barynya Troupe, known for its cancan dancing, and Olivier Laurent, “a superstar in France. He’s the man of 110 voices; he’s an impersonator. He does Jacques Brel, he does Aznavour, he does all those French after-World War II singers,” said Todaro.
Another highlight will be the world premiere reading of the operatic version of Les Trois Mousquetaires, which will take place Saturday, August 5 at 3 p.m. at the Phoenicia Park’s Main Stage. Despite the exhaustive number of cinematic and theatrical adaptations of the Dumas work, it has never been adapted as an opera. The new operatic version was composed by Mitchell Bach, a descendant of Johann Sebastian Bach, and also marks Todaro’s own debut as a librettist — the writer of the operatic text. The reading will be followed by an open forum where the audience will be encouraged to share its opinions of the show. “We have the format of the open forum because it’s interesting for the composer to talk to the people. We ask people to be genuine. They can be part of the shaping of the future masterpiece that some big theatre will purchase,” said Todaro.
La Bohème, which will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday, August 5 at the Phoenicia Park’s Main Stage, will star John Osborn, established opera star. According to Todaro, “he is debuting his role of Rodolfo in Phoenicia. This is the guy who is at the Staatsoper in Vienna right now.”
The Festival will close with The Spiritual Side of Duke, an event dedicated to the sacred songs of jazz icon Duke Ellington, which will take place at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, August 6 at the Phoenicia Park’s Main Stage. The event will feature jazz drummer John Lumpkin, who has played with greats like Delfeayo Marsalis, James Moody, Wycliffe Gordon, and more.
Although the Festival has grown significantly since its inception, Todaro maintains that its mission and spirit have remained unchanged. The idea for the Festival came about soon after Todaro and her husband, creative director and fellow opera singer Louis Otey, bought a house in Phoenicia. In order to raise money to buy playground equipment for the town, Todaro and Otey organized an opera fundraising event in the Parish Field in Phoenicia. Despite the rain, hundreds of community members came out to see the show, and the success of the event, coupled with the enthusiasm of the community, led Todaro and Otey to establish the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice.
According to Todaro, the community spirit that fueled that fundraiser is still what drives the Festival. “That’s how it started: the community serving the community. This is a model that we created. Instead of coming from the top money-wise, it really still feeds from the community up. We started in 2009, which was a crisis, and theaters were closing, and recently people have flown us to other places to tell them how we’re doing it, because institutions like the Met have sat around tables and started talking about doing the reverse economic model.”
The idea of keeping the Festival grounded in the community goes hand in hand with another mission: to make opera a more accessible form of art. “It’s been interesting to convince people; to break the misjudgment of the cliché of the elitism, that opera is stuffy, boring, expensive. We have a very strict ticket policy: it’s five bucks for up to 18 years old. It’s thirty-five dollars for adults to see shows that you would pay $250 at the Met to see,” said Todaro. “All we needed to do was create a bridge and make it accessible.”