He’s a small-town boy who loves big cities, a tuba major who discovered opera-singing in Memphis, Tennessee and a world-traveling opera singer who has made the tiny Ulster County hamlet of Phoenicia an acknowledged summer destination for lovers of the vocal arts. Those seeming contradictions and incongruities say a lot about Louis Otey and the Festival of the Voice that he and fellow singers Maria Todaro and Kerry Henderson established eight years ago: Opera is a type of magic that can take root in unlikely places and unsuspecting hearts.
Otey grew up in the small (population 2,341) town of Flandreau, South Dakota. His father was a doctor who moved the family to Flandreau because he wanted to practice medicine in a small town. Louis’ early interest in music took the form of the tuba. He was 19 years when a music professor at Memphis State College and former opera singer named Ethel Maxwell introduced him to the joys of opera.
While Memphis was the home and launching pad of some of the world’s greatest pop music stars (it’s the home, after all, of Graceland), it also had a decent-sized opera company where the likes of Beverly Sills and Richard Tucker would perform. Otey, a baritone/bass, joined a small touring company that sounds more like a rock ‘n’ roll outfit than an opera company of any sort.
“It was a great way to train,” he said. “We’d rent a truck and go to places like Mississippi and Arkansas. We’d get to the theater, unload the truck, the props, do our own makeup and costumes, perform, get back in the truck and hit the road.”
He honed his craft for five years in Memphis, then spent the next two years at the Houston Grand Opera before making the leap, in 1981, to New York City: the legendary graveyard of aspiring performers from the minors – except Otey suffered none of the usual indignities. His experience with the Houston company resulted in his landing an agent right out of the gate. “I never had to wait tables – thank God.”
Thus began a career that has spanned more than 30 years, including 11 years as a member of the Metropolitan Opera, where a list of the roles that he has sung, and the number of cities to which those performances have sent him, can only be described as monumental. And for all those years, he said, he was entirely happy living in and around the big city – until he discovered Phoenicia.
Otey and his wife, mezzo-soprano Maria Todaro, were drawn to the area as the result of a recording that she had made in France and was refashioning in Woodstock. The couple rented a house in Phoenicia, enjoyed a couple of meals at Sweet Sue’s; and before long, they’d bought the house as a second home and then made it their permanent residence. Louis Otey, lover of big cities, found himself living in a community even smaller than his hometown; Phoenicia’s official population was 309 in 2010.
That was also the year Otey, Todaro and Henderson mounted a one-off concert called “Opera under the Stars” to raise money for a kids’ playground. The concert was so successful that its organizers were faced with a question they hadn’t anticipated: “When are you going to do it again?” Their answer was the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, the biggest little festival of its kind anywhere, with much of the work performed by local volunteers, sometimes estimated to comprise two-thirds of the hamlet’s population.
And so the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, against all odds and expectations, will present yet another ambitious program of musical delights that will include, La Bohème, the first operatic version of The Three Musketeers and a tribute to Duke Ellington. See why, when Otey travels to places most of us have only read about, people want to know about the tiny hamlet that no one ever talked about – until the singer and his friends decided to put on a show.
The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice takes place this year from August 4 to 6 at various venues in Phoenicia. It is themed “A French Affair,” and will feature everything from an opening-night French can-can to a full-scale production of La Bohème on Saturday at 8 p.m. at an amphitheater in Phoenicia Park. The Festival will also present the world premiere of an original operatic adaptation of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. It closes on Sunday with the “Spiritual Side of Duke,” paying homage to Duke Ellington’s sacred concerts that combine jazz, classical and gospel music.