Carmen finale at siren-themed Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

At this time in history, when women’s voices are being heard as never before, it seems appropriate that the female voice will be the focus of the ninth annual Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, “Sirens of the Voice.” It opens Friday evening, August 3 and runs through Sunday, August 5.

Programs on the main stage in Phoenicia Park will showcase the great divas of gospel, Broadway favorites and a performance of Giacomo Rossini’s first opera, La Cambiale di Matrimonio (The Marriage Contract), preceding the highlight of the festival: George Bizet’s ultimate siren, Carmen.

More than 168 international artists who usually perform in venues such as the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City will come to Phoenicia for the festival, which makes the general-admission lawn-seating tickets quite the bargain at $35 for adults. Tickets for age 18 and under cost just $5. There is also a $95 VIP option that offers a reserved seating section in front of the stage, a pre-performance reception and tickets to attend a dress rehearsal of Carmen on Thursday, August 2.


On opening night, Friday, August 3, the great female gospel singers of our time will be honored in “The Sirens of Gospel” at 8 p.m. on the main stage at Phoenicia Park. The voices of Mahalia Jackson, Shirley Caesar, Kim Burrell, Aretha Franklin and Albertina Walker, among others, will be personified by some of today’s finest vocal talent. They will be accompanied by the jazz ensemble of multi-genre recording artist Damien Sneed, in his first appearance at the Phoenicia festival. Sneed is founder and artistic director of Chorale Le Chateau, which has gained a global reputation for its interpretations of vocal works from Renaissance period pieces to jazz, spirituals, gospel and avant-garde contemporary music. The concert is co-produced by the Catskill Jazz Factory.

Festival events take place, rain or shine, at multiple venues over the three days. Daytime activities over the weekend include pre-show discussions and lectures, and workshops to help the singer in us all find our pitch. Several master classes will be held for vocal students, with the public welcome to observe. All the details are on the website.

Saturday afternoon will bring a performance by the amazing female a cappella group Lady Parts (featuring New Paltz native Catherine Thorpe), whose repertoire spans genres from opera to Big Band and rock. They’ll perform at the Catholic church in Phoenicia on Saturday, August 4 from 11 a.m. to noon. Then, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, the Phoenicia Playhouse will host Eric Grant’s moving new play, Bleecker Street, which follows a family’s turmoil in the wake of the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre as they await news of their son. The performance will be reprised on Sunday, August 5 at 12:30 p.m. Tickets for these performances also cost $35 for adults or $5 for age 18 and under.

Saturday evening, August 4, brings two operatic performances. First up, from 5 to 7 p.m., will be Rossini’s first opera, La Cambiale di Matrimonio, which he composed when he was just 18 years old. The story is about the farcical attempts of a rich English merchant to force his daughter into an arranged marriage with a suitable man, before love wins out in the end.

The performance is followed by a pre-show talk about Carmen with veteran conductor Michael Fennelly, who will delve into the historical details of Bizet’s masterwork, making comparisons with the novel on which the opera is based. Fennelly will offer interesting details about the women who have embodied Carmen and the many reasons the opera is so renowned.

Carmen takes the stage at 8 p.m. Staged and directed by festival co-founder Maria Todaro and conducted by maestro David Wroe, the production will feature two sisters in the primary female roles: Ginger Costa-Jackson as Carmen and Miriam Costa-Jackson in the role of Micaela. Adam Diegel appears as Don José and Kyle Albertson as Escamillo. The opera chronicles the jealous passion of Don José for Carmen, the Gypsy factory girl who lures him away from his duty as a soldier and his childhood sweetheart, Micaela, setting in motion a chain of tragedies.

Set in Seville, the time period in the opera has been changed to 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. According to director Todaro, the new setting suggests that the characters are committed not only to the pursuit of their own happiness, but also to advancing a political cause. The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, pitted Nationalist insurgents allied with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany against Republicans aided by the Soviet Union and by international brigades; nearly 3,000 US volunteers were known collectively as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Carmen, the ultimate “free spirit,” is a strong woman fighting for female emancipation and for the Republican cause.

More than 150 people will be onstage for the production, in the chorus and as extras, with many local adults and children in the cast.

Carmen was not a success when it was first performed in 1875. Although Bizet wrote to a friend that he had “absolute certainty of having found my path” in the work, he died just three months later at the age of 36, never knowing that his opera about a hot-tempered, coldhearted young Spanish woman would become the most iconic of operas, with the most recognizable and best-loved music of all time.

Bringing the Festival to a close on Sunday, August 5 at 3:30 p.m. will be the “Beauties of Broadway” finale, featuring Broadway star Marissa McGowan of A Little Night Music and Les Misérables, among other shows. She will be joined by baritone Jeff Byrnes, who recently appeared as Sharpless in Madama Butterfly, with the festival orchestra conducted by maestro David Wroe.

To view the full Festival schedule, visit

Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, Friday-Sunday, August 3-5, various venues, Phoenicia;