“Normally, nowadays, when you present a heritage opera,” said Maria Todaro, co-founder of the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, “the creative team meets with the executive team to discuss how to make the topic relevant to a modern audience. How do we convey the emotions the composer wanted to convey, in a modern perspective?”
Todaro, as executive director of the festival and director of this year’s Saturday night opera, Carmen, is on both teams. The production, set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, will be one of 13 events at the ninth annual Voicefest, held August 3 through 5 at the outdoor stage in Phoenicia’s Parish Field and other venues around town.
Carmen was chosen in line with this year’s theme, “Sirens of Voice,” honoring women in the year of #metoo. The lead is a strong female character who stands up to male oppression, behaves like a man, and goes down fighting. In the pre-World War II setting, said Todaro, “Fascism brings the symbols of oppression to a modern audience.” The smugglers are freedom fighters, opposing the Fascist soldiers. “Bullfighters were the rock stars of that time,” noted Todaro. “We’re making the toreador, Escamillo, a Schindler’s List character, using his fame to smuggle weapons for the Resistance.”
Mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson, a young veteran of the Metropolitan Opera and Opera de Paris, stars as Carmen, a role she has previously performed at the San Francisco Opera. In an unusual twist, the innocent Michaela, Carmen’s rival, will be sung by Ginger’s sister, Miriam Costa-Jackson, in her operatic debut. Other cast members include Adam Diegel as Don José and Kyle Albertson as Escamillo. David Wroe conducts.
This year’s festival opens on Friday night with “Sirens of Gospel,” led by jazz conductor and composer Damien Sneed, thanks to a collaboration with the Catskills Jazz Factory. Accomplished singers will interpret the work of such greats as Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin. The a capella quartet Lady Parts, divas who harmonize in multiple styles from pop to opera, are performing in the St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church on Saturday morning. In the Voicefest tradition of providing platforms for up-and-coming artists, Rossini’s comic opera La Cambiale di Matrimonio (The Marriage Contract) presents Jeff Byrnes and Blake Friedman singing on a set designed by famed photographer George Holz.
Prominent local actors David Foster, Sharon Breslau, Jack Warren, and Jonathan Liuzzo are directed by Phil Mansfield in Bleecker Street, Eric Grant’s play based on the Orlando night club shooting. Two performances will be held at the Phoenicia Playhouse, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Master classes, lectures on the operas, and shape note workshops complement the concerts. The festival grand finale on Sunday afternoon is “Beauties of Broadway,” a selection of songs headlined by Broadway and television star Marissa McGowan (A Little Night Music, Les Miserables, Bonnie and Clyde), along with baritone Jeff Byrnes.
Two weeks before opening night, the festival office is occupied by a handful of the 189 or so volunteers who keep the performances running each year. Intern and prop master Jeremy Sivitz, here from Alaska for the third year in a row, shows off some of the props he has created for Carmen. Period money, bullfight handbills, and antiqued cigarette boxes may not be clearly visible to the audience, but they will help the actors stay in the 1930s. Sivitz holds up a map of Lake Hill, discarded by surveyor Don Brewer, whose office is upstairs. “We found it in the trash,” explains Todaro, “and he said we could use it.” Sivitz tea-stained the map to make it look old.
Since its first incarnation nine years ago, the festival has worked with young people, making use of their talents on a shoestring budget but also teaching them to run arts events. Like other festivals, Voicefest has a young artists’ program as well, but unlike most, the artists don’t have to pay — in fact, they earn a stipend. “We also house and feed them,” said Todaro. “This year, we’re cooking for agents, inviting them to see the shows, then sit down to a meal and network with the young artists.” Some of the emerging professionals will appear in the Rossini opera or the chorus of Carmen. All week, they rehearse with established pros in the field and receive personal lessons.
Thirty-five younger children have been rehearsing as street urchins for Carmen. They will appear with 75 adults, including the principals and the chorus. “I don’t know how I’m going to fit them all on the stage,” said Todaro. “We’ll figure it out.”++
The ninth annual Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice will be held August 3-5 at the Phoenicia Parish Field and other locations around town. Tickets to most events are priced at $35, with special rates for children, higher-priced VIP options, and passes to all four main stage shows available. For schedule and tickets, visit https://www.phoeniciavoicefest.org.