Festival of the Voice shines in Phoenicia

Scene from the finale. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

The ninth annual Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, held August 3-5, took the theme of “Sirens of the Voice” in the year of #metoo. I was curious to see what musicians would do with the siren concept, given that literature’s most famous sirens used sublime song to lure sailors to their deaths in The Odyssey. Would the music transcend that destructive image and give a positive spin to female force?

The Friday night opener, “Sirens of Gospel,” was described as presenting the music of such greats as Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, taking the position, I suppose, that any powerful singing woman can be considered a siren. However, the program changed when pouring rain and the threat of lightning prompted the move of the concert from the outdoor stage at Parish Field to Phoenicia’s Catholic church. Conductor and singer Damien Sneed responded to the more intimate church setting by recreating the atmosphere of a gospel singing service. Three big-voiced vocalists entered down the central aisle to join the charismatic Sneed and his rockin’ trio. By the end of the show, they had the 99 percent white audience on their feet, clapping, shouting, dancing, and singing. Even the somber bass player was smiling, as he and the organist and drummer kept the music burning, while Sneed and the other vocalists poured their souls into music expressing extraordinary depths of devotion, the salve for suffering hearts. 

The next day, the a cappella quartet Lady Parts, who also performed in the church, took the siren theme quite literally. Most of their selections revolved around mermaids, the sea, and/or the role of the siren as either destroyer or comforter of lonely sailors. Three North American sopranos and an Argentine mezzo accomplished complex harmonies in a dazzling range of styles. A classical repertoire reflected their operatic experience in pieces such as “Blest Pair of Sirens” by Hubert Parry and the Sailor’s song from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Switching gears, the quartet gave an Andrews Sisters twist to “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and had fun with “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” although I missed Cyndi Lauper’s sheer abandon. Other pieces included Gershwin, Mozart, and two sea-related songs created just for the concert by Argentine composers. The closing number, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” made a brilliant, moving tribute to the beauty and trauma of love.

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The play Bleecker Street, presented at the Phoenicia Playhouse, deviated from the theme but did use music as a motif. The playwright, 23-year-old Eric Grant, had been brought in as assistant to festival executive director Maria Todaro. The well-crafted play was put on by local personnel, with spot-on directing by Phil Mansfield and pitch-perfect acting by David Foster, Sharon Breslau, Jack Warren, and Val Shauger. The plot revolves around a couple waiting to hear if their son has survived a shooting at a gay night club. The son’s straight best friend joins them, recalling the boys’ complex relationship. Instead of being depressing, the play gives insight into how we grieve successfully, a necessary life skill. The production points up the role of the festival as a crucible for rising talent.

The Saturday night opera was Carmen, the tale of the ultimate siren. As stage director, Todaro gave the character of Carmen a feminist take. Rather than the evil temptress who causes the downfall of an innocent soldier, she was presented as an independent, courageous woman doomed by an intolerant patriarchy. It helped that Todaro set the opera in the period of the Spanish Civil War, and Carmen’s smuggler compatriots were freedom fighters opposing the Fascists. More than one audience member questioned whether using sexual allure as power is really a feminist approach to life, but, well, the opera was written in the 19th century.

Gina Costa-Jackson, singing Carmen for the eleventh time, inhabited the character with precision and fire. She made me absolutely believe Carmen would refuse to lie to save herself as she fearlessly faced her death at the hands of the jealous Don José. Michaela was performed by the lead’s sister, Miriam Costa-Jackson, whose pure, clear soprano was a superb fit for the virtuous but also brave rival of Carmen. Tenor Adam Diegel made a touchingly vulnerable Don José, while baritone Kyle Albertson swashbuckled satisfyingly as Escamillo, the toreador. As always, it was a deep pleasure to be surrounded by hundreds of neighbors and strangers under the stars in the Parish Field, sharing the passion and harmony of mighty music.

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