Phoenicia Festival of the Voice’s 10th year highlights African-American music

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

In opera, as in Shakespearean theater, selecting a setting is a big decision these days. Does the director stick to the traditional presentation that hearkens back to 19th century Italy or Elizabethan England, or should she find a more modern locale that will make the work more relevant to contemporary society?

Maria Todaro, co-founder and executive director of the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, has set Donizetti’s opera The Elixir of Love in an African village for the 2019 festival, which will be held Friday, August 2, to Sunday, August 4. This choice led to the theme of African-American artists and music that weaves through a number of this year’s events, including a performance of selections from a historic ragtime-influenced opera, Treemonisha, by composer Scott Joplin.

The question of traditional versus contemporary setting is controversial. Placing Salome in a junkyard or La Bohème in a spaceship can feel absurd, and there’s a fear that the spirit of the original opera will get lost. “It’s an interesting debate,” said Todaro, whose career has shifted from singing to directing in recent years. “We still feel we have to do a mix. We have a responsibility not to confuse the audience with a concept disconnected from the essence of the play.” However, for Donizetti’s light-hearted opera, which is based on small-town life, a Ghanaian village seemed appropriate to the theme, while giving The Elixir of Love a lively twist, complete with African drumming and dancing.


The cast features internationally known African-American opera singers, including Lawrence Craig, a veteran of several Phoenicia Voicefests, Jasmine Habersham, Leroy Davis, and Jordan Taylor, as well as drummer Sylvestre K. Akakpo Adzaku and dancers Mamoudou Konater and Pia Monique Murray. The performers will be backed by the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice Orchestra and an African-American chorus. Also appearing will be Houdini the goat and a flock of chickens.

Treemonisha, which explores the conflict between education and traditional customs in the years following the Civil War, stars Brandie Sutton, Djore’ Nance, Norman Shankle, Geraldine McMillan, and others. The music is arranged and conducted by the multi-talented Damien Sneed, who directed and performed in last year’s blockbusting gospel concert. 

The a capella group Lady Parts returns to the festival with “Music of the Abolition Movement,” featuring songs about the role of abolitionists, the struggle for racial equality, and secret meanings for escaping slaves embedded in the musical form of the spiritual. In a separate performance, pianist Justin Kolb plays jazz, polyrhythms, and other African-derived forms in “Music of the African Diaspora,” with actor and professor Carey Harrison reading aloud poems by Langston Hughes and other texts.

The Friday night opening celebrates the festival’s tenth anniversary with favorite stars and arias of past years. Among the performers will be Robert McLaughlin, who taught himself Tuvan throat-singing as a teen in New Jersey, had his first public performance at the Voicefest several years ago, and has gone on to sing with a Mongolian band at Carnegie Hall. Also returning will be Morris Robinson, Barry Banks, Michelle Jennings, Nancy Allen Lundy, and others.

The Saturday morning Latte Lecture, with Todaro and conductor David Wroe, will provide interesting tidbits of information on the producing of The Elixir of Love. On Sunday morning, a panel discussion on “Erased Women of the Catskills” will examine the lives of Sojourner Truth and three other remarkable women from local history, presented by Cara Cruickshank.

Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir, the biographical play about dissonant diva Florence Foster Jenkins, returns by popular demand. Broadway actors Liz McCartney and Bob Stillman play the amateur operatic soprano and her manager.

Rock Academy kids will perform songs from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. A closing gala celebrates homegrown talent with Loren Daniels, Robert Burke Warren, elementary school music teacher Harvey Boyer and his children’s chorus, the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice Chorus, and Rock Academy students. 

But wait, there’s still more. At 9 p.m. on Sunday, DJ Skoob E will spin music for a dance party on the bandshell stage, free to attendees of the closing gala, $10 for others. All are invited.

The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice will take place Friday, August 2, to Sunday, August 4, with performances on the outdoor bandshell at the Parish Field and at other venues around town. Tents shelter spectators from sun or rain. Tickets to most events are $35 or less. For details of scheduling, locations, and tickets, go to

Morris Robinson

Robinson, Temperley join Voice Fest

American operatic superstar, Morris Robinson (Bass) will be stepping in at the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice performance of the ragtime opera Treemonisha by Scott Joplin on August 3 at 5:30 p.m. Mr. Robinson is considered one of the most interesting and sought after basses in the operatic world, having performed at the most prestigious international operatic houses. He can also be seen performing in the 10 Year Anniversary Gala on Friday, August 2 at 8 p.m.

We are also delighted to announce that famed author and actor Stephen Temperley will join the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice this weekend for the performances of his play Souvenir at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, August 3 and 3:15 p.m. Sunday, August 4.

For more information and tickets availability, see or call 845-688-3291.