Picture, if you will, the immense challenge facing the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice in 2020, when COVID-19 was raging, all theaters were closed and, given the virus’ propensity for aerosol transmission, any gathering of singers seemed doomed to become a “superspreader event.” According to Festival founder Maria Todaro, plans to put on a live summertime performance of Puccini’s Tosca had been in the works for months before the severity of the pandemic became apparent, and she was determined not to give up on them. So, she made arrangements to produce the opera “with full everything” in an extraordinary format: live onstage, in front of a sea of parked cars on the former IBM site at Kingston’s Tech City.
“We were the first in the US to present a live opera performance in a drive-in setting, and only the second in the world,” Todaro reports. “We had the cast; we had the team; we brought everything together in that setting. And a lot of innovation came out of this.”
The toughest part of making a drive-in opera work, she says, fell to a heroic crew of sound engineers, who had to figure out how to compensate for the weird acoustics implicit in the situation. Todaro terms it “the worst-case scenario for opera.” Sound was being transmitted three different ways: live from the stage, through amplifiers and via individual car radios, with the sound waves depreciating over varying distances, depending on whether you were parked right in front or at the back of the lot. Plus, instead of an opera hall full of carpeted floors, upholstered seats and poshly gowned patrons, the sound would be bounced hither and thither by the metal surfaces of up to 600 automobiles. Somehow, the techies made it all work: “They created a grid of sound integration,” says Todaro.
More innovation was required backstage, to keep all the performers and crew safe. COVID-19 protocols included “testing everybody every two days” and employing someone whose sole job was to run around disinfecting every object anybody touched. In front of the curtain, the singers had to remain socially distanced, no matter what was happening in the plot. “Tosca is all rape and murders and torture,” Todaro notes. “So, we put it in a futuristic science-fiction context and gave the villain superpowers. He was doing all this with his mind to the soprano.”
Fast-forward one year, with restrictions on performance venues easing, and the Festival able to return to its Phoenicia home. “We will still abide by the same protocols. We are not off the hook. We’ll be taking care of the audience,” Todaro promises. That means that masks will still be required for attendees who can’t show proof of vaccination, ticket sales will happen mostly online and there will be no food or drink vendors on-site. You can bring your own picnic to Parish Field, though, as long as you spread your blanket at a respectful distance from other parties of opera fans.
Three shows, each 90 minutes in length, all “100 percent live,” will be performed on the weekend of August 27 to 29. Curtain time for each is 8:30 p.m. On Friday, Teatro Grattacielo will present Diego Valdez, Clara Lisle, Madison Marie McIntosh, Suchan Kim, David Santiago, Rick Agster and Kiena Williams, conducted by Felipe Tristan under the direction of Stefanos Koroneos, in Pietro Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz. Todaro calls it a “Jewish love story” set in Alsace before the Franco/Prussian War, in which “no one dies.” As if not ending in a bloodbath weren’t remarkable enough for opera, this production utilizes specially designed 360-degree projections as backdrop and scenery — the same technology being used in Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, currently a hot ticket in New York City.
On Saturday evening, the Festival of the Voice mounts its own production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, directed by Todaro herself and conducted by David Wroe. Originally conceived as the tale of jealousies amongst a commedia dell’arte troupe in Calabria in the 1890s, this version makes the characters members of a traveling circus in the Wild West, with stage magic supplied by Westchester Circus Arts. “The horses will be right in your face; the circus people, too,” says Todaro. The main vocal roles will be performed by Errin Brooks as Canio, Marcelina Beucher as Nedda, Troy Cook as Tonio, Matthew Gamble as Silvio and Matheus Bressan as Beppe.
Finally, the renowned New York City Opera pays its first-ever visit to the Catskills on Sunday evening to perform Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. Michael Chioldi will sing the title role, with Brandie Sutton as his daughter Gilda and Won Whi Choi as the lecherous Duke of Mantua. The production will be staged by Michael Capasso, conducted by Constantine Orbelian, with narration written and performed by actor/playwright Bill Van Horn.
Supertitles featuring English libretto translations for all three operas will be projected on 20-by-40-foot Jumbotrons, along with closeups of the singers’ faces, making the experience way more accessible for opera novices. Ticket prices are friendly as well, ranging from $40 for regular admission to one show to $250 for a three-night VIP pass. For more information about the 2021 Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, and to order tickets, visit www.phoeniciavoicefest.org.