The organizers of the Savannah VOICE Festival are back with a week's worth of music and magic.
"We're gearing up for our second annual festival and feel we're a part of this community and its collective missions," says Maria Zouves, executive director of both the Savannah VOICE Festival and VOICExperience, which presents it. "Savannah is indeed becoming one of the operatic destinations of the Southeast."
Last August, the first Savannah VOICE Festival was a big success.
"Our first year went so well, we were just thrilled," Zouves says. "I think about the singers we've got this time and it's really exciting.
"Unlike the festival last year, we have an orchestral component this time, a real collaboration," she says. "That packs a lot of punch."
From Jan. 25 through Feb. 2, "Prelude to the Festival" will feature concerts, a master class and a grand finale collaboration with the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra. The events will celebrate excellence in vocal talent and unveil the program for the second festival, which will run Aug. 1-17.
"The week opens up with an afternoon concert with hit tunes, new music and we'll certainly throw in some favorites that people have become addicted to," Zouves says. "People will love our opening and ending.
"This is music that's actually helping introduce what we'll do next summer. As we're building the concert, we're actually building the festival at the same time.
"A lot of the same artists will return next time," she says. "There will be some new singers who are planning to come this summer, so we're going to introduce some new people, too."
The 90-minute opening concert on Jan. 25 will present opera, musical theater and popular song. A highlight of the concert will be the announcement of the schedule and artists for the summer's festival.
"We have set the national opera community alight with the growth and excitement of the festival," says opera legend Sherrill Milnes, the artistic director of the Savannah VOICE Festival. "We look forward to sharing our 2014 plans with Savannah and the operatic world. Get ready for a few surprises in the 2014 program."
On Jan. 28, Milnes will present his film, "Homage to Verdi," at Congregation Mickve Israel in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Verdi's birth.
"Sherrill went to Verdi's home, walked where he walked," Zouves says. "The film goes backstage at a production of 'Riogletto,' and Sherrill will tell stories about it,"
The highlight of the festival has been highly anticipated for some time. The Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra and the VOICE Festival are collaborating to present "Scenes de la vie Boheme," a staging of Puccini's famed opera "La Boheme," on Jan. 31.
VOICE singers Cooper Nolan, Meechot Marrero, Amy Shoremount-Obra, Scott Russell and Matthew Morris will return to Savannah to star in the performance, alongside newcomer Dan Kempson. Philharmonic artistic director Peter Shannon will conduct, while Edwin Cahill will direct.
The final events - a master class and a concert - will take place at First Presbyterian Church on Hilton Head Island.
"Sherrill will work with the choir of the First Presbyterian Church to help them prepare for Easter," Zouves says. "He has a huge choral background he can talk about.
"The next day, we're going to do a concert at First Presbyterian," she says. "We're making admission for that donations only, since it's a new venue. We're introducing ourselves to Hilton Head and hope for a next time."
Milnes has considerable experience with choral music.
"I came up that way in my mother's church choir," he says. "That's a little different than most of my colleagues, who didn't come up a choral way."
A few years ago, Milnes was asked to do a master class for a choral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"Lots of scientists and engineers love music," he says.
"They didn't pretend to have career voices," Milnes says. "But we can all grow. If you study hard on something, you're going to be better, regardless of your DNA."
Milnes tries to find ways to help choruses improve immediately.
"In 10, 20 minutes, they feel the results of it," he says.
"That's very exciting and really has to do with teaching. The major premise of teaching is to pick your battles.
"If the audience isn't engaged in what you're doing, if you look bored, the audience will be bored," Milnes says. "You need to seem animated and involved even if you're faking it."
Throughout the week, performers will do community outreach in local schools.
"The kids will go out to 'Boheme' rehearsals," Zouves says. "We have other artists, not just the cast, who are coming into town, including four tenors.
"They'll be going out to the schools to do outreaches," she says. "We'll be busy beyond the performances."
Jessica Ann Best, a mezzo-soprano, is the VOICExperience education and outreach coordinator. She will oversee the community outreach programs and perform while in Savannah.
"We love to take music to the community," Best says. "We take artists out to schools and nursing homes and other community places to bring music to the residents and community.
"We'll be singing arias and musical theater pieces," she says, "We'll also do question-and-answer sessions with the students and even work with some of them. There will be a lot of education about what it's like to be a singer."
For these performers, music is a way of life.
"Singing is something I've done almost even before I was born," Best says. "I come from a family of musicians and my mom is a pianist, so I've been around this music since I was in the womb.
"I didn't realize it wasn't normal for everyone in the family to sing and play music," she says. "I thought everybody did that.
"When I was 8, I made a conscious choice to study and sing," Best says. "I began singing with a children's choir and started learning classical music."
Today, Best is herself a teacher as well as an artist. That led to her becoming a part of VOICExperience.
"I was doing my graduate work at Northwestern University and a voice teacher told me I needed to study with Sherrill Milnes," Best says. "I remember walking up to him and asking if I could be part of his voice studio and coach with him and he said, 'Oh, absolutely.'"
Now Best enjoys introducing others to music.
"I love making opera accessible," she says. "I'm telling opera's story and sharing it with people.
"You don't want to be afraid of opera," Best says. "Let the music overwhelm you. We want everyone to experience these beautiful singing voices."
In the heart of winter, August may seem a long way off, but the Prelude to the Festival will provide a taste of what is to come.
"This summer, we're doing a little bit more than last summer," Zouves says. "The prelude week is about celebrating that and getting people more information way ahead of time."