Savannah VOICE Festival founders Maria Zouves and Sherrill Milnes have helped to reshape the musical landscape of Savannah over the past six years and now, under a new brand, will look to shape the future.
The couple began the VOICExperience Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, 18 years ago to give back to the vocal community, using their professional singing experience as the textbook. The students, professionals in their own right, needed an outlet for their training and so the Savannah VOICE Festival embarked on producing operas in the Hostess City each year beginning in 2013.
For the past two years, Zouves has been calling it Savannah’s opera, although the title acted only as a nickname. Now, through a re-branding effort, both the VOICExperience and the Savannah VOICE Festival will be under the umbrella of the Savannah Opera Company. They will remain independent entities, operating as normal, but now joined in name under the new brand.
“It’s an exciting new brand, an exciting new title,” Zouves said. “Where it goes, we don’t know. We didn’t know what Savannah VOICE Festival was going to do in those six years and look how far we’ve come. It’s an exploration for us.”
In the past six years, the Savannah VOICE Festival has produced an immersive three-week festival each year, featuring rising stars and stalwarts of the opera world performing an array of classical opera scores.
Further embedding themselves into Savannah, the festival also produced two original operas about their home city, “Anna Hunter, The Spirit of Savannah,” and “Alice Ryley,” both of which were written by the festival’s resident composer Michael Ching.
“We’ve already composed and presented on all educational and presentational levels two operas that are about Savannah itself. We’re presenting four operas this summer," Zouves said. "That is a full schedule for any opera company in any region. A small opera company regionally will sometimes only do three. We’re doing four.”
The re-branding effort comes ahead of the festival’s most ambitious year yet. Alongside their normal schedule of master classes, musical scenes and special programs, the festival will produce full productions of Menotti’s “The Telephone,” “Hansel and Gretel,” Ching’s “Speed Dating Tonight!” and Verdi’s “La Traviata” as a part of their 2018 season of “Stories Great and Small.”
“Savannah deserves an opera company," Milnes said in a press release. “It’s a historic city in need of this historic art form. Through the past years, people have come from all over to see these operas in August and the audiences keep growing. I can see this taking off in a very healthy and collaborative way in the next decade of the festival’s strategic planning.”
'Savannah loves them'
Zouves and Milnes had no intention of forming a company in Savannah. The evolution has happened organically over the years and in response to both the audience they’ve cultivated in Savannah and the growing number of students who come through their educational programs.
Growing backward, as it were, from an educational foundation into a full company is not the normal procedure in the arts world. Typically, a company forms around producing works and then grows into a community via educational outreach.
Once the VOICExperience began growing and the students needed an outlet, the festival became a necessary addition. For the upcoming festival, almost all of the performers will be comprised of former students of Milnes’ programs.
“Savannah loves them and they feel the love and flourish in Savannah,” Zouves said of the VOICExperience alumni. “When you talk to any one of these artists that are part of the cast, they’ll tell you how much they love Savannah because Savannah loves them. It’s a love affair. It’s so awesome.”
The festival’s growth into a flourishing arts institute was spurred not by a desire to put a large opera company in Savannah, but rather by fitting the company to Savannah. Forming the productions — which have been staged in churches, auditoriums, concert halls and the Davenport House Museum — to fit the size of the city gave the festival a sure-footed foundation on which to grow.
A fit for the city
“One of the questions I asked myself when I came to Savannah is why isn’t there an opera company?” Zouves said. “There are amazing things going on here, yet there is not ‘Opera Savannah’ or ‘Savannah Opera.’ I kept looking through history to find out why. There was a woman’s organization that produced some operas in the early 1900s. There have been great operas and opera initiatives done.
“We know opera has been done, but there has been no formalized company,” Zouves continued. “I scratched my head until I got to know the city. Then I realized that which we think of opera traditionally is almost too big for the city. That is the lesson I learned immediately. If I am going to do opera here, it’s really got to be at the scale that fits the presentation of it.”
The Savannah Opera Company solidifies the couple's marriage to the city and further enhances its entire cultural landscape through a permanent installation of a classically trained vocal community.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t grow into something bigger,” Zouves said. “My wish is that at least one of our grand operas can be on a bigger scale. That takes time and support. Rome wasn’t built in a day. I think it’s amazing that we’re able to do four whole operas the way that we’re doing it. Because opera’s not cheap," she added with a laugh.
"Opera costs a lot of money. You want to put the money where the quality is. You want to pay for the things that are really important. For me, I want to make sure we have the highest level of singer and whatever we can afford to do, it looks good and you’re immersed in the experience.
“Like the Davenport House. We installed a brand-new opera in its own setting. Those are things that make us uniquely mirrored to our city. We’re a reflection of our city, which is what every art initiative should be.”
The Savannah Opera Company will live as a brand only and not a new nonprofit. Both the Savannah VOICE Festival and VOICExperience Foundation are 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations that are partially funded through appropriations from the Georgia General Assembly, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts.