If you have ever lost focus on an in-person conversation because you were checking social media on your phone for the 10th time in an hour, well, there is an opera for you.
“The Telephone,” Gian Carlo Menotti’s English-language comic opera, may have been written in 1947, but its themes of technological distraction are even more familiar now than when it first debuted.
The Savannah Voice Festival is presenting two performances of “The Telephone” on Aug. 9 at the historic Davenport House Kennedy Pharmacy, along with a pre-show of festival artists performing telephone-related musical pieces.
Joe Winskye, who directed the premiere of Michael Ching’s “Anna Hunter, The Spirit of Savannah” last year, is returning to the festival to add some comedic zest to “The Telephone." Winskye has directed more than 50 theatrical productions over the last 15 years, but he is relatively new to opera. However, Winskye says his comedy strengths on the stage were noted by Maria Zouves, festival executive director, and her husband Sherrill Milnes, legendary operatic baritone and festival artistic director.
“This will be my second time out of the gate,” says Winskye. “Maria had seen my regional theater work and thought I had a good sense for comedy and for storytelling. Maria and Sherrill have always had a strong focus on making sure every area of the performance is done as excellently as possible.
"Sometimes it can be easy to let the story or comic timing fall away when the voice is so beautiful and powerful, but they want to make sure we really hit the comic timing in these pieces. She thought my theatrical background would be a real asset to that.”
When directing opera, Winskye adds, “A lot of terminology is different. I have to learn to say ‘aria’ and not ‘solo,’ and ‘principal’ and not ‘lead.’ Otherwise, the work is the work ... Besides the language difference, it’s all basically the same. It’s just people trying to tell a story and please their audience.”
In “The Telephone," which is a one-act opera, a young man, Ben, tries to propose to his love, Lucy, before he leaves for a trip. However, Lucy keeps getting interrupted by a series of long phone calls before he can pop the question. As his frustration grows, Ben even attempts to cut the telephone cord while Lucy is out of the room. Like a date who won’t stop texting during dinner, Ben can’t seem to hold her attention. It’s not until he calls her later from the train station that Lucy finally hears Ben out and they share a beautiful duet.
“That was one of the things I really liked about it,” Winskye says of the opera’s surprisingly familiar theme of technology addiction. “It was 70 years ago that [Menotti] wrote this and it couldn’t be more relevant today. The idea that people have been struggling with this for 70 years or more is fascinating to me.”
The production stars baritone James Wright as Ben and soprano Meechot Marrero as Lucy.
“I had never had the opportunity to work with them, but I had seen them in the festival in the last few years and they are just stellar talent,” says Winskye. “Jim has this wonderful presence about him, this great sense of warmth and charisma. Meechot is stunning in everything she does ... I was excited to find out they would be the principals of my show.”
The overall theme for this year’s festival is “Stories Great and Small.” While “The Telephone” tells a rather small story, it is one that is universally relatable.
“It’s just a fun summer romp and it focuses on that small story about the characters and how they get along in this real, everyday human event," Winskye says.