Over the years, and to some degree especially this year, the Savannah Music Festival has strived to offer patrons unique experiences that are equally educational and entertaining. 

To that end, the festival's collaboration with the Savannah VOICE Festival, now in its third consecutive year, accomplishes that very feat with the Arias & Encores program. 

According to SMF executive and artistic director Rob Gibson, the festival can't afford to stage a full opera, though they would love to do so. Opera is terribly expensive to stage. 

To draw perhaps an unfair comparison, but one that does put the finances of the style into perspective, the operating budget for the Metropolitan Opera in New York for the 2012-13 season was $279 million. They staged more than 20 productions that season. The Savannah Music Festival's entire operating budget is $3.6 million, and they stage more than 80 concerts in 17 days. 

Arias & Encores, however, not only met the extraordinary feat of presenting operatic and musical theater styles in a palatable manner, but exceeded that basic directive through the master programming of director Maria Zouves and legendary baritone/host Sherrill Milnes, co-founders of the Savannah VOICE Festival. 

The first production of Arias & Encores on March 23 to open the SMF was a wonderful foray into the world of musical theater for both those well educated in the art and those brand-new to it. 

Milnes and Zouves opened the night with an introduction to the program and announcement that the second showing of the concert, on March 26, will have a special guest appearance from a longtime friend of theirs and will be a little bit of a different production.

Beginning with an introduction to some of the history surrounding the opera, delivered by Milnes with a delightful touch of humor, the vocalists opened the night with several selections from Gioachino Rossini's famous opera, Barbiere di Sivigila ("The Barber of Seville.") 

The chorus presented several of the more famous arias from Rossini's work and some of the lesser produced ones, showcasing the timelessness of the Italian composer's work. This production did a satisfying job of breaking the fourth wall with an interactive performance that transcended the recital format. 

After another informative and lively introduction from Milnes, singers Shana Grossman and Emily Righter presented Leo Delibes' "Flower Duet" from the opera "Lakme" with phenomenal grace. 

From James Wright's exceptional take on "Largo al Factotum" from Barbiere di Siviglia to Kristin Schwecke and Righter's presentation of "For Good" from the hugely popular musical "Wicked," the night's performers excelled in all parts. 

For me, personally, a former theater kid who worked on dozens of musicals and plays with actors and actresses who now work on Broadway, Carlton Moe's performance of "Bring Him Home" from "Les Miserables" was hands down the greatest handling of that particular song I've heard. 

It was remarkable to watch these talented vocalists effortlessly tackle traditional operatic pieces and move seamlessly into modern musical theater songs, delivering all of it with the highest level of professionalism and prestige.

Bravo, indeed. 


What: Arias & Encores

When: 4 p.m. March 26

Where: Morris Center, 10 E. Broad St.

Cost: $52

Info: savannahmusicfestival.org