Ten years ago, mezzo soprano Jessica Ann Best went through the VOICExperience program.
She has participated in its Savannah VOICE Festival all five years since its inception. For the 2017 festival, Best will be the star of "Funny Girl with a Gypsy Swing: Jessica Ann Best & Velvet Caravan," set for Aug. 15 at the Jewish Educational Alliance.
"It's going to be really fun because it tells a lot of the story of my life with a 'Funny Girl' theme behind it," she says. "There are very poignant moments and silly moments, too.
"These songs I've grown up singing that mean a lot to me. There are opera and musical theater pieces."
Appearing with Best is Savannah's own Velvet Caravan and Best's friend, pianist Matthew Marco.
"A lot of the songs I chose knowing I have such an amazing ensemble," Best says. "The audience is going to hear some gypsy pieces, and definitely some Carmen and some Alice Ryley. That's a big part of my life in Savannah.
"There will be 'Funny Girl' throughout and a lot of Broadway pieces throughout," she says. "There will be some Rodgers and Hammerstein and some original pieces."
The program will cover Best's life from early childhood.
"It's about the lessons I've learned throughout life," she says. "We've been rehearsing at least a month and a half.
"I started thinking about it two or three months ago and it evolved. What are all the pieces that would work for me?
"It took a lot of in-depth planning, even up until a few days ago," Best says. "I thought it was missing something, so I put another piece in."
Being able to make her own decisions has been positive, Best says.
"It's such a wonderful thing to be so free," she says. "I'm very sensitive to how the audience will feel and make sure to hit all the feelings that represent my emotions.
"This program represents my versatility. There are a lot of different colors in the voice."
At the 2016 festival, Best sang the title role in Michael Ching's "Alice Ryley," an opera set in Savannah. She also sang the role of Gertrude in "Romeo et Juliette."
Recently, Best sang at the Opera Tampa in honor of conductor Anton Coppala, with whom she has performed several times. She recently made her debut with the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York City in a production of "Jane Eyre" and will return in the fall to star in "The Canterville Ghost."
She is a fan of all types of music, especially opera and musical theater.
"I think you have to be a really well-rounded performer," she says. "It's important to study both.
"I grew up in a very musical family. I knew when I was a little girl this was what I wanted to do.
"I was always putting on shows in the front yard," Best says. "I remember being 12 and it being very definitive."
In addition to this project, Best has written what will become a one-woman show.
"I also wrote a Christmas show a few years ago with one of the churches I worked with," she says. "I have written different monologues. I really love being creative."
Her 10 years of involvement with VOICExperience is reflected in the show.
"A lot of the pieces I have in this program are very meaningful to me through the years I've been with VOICExperience," Best says. "There are some pieces I probably wouldn't have discovered otherwise."
At the time she discovered VOICExperience, Best was earning a master's degree at Northwestern University.
"Sherrill (Milnes, co-founder of the VOICE Festival) was in his last year of coaching," she says. "My teacher told me I needed to study with Sherrill Milnes.
"He said, 'You need to audition for his summer program, which at that time was in Orlando. That was the beginning of that."
When VOICExperience came to see how Savannahians responded to opera, Best was there.
"We did a concert at Christ Church," she says. "When I looked back on that, it was so exciting. It's amazing to see all the relationships that have blossomed from that.
"I want to say thank you to Savannah for giving us such a beautiful home for our arts," Best says. "Thanks to VOICExperience and Sherrill and Maria and to Velvet Caravan and Matt for joining me for this special event."
The Gypsy Swing band Velvet Caravan will be performing alongside Best.
"This is featuring Jessica more than anybody," says Ricardo Ochoa, co-founder of Velvet Caravan. "We are playing with her by way of accompanying her.
"It's very exciting to play some of the songs she loves and talk about her. We've done a couple of things together but never a full recital, so this will be more involved and beautiful.
"We've done a song or two with her at different performances," Ochoa says. "This is a full thing with her being the star."
This is not the band's first experience with the program.
"We've had a relationship with VOICEexperience for a while," Ochoa says. "The voice festival itself, I've done it as a violinist. In collaboration with VOICExperience, we did the Levy Memorial Concert two years ago."
Velvet Caravan got its start five years ago as a duo with violinist Ochoa and guitarist Sasha Strunjas. Other members are keyboardist Jared Hall, bassist Eric Dunn and percussionist Jesse Monkman.
"We don't do much with singers, so when we get the opportunity to do something with a great singer, we are stoked and super excited," Ochoa says. "We hope to see people there to see us do a different show.
"This is very different for Velvet Caravan. It is not something you would expect.
"We only do two or three shows a year in Savannah, because we travel all over the country now," he says. "When we're here, we make sure our shows are different from one another. We're very proud of that, and this is a perfect example."
The performance is part of the festival's fifth anniversary season.
"We have a wonderful lineup of talent this year to help us celebrate our fifth anniversary season and I am ecstatic that Jessica Ann Best has decided to join us again," says Savannah VOICE Festival Executive Director and co-founder Maria Zouves. "It is such an exciting and satisfying thing to watch artists grow each year through participation in our VOICE Programs and beyond, so having our beloved mezzo-soprano, Jess, with us is a real treat."
IF YOU GO
What: "Funny Girl with a Gypsy Swing: Jessica Ann Best & Velvet Caravan"
When: 6:30 p.m. Aug. 15
Where: Jewish Educational Alliance, 5111 Abercorn St.