The Savannah VOICE Festival will present its fifth anniversary season Aug. 5-27.
The program has been so successful, it's time to have a little fun and show the lighthearted side of opera. Featuring more than 25 concerts, classes, operas, outreaches and other events, the three-week festival is themed Funny@Five.
"Every year, we like to have a theme," says Maria Zouves, executive director and co-founder of VOICExperience. "Since we're in our fifth year, we thought it would be a terrific way to celebrate by really driving forward the idea that we're not all serious about dying on stage; we're about entertainment.
"What better way than to make people laugh? It's a comedic theme, so Funny@5 seemed to fit.
"It's not all going to be lighthearted and there will be some heavy pieces," she says. "But 'Shave and a Haircut,' the first show we're doing, is so funny and so cute."
That show was written by Zouves herself.
"It's a script that gives you a lot of information without reading a support synopsis," she says. "The story really is cleverly done and has a lot of laughs. All of that lends itself to the theme."
The lighthearted introductory show to the operas, "Shave and a Haircut, Rossini takes a nap," is a 90-minute program written by Zouves. It tells the story of the Barber of Seville through music by Rossini and Mozart, as well as modern musical theater and song.
The show's storyline follows Rossini, played by Savannah VOICE Festival co-founder, internationally acclaimed baritone Sherrill Milnes, as he falls asleep in the barber's chair and is transported into the world of Figaro. It will be presented Aug. 5 at Asbury Memorial Theatre.
"Our two comedic operas for 2017 are time-tested crowd favorites, sure to leave audiences highly amused, but even humorous operas with English translations above the stage can be intimidating to those who've never enjoyed this vocal art form before," Zouves says. "'Shave and a Haircut' is a lighthearted, easy introduction into our two big shows - really a delightful way to learn more about opera in general and fun for all ages."
The season's first opera, "The Marriage of Figaro," is the festival's second annual VOICE Studio Program production. It serves as an excellent training and exposure opportunity for rising vocal stars ready to showcase the skills they've been honing during the program.
The festival is going to provide lots of opportunities for entertainment, Zouves says.
"I honestly think we've exceeded our expectations," she says. "We didn't expect to have such wonderful collaboration.
"That's been able to drive us forward with our program. This year, we're doing two operas, not just one.
"It's because people say if you build it, they will come," Zouves says. "People came, so we're building it."
The past festivals have been too weeks long, but this year's has been expanded to three weeks.
"We didn't expect to be able to expand to three weeks," Zouves says. "We didn't expect to commission our own works.
"So many people are coming from all over to participate in our educational program and watch what's happening. We did expect to be able to offer tourism and vitality in the community at large, but didn't expect it at this scope.
"The VOICExperience Foundation is 17 years old," she says. "The educational programming has thrived. We got another Georgia Council for the Arts grant for our opera, 'Anna Hunter.' I think the brand of this organization is very clear."
Not that the work is done.
"I still want very much to see a lot of building on what's already here," Zouves says. "I want to see more of our graduates out in the world coming back and performing.
"I'd like to see even more of a community connection. We've only begun our educational program with the school system.
"We want to be part of the culture of the festival goers," she says. "Any time we are presenting in public, we want them to know where we're going and that we have hit our mark."
That's no easy task.
"The fact is we could risk it from a financial point," Zouves says. "We have seen support in the community, so we've been able to expand so it doesn't stress us out so much.
"The sweat equity and the hours put into this is pretty harrowing. We had a growing spurt and burst out of our trousers.
"A lot has to do with the community being OK with doing it," she says. "A lot of our artists are enjoying Southern hospitality. Our hosts are unsung heroes that make it possible to have artists for that period of time."
The community has embraced the festival.
"Our goal has always been to have a quality program," Zouves says. "That is a level we feel deserves to be high. People don't realize how much rehearsal time goes into five minutes of performing.
"Hopefully, some artists will have two extra nights to go to the Pink House, but some may not have time to do that because the program is so intense. We want the artists to enjoy Savannah, as well. They need a little time to take in what Savannah has to offer."
The festival takes place throughout Savannah, including a master class held at Armstrong State University.
"We're going to be at the Morris Center for a week," Zouves says. "We are doing what we did with 'Alice Ryley'; we are going to do a dress rehearsal of 'The Barber of Seville' for the kids of the Savannah Chatham schools. I love watching them watch the show.
"Our venues stay much the same over the years. We're hoping to expand out to Garrison when they're done.
"It's so year-round now," she says. "We not only go out to schools, we go to retirement homes. We scoop ice cream at Leopold's."
There is a serious purpose for having fun.
"It's about getting other people excited about the opera," Zouves says. "This year, we're offering military prices so folks who have a need can come in for $15.
"People should not be denied art. We do different kinds of outreaches, or provide very basic concerts and talks to students about what opera is.
"At-risk students are very important to us," she says. "When given the opportunity to expand their horizons, they excel. Art has way of opening up a lot of horizons. We're working a lot with the school district."
History in opera
It's possible to teach history through art, Zouves says.
"Our opera 'Anna Hunter' is about the preservation movement and 'Alice Ryley' is about the history of Savannah," she says. "It's becoming crucial. The new superintendent has been such an advocate for what we're doing."
With so many programs to choose from, Zouves says the operas are absolutely can't miss. This year, Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro," of "The Marriage of Figaro," and Rossini's "Il Barbiere di Siviglia," or "The Barber of Seville," are being presented.
"It takes so much to build the production," Zouves says. "I would hate to think somebody missed both of those operas. They work well together.
"They are some of our greatest repertoire in our classical culture, especially for those who have young people in their homes or grandparents who are dying to inspire their grandchildren.
"Seeing an opera live, there is nothing else like it," Zouves says. "It has so much to offer."
For people who can't decide what they want to see, the festival offers package deals.
"Our ticket packages are cost effective," Zouves says. "It's a cheaper way and wonderful way to see everything."
This summer development intensive is led by Milnes and focuses on personal training designed to take participants to the next level of their careers.
VOICE Studio artists auditioned for roles and covers in "The Marriage of Figaro," Mozart's masterpiece about a day in the life of the famous factotum. Before audiences see the second opera, "The Barber of Seville," they'll skip to the second part of the story as Count Almaviva, Rosina and the Barber fast forward to the "crazy day" of Figaro and Susanna's wedding.
The opera will be sung in Italian with English dialogue and supertitles. It will be presented Aug. 18 at the Charles H. Morris Center.
"The Barber of Seville" is the first part of the Barber Trilogy. The famous barber is scheming and dealing as Rosina and Almaviva need the Figaro's expertise to be together, despite Bartolo's plot to keep her for himself.
The opera has virtual sets and a chamber ensemble. It will be sung in Italian with English dialogue and supertitles.
The first showing of "Barber" will be presented Aug. 19 at the Charles H. Morris Center, and again Aug. 22.
"In our fifth anniversary season, the Savannah VOICE Festival is excited to offer our longstanding fans and new friends some amazing performances and concerts," Zouves says. "These operas really complete and complement the carefully curated set of shows we've put together.
"To feature some of the vocal world's most skilled rising stars amid advanced, multifaceted productions in this beautiful, hospitable city is really incredible," she says. "The two comedic operas are the perfect way to showcase the level of talent our artists possess while drawing audiences in to some highly amusing and entertaining storylines."
For the fifth year, the Savannah VOICE Festival is partnering with the Westin Savannah Harbor on Hutchinson Island. An area of the hotel will be transformed into a vocal conservatory during the festival and will host events, including the return of "Death, by Aria I and II."
With its program partner, VOICExperience, the Savannah VOICE Festival will provide a sneak peek pre-launch of "Anna Hunter, the Ghost who Saved Savannah" by Michael Ching on Aug. 4. The opera, which is about the launch of Savannah's preservation movement, will have its world premiere in November.
On Aug. 7, Milnes will lead a free master class while working with the 2017 studio artists at the Westin Savannah Harbor Ballroom.
Also on Aug. 7, "Death by Aria, Parts I and II" introduce the festival artists. New this year is a buffet dinner in the Westin's foyer.
The Salon Series begins with "Saints & Sinners" with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano on Aug. 8 at the Green-Meldrim House. She will share her experiences and give insights into her characters as festival artists perform some of Johnson Cano's most memorable music. The Salon Series is open only to members of the VOICE Society.
Cano will also teach a master class on Aug. 9 at Christ Church. Milnes will teach a second free master class at the Westin on Aug. 10.
The Camp VOICE Showcase "Opera Lite" will be presented Aug. 11 to focus on the lighter side of opera. It is presented by the pre-college Camp VOICE Program.
Soprano Meechot Marrero will present a recital Aug. 12 at St. John's Episcopal Church.
Broadway VOICES will present "Make 'em Laugh" on Aug. 13 at Asbury Memorial Theatre. This concert will feature festival artists accompanied by pianist Dan Gettinger.
Also on Aug. 13, Cafe VOICE: "Cha Bella Voce" will feature an Italian food, wine and song experience at Cha Bella. Renowned tenor Santiago Ballerini will perform as diners enjoy the cuisine.
On Aug. 15, mezzo-soprano Jessica Ann Best will celebrate her 10th anniversary with the VOICE programs. With Velvet Caravan, she will present "Funny Girl with a Gyspy Swing" at the Jewish Educational Alliance.
Savannah's own Timothy Hall will join the festival artists to present "VOICES in Sacred Song" on Aug. 17 at First Presbyterian Church. Music from oratorio, liturgical music and inspirational song will be presented in this free concert.
"An Opera Scenes and Songs Showcase" will be presented Aug. 20 at the Morris Center.
Singers will compete for prizes and opportunities during "Opera Idol" on Aug. 21 at the Morris Center. Audience members will vote for their favorite artists.
"VOICES Around the World" will showcase artists from around the world on Aug. 24 at Christ Church.
The highly anticipated 2017 Festival Finale, "Funny@Five," will be presented Aug. 26 First Presbyterian Church on Washington Avenue.
A special dinner will be held on Aug. 27 at the Plantation Club at The Landings on Skidaway Island. At the Festival Gala Dinner, the 2018 season operas will be announced.
The festival remains exciting throughout its finale.
"Our finale is always a big explosion of fun," Zouves says. "The responsibility we have for maintaining our cultural arts is really on the music lover - the one who is an opera subscriber, an all-access pass holder.
"What we need from them is to invite their children, their grandchildren, their neighbors. Bring them with you and give them that opportunity to love it.
"They're the ones that have the power to ensure that the next generation keeps going," she says. "Art is community, particularly in that way that ensures we are going to be here in 10 years. All these amazing organizations that do the things we do in Savannah will prosper."