Over a three-week period, spanning almost the entire month of August, the Savannah Voice Festival will enliven the Historic District with its most ambitious and multifarious year to date.
Into the sixth season, the Savannah Voice Festival has firmly established itself in Savannah. Last month, they solidified their establishment in Savannah with the announcement of a new brand. The festival and its educational wing, the VOICExperience Foundation, now fall under the Savannah Opera Company, opening a new era for the nonprofit.
As the festival, accompanied by its older educational program, has grown over the last half-decade, they’ve been careful not to push into the Savannah market too abruptly. Rather, they’ve truncated their productions to the city’s demands, allowing time to grow their brand and influence here.
“The other thing that I think Savannah Voice Festival is really good at is is right-sizing itself,” festival resident composer Michael Ching said. “There were periods of time I think when the Savannah Voice Festival thought, ‘OK, we ought to be doing two or three grand operas a year,’ but they decided that Savannah wasn’t quite ready for that. So they’ve been patient about that.
"They’ve done a good job of working with the community without doing something that the community is not ready for or not interested in. I think it’s a very smart business and artistic design.”
Now, they are stepping up with a bold four-opera season featuring world-renowned vocal artists, as well as up-and-coming stars and young artists making their debut. This year will feature 114 vocal artists from 15 countries in over 20 productions, following a theme of “Stories Great and Small.”
“I hoped that we would get to this point,” Savannah Voice Festival co-founder and executive director Maria Zouves said. “It’s growth. It’s normal, healthy growth. They say a nonprofit needs five years to get its footing. We’re past that. Now it’s time to keep those layers coming and really be as formidable as we can be in August.
“We’re always looking at ways to connect people to this art,” Zouves said. “At the end of the day, we’re telling stories. With that, and the season that we have chosen, these are stories being told in very different ways. A classic story, a bunch of little modern stories. We just thought, these are all great stories, but they’re not all big. Some of of them are tiny and sweet. As we were cultivating that, we said that’s what it is, stories great and small.”
Alongside the big four — Menotti’s “The Telephone” opening Aug. 9, Ching’s “Speed Dating Tonight!” opening Aug. 17, “Hansel and Gretel” opening Aug. 17, and “La Traviata” opening Aug. 22 — the festival features a myriad of concerts.
This year runs the gamut of variety, from classic and modern opera to a "Fab Four" celebration of the 1960s, as well as sacred songs, master classes, musical theater and a special appearance from members of Savannah gypsy jazz band Velvet Caravan. The festival will also feature masters of the classic vocal styles, including festival co-founder and legendary baritone Sherrill Milnes and superstar Denyce Graves.
This variety is in part due to the brand expansion and Zouves’ push for a more inclusive and entertaining festival.
“Some of it is due to that new brand,” Zouves explained. “That new product on the shelf — Savannah Opera is swinging in that classic direction that’s very much an entity. With that swing over there, I felt like we had the power to swing to the other side and do that '60s music. That’s what we’re seeing. I was able to stretch the rubber band in both directions, now that we have more relationships in the city.”
Ching further explained Zouves’ methods.
“Maria has a really great, I guess the best way to describe it in the shorthand is, a showbiz sensibility,” Ching said. “She really wants what she does to be entertaining. Artistic, yes, but also entertaining. I think that’s good for all opera, to not take itself so seriously that it loses its virtue as an entertainment form.”
To ensure they were more inclusive of the Savannah community, the festival has lowered some ticket prices and will offer up festival packages. Learning from the feedback they’ve received from patrons, Zouves and company shifted their approach to pricing this year.
“We heard last year that we were losing people because our ticket pricing was a little higher than perhaps the traffic will bear,” Zouves said. “We know it’s an expensive art. We’ve been trying to make ends meet and come out in the black each year, which we’ve been fortunate to have. We’re trying very hard to keep it going. We took a look at it and said, 'What can we do to take those ticket prices down?' So we managed it.
“When you’re in the business of customer service, even with our arts education, we feel like that applies,” Zouves continued. “We’re there to serve the community. We’re there to serve the audience. We’re there to serve the artists. We’re there to serve the faculty. We’re there to make sure everyone is having an enriching experience and growing experience.
"You have to listen. You can’t just do it one way. I feel like we’re always tweaking.”