The Savannah Voice Festival, in its sixth year, was built on a foundation of education and continues that mission with a number of outreach programs each year.
A byproduct of the VOICExpereince Foundation, which was founded by Maria Zouves and Sherrill Milnes as a way for the legendary opera singer to give back, the SVF is at its core both entertainment and educational, which is achieved by a healthy mixing of both elements into every aspect of what they do.
Taken as a whole, the SVF, acts as an educational tool for the uninitiated or casual opera fan by staging traditional pieces alongside modern scores for the public. Beyond that, SVF has literally embedded itself into its host city through educational outreaches in area schools, retirement homes, and for local charities. They offer free educational events, workshops and master classes, as well scholarships for area artists.
Their programs are sponsored in part by the Georgia Council for the Arts through the appropriations from the Georgia General Assembly, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts. They also received sponsorship from Savannah Friends of Music, Gulfstream Aerospace, Savannah Harbor Foundation and Schneider Logistics.
Performers who are recruited into the VOICExperience programs not only get the opportunity to learn opera from, literally, the best in the business, but also to shape their view of the entire industry.
Two programs integral to the VOICExperience Foundation’s outreach are Camp Voice and the Milnes Voice Studio, both of which will have students performing in productions this year. Read about the 2018 festival's student-staged "Hansel and Gretel" here.
Camp Voice, a week-long program offered in early August before the festival, opens an opportunity for young singers to be mentored as they move into study of the classics, which includes daily lessons, coaching sessions and master classes with Milnes. The Milnes Voice Studio, also held in August, is focused on more seasoned operatic students as they’re encouraged to try something new and hone their craft.
“I’ll never forget one of the first performances I had here. We were rehearsing for the Broadway concert and we were all sitting around the room and Maria said, 'Chad, you’re going to sing, 'Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'' from 'Oklahoma,'” SVF educational and outreach coordinator Chad Sonka said. “OK, I’ve never sung that before. ‘Yeah, you’re going to do it in a couple of days.’”
Sonka added, “It’s so healthy. We need to be pushed like that. I’ve only benefited from it. Now my inhibitions are gone when I get on stage. I get to really focus on the words and trust how those words resonate with me and use my experience as education for performing to filter through either a historical perspective or stylistic accuracy, and give an honest performance that way.”
World renowned mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, a faculty member for this year, shares why the programs are important from the other side of things:
“I love working with young singers and helping them develop their talents and abilities,” Graves said. “It is a privilege to share with them everything I have learned over the last 30 years of performing opera around the world. Sherrill Milnes is an opera legend and has been a hero of mine from the beginning of my career.”
“The VOICE Experience is the root of this,” Zouves added. “We started with education and went backwards. It’s its own entity. We’ve been doing it for 18 years. Sherrill and I founded it to pay it forward. To train kids in the next generation in the style in which Sherrill flourished as an artist.
“What evolved from there was producing concerts, because singers needed to perform once they’ve been trained. Audiences wanted to see them perform.
“Everyone, save for one or two people we may have had to outsource, that is in the company this summer is a graduate or is highly ingrained and affiliated with the Voice Experience training program.”