Maria Zouves might be a theatrical and marketing genius.
The Savannah Voice Festival co-founder and executive director has shaped the annual vocal showcase to fit the size of Savannah, instead of demanding more than the city could provide.
This approach has allowed the festival to organically grow over the years, to a point now where they sell out shows, produce more operas, create unique showcases and bring a host of world-class professional singers through Savannah under the new Savannah Opera Company brand. Well done.
Savannah Voice Festival’s first of four operas, Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Telephone,” was staged at the Davenport House Kennedy Pharmacy, which sits on Broughton Street directly behind the famed historic home — probably not the first place in Savannah you would expect to hear an opera.
However, the choice of venue should come as no surprise for regular patrons of the SVF, who have witnessed operas staged in churches, concert halls, event spaces, and even the Davenport House itself.
The long, narrow room played perfect host to the salon-inspired staging; intimate, yet prestigious. The first row of the audience, of which I was a member, was so tightly joined to the proximity of the performers, it was hard to not be utterly captured. And of course, the singing was immaculate. Crisp, clean, beautiful notes, paired with the abundant physicality demanded of the comedy, played out in wondrous form as Meechot Marrero and James Wright delivered splendid performances.
It’s funny to think that a show written 70 years ago could forecast the future so well. Following the farcical lineage of great comedic operas, Menotti proposed that new technology meant to connect us would ultimately distract us from connecting. The hilarious efforts of a beau (Wright) attempting to propose to his lady friend (Marrero), who just can’t avoid a constantly ringing telephone, served as the hilarious foundation of a trope all too true in our modern world.
Have you quit reading this to check your Instagram? I just stopped writing it to check mine. The dynamic of how we communicate has shifted dramatically in the last few decades, but how we relate to each other has not. Menotti might have been a prophet. The long-term affects of being constantly connected to each other have yet to be understood. With no space between us anymore, the world has shrank; a point further augmented by the smaller space in which the opera took place.
Menotti, however, was good enough to explain why, with one of the show’s most potent lines: “With your telephone, you’ll never feel alone.” Isn’t that what social media has ultimately created? A universe where no one is alone? Sounds utopian. But it begs a question: If we’re never alone, how can we get to know ourselves?
Our evolutionary journey has not been built around being constantly connected to each other or to share in all of the minutiae as well as the monumental moments through photos and posts. The postman used to take months to deliver a letter. It’s an interesting question to consider as an entire generation of people are now being raised with devices in hand. I feel my age when I consider that I am a member of the last generation of pre-internet humans.
Somewhat to that point, Zouves added a Part 1 to this production that was a pleasant surprise. The pre-show act was not announced in any press releases or on the website. It was something that was reserved for the in-person experience alone.
First up was “Hello Frisco,” from Gene Buck and Louis A. Hirsch’s “I Called You Up to Say Hello!” The song was followed by two excerpts from SVF composer-in-residence Michael Ching’s “Speed Dating Tonight!” It was a wonderful surprise. Both were handled exceptionally by Mary Catherine Wright and Savannah Arts Academy alum Nicholas Yaquinto.
What a brilliant marketing strategy! The patrons purchased a ticket to see “The Telephone” and were rewarded with a surprise pre-show. By giving more than was promised, the audience feels like they’ve been part of something special, like their experience and attendance were valued.
I imagine that is what you will feel at every Savannah Voice Festival production, like your attendance is valued. I suppose in the end, one won’t remember how many likes an Instagram post got, but rather the beautiful and intimate moments created by real, analog experiences.