The Savannah Voice Festival is not only presenting a variety of classic opera this year, but also sprinkling in a number of pop treats.
While the classic vocal stylings of opera are the festival’s cornerstone, growth in recent years has allowed room to push productions and styles in new directions. This year, along with "Broadway Tales," the festival has added a pops concert highlighting music by The Beatles accompanied by a stellar sampling of '60s sounds.
The Aug. 24 "Fab 'Four' The Festival" concert at the Charles H. Morris Center will feature a number of the festival’s star performers backed by The Elite Party Band, a six-member ensemble featuring musicians from Savannah’s gypsy jazz band Velvet Caravan.
“I talked to Ricardo Ochoa and said, ‘Hey we want to work with Velvet Caravan’ and he goes, ‘I’ve got this great fun thing, Elite Party Band,’” Savannah Voice Festival co-founder and executive director Maria Zouves said. “Let’s do something really cool. I said, perfect. Let’s enjoy the crossover experience. Let’s face it, most of our audience at this stage are baby boomers. That’s their music. Yeah, we've got to do that.”
The concert's star, longtime Savannah Voice Festival performer Jessica Ann Best, is enjoying the chance to work on pop music outside of her performances in a number of this year’s operas, including “La Traviata.”
“I am in the middle of 'Traviata' rehearsals, which is big, glorious music,” Best said. “You really have the opportunity to relax a little bit and sing pieces that you’ve heard. I did a lot of different kinds of music growing up. I was always singing along with my parents to The Beatles. I would sing them with my mom. A few new pieces, the two solo pieces that I am doing outside of The Beatles, are songs I’ve heard, but never tried to study. They’re really fun.”
Modern pop music might seem like a stretch for a festival focused on opera, but in reality, modern pop and especially a lot of the music from the Age of Aquarius would not have been possible without classic opera.
“They’re still telling stories,” Best said. “They’re extremely story based, just like opera. All of the sudden, there’s this groove behind you. Vocalism — you’re not thinking about perfection. You’re thinking about just getting out there and connecting with your audience, in a different way. It’s more about having them enjoy a moment with you. They can clap along and be a part of that. In a way, you’re with us in opera, but we’re drawing you in. But this is more of a connected journey that people can join us and sing along.”
The setlist is Beatles heavy with favorites like “Yesterday” and “When I'm Sixty-Four,” but also includes favorites from James Taylor, The Monkees, Carole King, The Temptations and more. In preparing for both operas and pop, Best noticed a number of similarities in the styles. The singers will be vocalizing the music in the pop format, shedding the operatic vibrato for this performance.
“I think the simplicity is what also makes it absolutely stunning,” Best said. “I think that the Beatles were very sophisticated writers. They did a lot, not only on their lyrics, but also in their music making. Their harmonies can be quite difficult. Each of them had such a distinctive style. John and Paul had different voices and different voicing. I think that we bring the musician complexity to their music and enhance the storytelling in the way an opera singer would. But, we’re not singing it with our opera voices. We’ll take out the vibrato and make sure we’re going a little more streamlined.
“I feel like those pieces about love lost and not being able to have love reciprocated is an age-old thought,” Best continued. “We’re finding that whether a 13th century minstrel sings it or whether the Beatles sing, or whether it was written in the 1840s, that’s a timeless path that we have. I think singers understand that.”