It's that time of year again when the Catskills will do more than just radiate in beauty—they'll sing in it.
The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice kicks off its seventh season the first week of August, and co-founder Maria Todaro calls this the year that will put the festival—and Phoenicia—on the map. What began in 2009 as a grassroots concert to raise money for a local playground with three internationally acclaimed opera singers at the Phoenicia Parish Field to a crowd of 500 has turned into a more-than-6,000-person attended minifestival with early morning workshops and lectures, mid-day matinees, and evening main stage performances. This year, Todaro believes the audience will double that. The ever-growing festival promotes the voice as a tool for peace, healing, and artistic expression and has become known as "the little festival that could," though Todaro hopes it changes into something like "the little festival that does."
Unlike last season's 30 shows over the span of five days, this year will have just 21 events over four days, but they will be bigger and grander than ever. With a Shakespearean theme—commemorating 400 years since the poet laureate's death—it'll be the most theatrical season yet. Take the performance of Verdi's "Otello," the main stage performance on Saturday, August 6, at Phoenicia Park. The four-act show will literally be hard to miss, with a 65-piece orchestra and nearly 100-person choir on stage. The passionate and dramatic play-turned-opera will highlight rising tenor star Limmie Pulliam, who marks his debut at the festival. Earlier in the evening, American operatic soprano Lauren Flanigan returns to the festival to collaborate with composer Thomas Pasatieri on three sung monologues of the most notable Shakespearean women: Lady Macbeth, Desdemona, and Juliet (performed by American soprano Jamilyn Manning-White). The Tony-award winning "Kiss Me Kate," inspired by Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," will hit the main stage Friday, August 5, with an all-star lineup; Broadway veteran Lee Roy Reams directs soprano and former Miss America 1981 Susan Powell, who stars alongside her husband, Richard White, best known for his role as Gaston in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." New Genesis Productions, a Shakespearean-intensive youth theatre company, will premier "Muse of Fire," a fast-paced, 90-minute, original show covering the Bard of Avon's themes and plays (think a new version of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged"). "One of the main things of the festival is to bring international artists and mix them with local talents that we have discovered and trained, and give that community a platform in the industry," says Todaro. "We comingle them. The synergy is extraordinary."
While Shakespeare may be the driving theme, the festival prides itself on its varying musical acts and community-participated events. The festival opens on Thursday, August 4, with the more vocally challenging Beatles tunes from the psychedelic era, performed by Woodstock's very own Paul Green Rock Academy, highlighting some of the Hudson Valley's finest young musicians. There's a sacred harp workshop on both Friday and Saturday to quickly learn tricks on how to read music, as well as a free Saturday morning latte lecture for child and youth performers. The festival ends on a completely different note with a Celtic celebration, with three performances of traditional Irish music by musicians straight from Donegal, Ireland.
With rock concerts, world music, and recitals, the festival is fit for everyone, promoting family-friendly picnic-styled opera in the park (with the possibility of a "best, original blanket setting" contest). While the board members are already working on larger goals for the future, like having one of the environmentally-greenest festivals in the world and planning for their upcoming 10th anniversary, right now they just want to spread the vocal love, emphasizing creative awareness, especially in the Catskills. "There are jewels hidden in the middle of the mountains," Todaro says. "We feel empowered by a greater-than-ourselves power to do this. It feels amazing to be an instrument of growth for the area."
The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice returns with a Shakespearean theme this summer, August 4-7. Tickets: $25-$400. (845) 802-5266.