Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice returns

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Scenes from the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice (photos by Dion Ogust)

The growth of the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, which was launched five years ago by three local opera singers as a benefit to raise money for a local playground, has truly been phenomenal. Last year, 5,000 visitors traveled to the small hamlet to catch a performance in the large white tent located in a field ringed by the Catskill Mountains or a concert in one of the smaller venues in town, which include a charming wooden playhouse and several churches. “There are only three or four festivals in the world that use ‘voice’ in their title, and we’re the only one in English,” said festival co-founder Maria Todaro-Otey.

She attributes the festival’s success to two factors: the high quality of the performances – a tribute to the ability of co-founder Louis Otey, himself a well-known baritone, to draw on his extensive network of friends in enticing top performers to Phoenicia – and the support of the community. This year, 189 volunteers will help put on the festival. Recently, a group of university researchers working on a census report on the arts in the America selected the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice as the representative arts group for the region and grilled the founders on “how you bring in thousands with no budget in a town of 300 people,” she said. And two years ago the festival received an award from the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce thanks to its success in attracting tourists and boosting business in the region.

A few weeks ago, the new King of Spain was crowned. Although that event evaded the radar of most Americans, it inspired the theme of this year’s Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice. Flamenco dancing, an evening of classic Mediterranean heartthrob songs titled “O Sole Mio,” a production of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and a performance of Spanish Renaissance choral music by the Cambridge Chamber Singers are among the highlights. Two interns from Spain will be employed at the festival, which is scheduled from July 30 through August 3.

It will conclude on Sunday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. with an unusual Misa Criolla (translated, it means “Creole Mass”), a chorale performance featuring 100 people onstage that combines a traditional oratorio and operatic-style solos with an orchestra consisting of folk instruments, including Peruvian flutes, numerous guitars and Andean percussive instruments. “It’s not classical, but written in a classical way, a masslike requiem” whose Andean folk-music flavor reflects the heritage of the Argentine composer Ariel Ramirez, noted Todaro-Otey.

This year’s festival opens at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 30 with a performance of flamenco dancing and singing to a full orchestra in a piece titled El Amor Brujo, which tells the story of a woman who is haunted by her dead husband’s spirit and her unrequited love for another man. “It’s rare to present flamenco in a symphonic context,” said Todaro-Otey. The performers are from Spain, with the addition of an Argentine.

The next night, on July 31, the annual “Voices of Distinction” program will present a performance of Baroque music starring world-famous countertenor Brian Asawa, accompanied by period instruments played by the ensemble Sinfonia New York and Christine Gummere. Todaro-Otey noted that in their day, countertenors, whose high, angelic voices were the result of having been partially castrated while they were boys, “were the rock stars of the time. Women were tossing their bodies at them. They couldn’t make babies, but they had it.” She likens the group to a 17th-century version of the Doors.

Todaro-Otey is unapologetic about the glitzy, Vegas aspect of the next night’s songfest, “O Sole Mio: A Mediterranean Fiesta,” in which Italian tenor José Todaro and mezzo-soprano Maria Helena de Oliveira, a native Brazilian, will sing classic, unabashedly sentimental favorites from Italy and Spain, accompanied by a choir and orchestra. The soloists happen to be her parents. (They still live in Paris, where Maria, an only child, was brought up, and where her father was a popular singer with recordings released on the CBS, Decca and BMG labels.) “It’s music people love,” she said.

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