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Raising their voices
Inaugural Savannah VOICE Festival set for next summer

In a welcome two–fer, Savannah welcomes both a new arts organization and a new festival. The non–profit educational program VOICExperience announces the inaugural Savannah VOICE Festival will happen in summer 2013, bringing over 100 artists to town from Aug. 3–17.

Founded by opera legend Sherrill Milnes and soprano Maria Zouves, VOICExperience will use the new Festival to do two things: Pass the musical knowledge of opera from one generation to the next, and break down the usual walls that keep people from enjoying this dynamic art form — which contrary to popular opinion is alive and well.

“There’s more opera going on in America than ever before, it’s also more innovative than ever,” says Zouves. “People want this art form in their language, with their content.”

Zouves says somewhere between light opera and the ridiculous stereotype of a fat lady with a horned helmet and breastplate — “that’s so not true, by the way, there are so many gorgeous singers today who look like models” — there’s a huge volume of appealing repertoire. “Opera is so big, and with that comes such a diversity of music.”

She says opera is a case of extremes — the big, signature opera companies, such as The Met and La Scala, are doing extremely well, as are the more humble efforts on the other end of the spectrum.

“The places today that that are doing opera are swinging into more boutique things,” she says. “There are a lot of little initiatives going on, a lot of start–ups in interesting venues, creating their own work and educating the public. The middle of the road companies might be hurting because of the economic climate, but the extremes are functioning very well.”

Zouves says VOICExperience shoots for a lot of crossover to make the art form more accessible.

“Like wine, you start by drinking an easy wine and then as your palate becomes more sophisticated, you find your way into what you really like.”

The group has been based in Florida for years, but saw Savannah as a ripe opportunity for a positive move.

“Being the Johnny Appleseeds of opera, we wanted to go somewhere where there wasn’t an opera company and we could cultivate something where there seems to be a need,” Zouves says. “There are a lot of wonderful things going on operatically in Savannah, but a real opera company with sustained events about opera doesn’t exist, so that was very attractive.”

The VOICE Festival will feature about 12 separate events, everything from an aria concert to a quiz show, to a movie night. Looking to the Savannah Music Festival as a template, they hope to utilize many of the “gorgeous, small, intimate and exciting venues throughout the city.

Zouves says the diverse slate of programming will include some free events, some ticketed events, and a package ticket deal. “It won’t be very expensive and it will be very accessible,” she says.

As for the timing, VOICExperience has traditionally staged its big invitational program each August, and decided for a multitude of reasons to stick with that.

“In looking for a new home, we analysed what aspects we can grow. If we can really help promote tourism at time when there isn’t at much going on, that will benefit Savannah,” Zouves says. “It has to be a win–win. We can’t come in and say we’re going to utilize the city’s resources and not offer anything in return. Our goal is to be able to create some energy and create some commerce during a time when perhaps there’s not as much.”

She says the VOICE Festival has worked closely with the City of Savannah, Visit Savannah, and the Chamber of Commerce in planning and scheduling the event.

“The consensus was that we really needed to provide Savannah with something like that, and we also had to keep our usual formatting the same for our own success. Hopefully we will all grow together through that,” Zouves says.

“I happen to think Savannah is a destination, a place to want to go to, and we feel like we want to bring the world into Savannah, that world that loves opera and wants to experience a charming place that is operatic in and of itself.”

The Savannah VOICE Festival will take place Aug. 3–17, 2013, at various venues