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Voice Fest: 'We don't do boring'
New festival debuts with events all over town
Mikki Sodergren is a featured performer

Savannah Voice Festival, Week One Highlights

Death by Aria, Westin Savannah Harbor, Aug. 3, 3-5 p.m., 6:30-8:30 p.m. ($15 each)

Music Out of a Hat, Asbury Memorial UMC, Aug. 4, 3-4:30 p.m., $15

Sherrill Milnes Master Class, Westin Savannah Harbor, Aug. 5, 6:30-8:30 p.m., free

Evening of Sacred Music, First Presbyterian, Aug. 6, 6:30-8 p.m., $15

Movie Night:  Puccini's 'Tosca,' Savannah Arts Academy, Aug. 8, 6:30-9:30 p.m., free

Full schedule:

Savannah's a city of festivals, and our newest annual event promises to fill one of the few remaining gaps in the local cultural fabric.

The Savannah Voice Festival brings two weeks of opera, light opera and Broadway to town in various venues. The point is simple: To bring the best professional and up-and-coming vocal talent to town in a very accessible manner.

How accessible? Most events are under $20, with many of them free.

The inaugural Savannah Voice Festival is a collaborative effort, but the two founders are longtime opera great Sherrill Milnes and his wife Maria Zouves.

"I want everyone to be prepared: There will be 100 artists running around town singing and eating and drinking and working," laughs Zouves. "They're ambassadors of opera. We've been trying to support young artists for over a decade with the idea that for someone who's done this kind of art at this high a level, the way to pay it forward is to communicate, and to nurture."

So, all you're going to see is fat ladies in Viking helmets, right? No.

"The opera world has loosened up a lot, especially for Americans," says Milnes. "They have to be able to sing all the languages of operas, as well as Broadway, operettas, Rodgers and Hammerstein. That's where we come from in our program. There's lots of crossover. We don't do boring."

Indeed, highlights of the Festival's first week include such crowd-pleasers as this Saturday's "Death by Aria," in which young hopefuls deliver some of opera's greatest solo gems, to Sunday's "Music Out of a Hat," a game show format in which performers have to sing whatever piece an audience member pulls out of a hat.

One young performer at "Music Out of a Hat," among other Festival events, will be Mikki Sodergren. The 23-year-old Minnesota native explains the intersection of opera and good ol' musicals.

"Originally opera was the main popular entertainment, and you also had straight plays. Then America created the American musical theatre," she says.

"The singing is similar. They're different styles, but in order to have longevity in either career you need to take care of your voice and sing with proper technique. For me, musical theatre actually comes easiest when I've been singing a lot of opera. The resonance lines up correctly and you're able to project in a healthy manner."

Like many of the other performers at the Festival, Sodergren will stay quite busy throughout the event's two full weeks.

"Even though the schedule looks rigorous on paper, for me it's ideal," she says. "I'm singing every day and people are encouraging me to be better, giving me feedback, pushing me to improve. And I'm pushing myself — singing is a very self-driven career, you have to really push yourself."

In the 1970s, Sherrill Milnes starred in one of the best examples of an opera committed to film, Puccini's Tosca, directed for the screen by Gianfranco De Bosio. For Milnes, who played the villain Scarpia, the challenge was dialing back the stage theatrics for the intimacy of the movie camera.

"On a movie like Tosca, on location with the cameras close up, it was a real challenge to bring it down and make it real," he says. "The reactions have to be scaled down and in some ways made more intense — more felt inside. A shift of the eyes is huge in a close up, whereas onstage an eye shift is meaningless."

Also of particular interest to festivalgoers on a budget are the free master classes given by Milnes and Argentinian singer/director Tito Capobianco.

"The audience gets a performance. The singer comes and announces what they will sing, whether it's opera or Broadway or whatever," says Milnes of his Aug. 5 master class. "I don't say anything — I watch, make notes, then we work on it. The audience gets a performance as well as an eye into the educational process."

Of the fiery Capiobianco's Aug. 15 master class, Milnes says "Intense would be the word for him. His discipline is working almost totally on body energy, and really putting the face into the character. Some students in the American world might not be used to so much passion!"

Indeed, too much passion is always an occupational hazard for those in the performing arts. Just as ballet dancers are paradoxically notorious for being chain smokers, Sodergren gives us some insight into the vices of singers.

"Singers love beer," she laughs. "I'm sure World of Beer is going to get a ton of business from us while we're in town."