Beyond just voices...and voices from beyond

2022 SAVANNAH VOICE FESTIVAL

A company number performed at the previous Savannah Voice Festival | Photo SVF

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Savannah Voice Festival (SVF) is bursting with song in anticipation of its summer festival season kicking off with a two-week festival running August 7 through 21.

Taking place in our Hostess City, the SFV celebrates the classical voice in multiple performances offering the best repertoire from opera, musical theatre, and song.

“We are so excited for our summer season to start,” said Chad Sonka, Executive Director. “SVF grew out of its sister organization, the VOICExperience Foundation, under the umbrella of Sherrill Milnes, a world-renowned operatic superstar, and his soprano wife, Maria Zouves. 

Milnes’s legacy of great singing continues in the form of these programs. So, with that in mind, they founded VOICExperience, which is at the heart of his voice training and mentorship program.”

“Out of this, they said, ‘Well, these wonderful singers now need a place to exercise their abilities and to perform.’ Savannah welcomed us with open arms ten years ago,” Sonka said. “Our anniversary season is entitled Voices from Beyond, which encapsulates the theme of the productions of the summer. We have voices coming from all over and new voices are being introduced to Savannah in a very exciting way,” he said.

The upcoming festival offers a variety of offerings in differing venues, including the Charles H. Morris Center, Ashbury Memorial Church, Christ Church Episcopal, and the Telfair Museum rotunda.

“We have about two-dozen events in two weeks; very active,” said Jorge Parodi who has been involved since SVF’s creation, but who is the Artistic Director for the first time. 

“Many days we have two events. All operas perform twice, as well. There are a lot of new artists the audience will love. Many will be performing for the first time in Savannah. We like the combination of old and new people, musical recitals, opera, just a lot of things,” Parodi said.

The new artistic director is experiencing the event with fresh eyes. 

“This is my first season planning with a team,” Parodi continued. “I was excited to be chosen to work with the casting and all the artistic things for the festival. We can’t wait to show the audience our very exciting lineup of shows and concerts.”

Even though he’s now a New Yorker of 25 years, Parodi considers himself “a very Southern guy” as he hails from Argentina, or as he said with a laugh, “as south as you can get.” However, there’s something about the beauty of Savannah and the hospitality of the southern city that he felt was right for this festival.

“The reason we moved the music to Savannah,” Parodi began, “was we found there was a niche needing to be filled in that Savannah didn’t have a classical component. There was no opera and now we have opera throughout the festival.”

“We also have a group of 10 artists working for two weeks who will come as part of the artists in residence for the SVF,” Parodi said. “The educational component with it helps and encourages young professionals getting started as artists at our festival.”

Throughout its existence, the SVF has strived to continue the legacy of Sherrill Milnes and opera singers of his generation. The executive director said, “We’ve gathered great artists to come to Savannah—some of them have come for many years—to perform and offer this music. The way it blends thematically are all of the operas will have a mystical element to them.”

“There are so many offerings we are providing this summer, but I want to highlight the premiere of operas for Savannah,” Sonka said. “These are two, small, one-act operas: Alice Ryley and Anna Hunter. These are two women who shaped the history and what we know Savannah to be now. If a visitor is coming to Savannah [who] wants some history as well as amazing singing and exceptional music, all done in English, this is what you’ll want to hear. These two operas were commissioned for Savannah and written by our composer in residence, Michael Ching.”

The two operas will be performed on August 12-13 at the Charles H. Morris Center.

“They’re both framed as ghost stories, so they’re written as haunting, mystical, yet interesting and loving stories,” Sonka continued. “Alice Ryley is a Savannah ghost story about immigrants who first settled [here] and what it was like for them. Alice Ryley is a drama about the first woman hanged in Wright Square. It was tragic, but influential in the history of Savannah.”

“Anna Hunter is credited with starting the Historic Savannah Foundation and preserving downtown Savannah for how charming and historical it [still] is,” he said. “Preserving that history is so important and Anna Hunter focused a lot of her efforts on and around the Davenport House Museum, which is so iconic in Savannah’s history.”

Other highlights of the calendar include a production of The Medium in the rotunda of The Telfair Museum, a review of Brigadoon, a return of sorts, and capping off the season with Faust, a French opera, performed with subtitles.

“There’s something about opera in that the music isn’t part or an actor. The music is a character,” Parodi stressed. “So, you get that universal message of acting from the music. Even if you don’t know exactly what they’re saying, you know exactly what they’re saying. You will feel [it] because the music and the singing are doing the acting. That’s a very important concept when we do classical music and especially in opera.” 

“In opera, the music is not a vessel or a nice tune [simply] accompanying the story. The music is the actor,” he said. “You will feel what’s happening because you hear the singing and the music. That’s also much more compelling and emotionally engaging because you feel it in your bones even if you don’t know the [language] texts.”

“Opera is awesome,” Parodi said, admitting also he is “totally biased.” “It’s exciting, full of passion, fascination, musical theater, performance with the human voice and instruments. It’s concert and voice and stage together—the best of all worlds put together.”

He said there is also a different level of understanding of the stories because there is a more emotional connection to opera. 

“These operas are popular for a reason. They’re exciting and people love them. The audience will love to see them. Not everyone likes everything and we understand not everyone will like opera, but we [hope] everyone will try it and experience it. Hopefully, this will be the first time someone’s encountered an operatic production and they’ll love it.”

In his first year as the executive director, Sonka is also directing. “I’m looking forward to engaging with the festival in a different way,” he said. “…meaning engaging with it in all aspects in a manner I haven’t before. This is exciting for me to be involved in a more comprehensive way. Also, directing, The Medium, which is going to be performed by our study grant artists who [studied] in Iowa with me at our two-week long voice-intensive study where they’re learning these roles. They’ll come down and perform those roles and the opera in Savannah. We’re so excited to be able to bring these up-and-coming artists who have lots of promise to Savannah to do this work.”

Sonka hopes audiences will take away an appreciation of the art and all it offers. 

“There is a need and importance for great singing and great storytelling in our lives. Savannah is the place for that and we are the ones—SVF—who are happy to be the ones to offer that. It is a comprehensive experience of what this music can offer. It’s special and moving. Savannah is the most beautiful palate to offer for our audiences.”

The artistic director agreed. 

“What we do is all for the opportunity for the Savannah audience to experience art, song, musical theater, opera, sacred music, music with pianos, music with instruments, music with organs… and just all sorts of opportunities.”

He also agrees Savannah is the place. 

“I adore being in Savannah. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in the country and it’s a pleasure to be there” Parodi said enthusiastically. “We have made so many friends in the ten years we’ve been there. It feels like coming home for our summer stay.”

“I will be conducting the Faust and playing with great singers and talents. For me, it’s a pleasure to perform, but I’ve been so involved in the planning, programming, and development, I’m ready to share it with the audience and our friends,” said Parodi. “It will be like a party for us. We’ll all be gathered together and celebrate every performance. For the audience, there are so many events they’ll have this [near] overload of amazing singing and music and repertoire that will be very enjoyable. Hopefully, they’ll see as many as possible. There are actually those who come to town these two weeks and come to everything we do.”

Sonka compared the Hostess City to one of the upcoming performances. 

“In a way, Savannah is a bit like Brigadoon. It’s a special place and you’re called to it… again and again. Sometimes you go back to your lives away from it and you might forget about it until it calls you back… which it does,” he said. 

“There’s truly something about Savannah that is welcoming, warm, and draws people into wanting to relax, open up, and engage in the arts and have that familial type of vibe.

“I’ve been coming to Savannah for about 9 years, since 2013, and there’s a reason I keep coming back and calling it my home away from home. The fact that it’s filled with such welcoming people is what keeps others coming back. Just like we’ll be back.”

Parodi agreed and added, “To the audience, if they love music, please mark your calendar. If you’re new, please choose anything that tickles their fancy and choose a couple of events. I promise they’ll have an impressive experience. They’ll see one and want to see more.”

“The shows are not expensive—especially for live performances. And, they’re even less expensive with a season pass that allows members to come to see all of their shows throughout the year.”

“It means a great deal to us to continue this legacy of great music and to be able to call Savannah home,” Parodi finished.

The Savannah Voice Festival is a non-profit with the mission to bring classical vocal music to the city. 

For more information, visit savannahvoicefestival.org


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