New leadership and events from the Savannah VOICE Festival

Chad Sonka and Peter Lake at a previous year's SVF

The Savannah VOICE Festival (SVF) has partnered with leading city arts organizations, including the Historic Savannah Foundation, Davenport House Museum, and the Savannah African Art Museum, for a weekend of artistic collaboration as part of SVF’s upcoming 10th-anniversary celebration.

The events to be held on January 22 and 23 will include performances by new artists, as well as SVF’s presidents and co-founders, Maria Zouves and Sherrill Milnes, Chad Sonka, the new Executive Director, and Jorge Parodi, newly named Artistic Director.

“This change in leadership coincides with SVF’s 10th anniversary, which will be held in August,” said Maria Zouves, who co-founded the festival with her husband, world-renowned operatic baritone, Sherrill Milnes. Zouves is looking forward to the new year, new leadership, and the new events, particularly the ones this weekend.

“In our tenth year,” Zouves began, “SVF has not only blossomed, but it has expanded. We are working hard to put Savannah on the operatic map. We do that by bringing more of the world here to Savannah and vice versa.”

“The weekend of collaboration will start with a free live-streamed event on the evening of Saturday, January 22,” said new Executive Director of SVF, Chad Sonka. “SVF has partnered with the Savannah African Art Museum (SAAM) to create this virtual live experience where our artists perform a repertoire of music. We are so excited to offer this concert with a diverse array of music from the world.”

The music will be interspersed with SAAM Chief Curator, Billie Stultz, introducing highlights from the museum’s extensive collection of African art, located at 201 East 37th Street.

Sonka said, “It’s important for us [at the Savannah VOICE Festival] to support and promote all forms of art in the community and to follow our mission of providing educational and creative programs not only during our August festival, but throughout the year.”

“We are so fortunate to be able to combine our music and singing with the gorgeous artwork at the Savannah African Art Museum,” he added. “If you haven’t had the chance to visit this museum yet, this is the perfect opportunity.”

The concert from SAAM’s will be streamed from 6-7 p.m. and will be available on SVF’s website,, and SAAM’s website,

“The next event, which is free and open to the public, takes place on Sunday, January 23 with the inaugural ‘Songs and Stories in the Squares,’ a new partnership between SVF and Historic Savannah Foundation,” Zouves said.

The event will begin at 2 p.m. outside the Davenport House Museum on Columbia Square.

“Docents and HSF supporters will give 10-minute lectures in Columbia, Greene, and Crawford Squares and SVF artists will perform two selections in each square that complement the theme of the lectures,” Sonka explained.

In addition to Sonka, artists Peter Lake, Kyaunnee Richardson, and Sara Zoe Budnik will present repertoire accompanied by Savannah VOICE Festival Composer-in-Residence, Michael Ching.

“We’re so excited to present these events to the community,” Zouves said. “When we hear music, we’re imprinting. We feel it, see it, sense it, and share it. Then, when we share the experience together, that’s what community is all about. We love to show up and make music so others can take something away from it – imprint and make a new memory of their own.”

Zouves is also proud of the new leadership within the organization.

“Creating and fostering the Savannah VOICE Festival has been such a joy and honor, and I thank everyone who has supported us throughout the years. Sherrill and I will always remain at the heart of the organization and couldn’t be happier about the appointments of the very talented Jorge Parodi and Chad Sonka,” Zouves said. “This team is known and respected by artists and supporters, and I know our community partners and patrons will once again be swept off their feet this year.”

Sonka, a versatile American baritone, is an active voice teacher, director, and currently serves on the voice faculty at Iowa State University. He previously served as the Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Sherrill Milnes VOICE Programs.

“I’m thrilled to be part of this wonderful organization and to participate in the events this weekend,” Sonka said. “I’ve worked with Maria and Sherrill—a true operatic legend—for the past few years… one of the great privileges of my career. I am literally working with my musical mentors and their legacy.”

Sonka has performed as the baritone soloist in Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem at Carnegie Hall with Iowa State University and Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder with Oneota Valley Community Orchestra. He was the first-place winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions – Iowa District in 2017. Chad is an active voice teacher and director and currently serves on the voice faculty at Iowa State University. Directing credits include multiple scenes programs, Cendrillon (Viardot), Hansel and Gretel (Humperdinck), and The Little Prince (Portman).

“I couldn’t be more excited to take on this significant leadership role and carry on their [Maria and Sherrill’s] legacies during this very special 10th anniversary. I’m looking forward to a season of community, talent, cultivation, and fun.”

“Even with the growing concerns of COVID-19 in our community, we are incredibly lucky we have been able to continue these collaborative initiatives outdoors and virtually so we can continue to provide and support the arts in Savannah,” Sonka said.

Jorge Parodi, an internationally acclaimed conductor, has been also working with the Savannah VOICE Experience since 2004 and with Zouves and Milnes for 20 years. “I’m part of their core team,” Parodi said. “It’s not easy growing and building at the same time, but it’s something we’re all excited to take on in our new roles.”

Parodi has worked throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, and Asia with varying, acclaimed opera companies and orchestras. Maestro Parodi is the General and Artistic Director of Opera Hispánica, and the Music Director of Opera in Williamsburg (Virginia), and of the Senior Opera Theatre at the Manhattan School of Music, where he has led its productions to critical acclaim. He has been a faculty member at The Juilliard School for over a decade and was recently appointed Music Director of the International Summer Opera Festival of Morelia (Mexico). He is also the Founder and Artistic Director of the Tokyo International Vocal Arts Academy Summer Workshop. 

When asked about bringing operatic music to The Hostess City, Parodi said, “I adore this city and am a fan of both history and architecture, so Savannah is the perfect place. It’s with humble excitement that I accept this position and opportunity to work alongside my dear friend, Chad Sonka.”

It’s all about collaboration for Parodi. “I’ve always been involved coaching, planning, casting, and scheduling, but planning a whole season is wonderful and to get to work in collaboration with other artists I respect so much…well, it’s a blessing. What I do with SVF includes every creative aspect with the singers, the repertoire, mentoring, training, and just making music. It’s a joy and a dream,” he said.

Parodi looks forward to watching the SVF programs grow even more. “It’s a great way to bring people together. Cater to them with vocal music, opera, musical theatre.”

“I’m just delighted to come back to Savannah regularly to connect with the people and help foster and grow the cultural offerings in this wonderful city,” Parodi said.

“The programs we’re offering are a great opportunity for both visitors and locals to learn more about our city’s history and get more specific stories from trained docents while also enjoying great music and singing,” Zouves said. “It’s about enjoying each other’s company again.”

Sonka said participating and performing affects him personally. “It’s so important for me to give back to Savannah because it is my musical home. I’m honored to make music and give something to this city’s already rich culture, contributing with our voices.”

Parodi said in these times, “Music is so special and speaks to all of us.”  He hopes folks will come out to the events and “get a taste of these vocal offerings and spending time together.”

With all our society has dealt with in recent years, Zouves said the meaning of the arts in our lives during times like these, “is always the same answer.”

“It means hope… community… solace… memories… and making new memories.”

“As SVF’s trademarked motto says, ‘Where music meets life,’ and nothing could be truer,” Zouves said. “We hope people will come make new life memories with us.”

Sonka invites everyone to come out and join them for the fellowship and fun. “Don’t miss a note.”

For more information about these events and how to get tickets and/or register, visit

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