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Savannah VOICE Festival returns with humor and harmony

Every year, the Festival is inspired by a theme—2016’s was “Romance”—and in 2017, the Festival is “Funny@Five.”

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RAISE A VOICE, crack a laugh: Savannah VOICE Festival is back for its fifth season.

The annual celebration of opera, musical theatre, and popular song highlights rising stars of the vocal world, honors the art’s roots, and educates future vocalists. This year, the festival has decided to take a humorous twist.

Every year, the Festival is inspired by a theme—2016’s was “Romance”—and in 2017, the Festival is “Funny@Five.”

“I feel like when you say ‘opera,’ people think it’s very serious stuff, very intense, very heavy,” says VOICE Festival Co-Founder and Director Maria Zouves. “We’ve always had two missions: one is to educate and build artists, and the other is to educate and build artistic communities, meaning audiences. Those two marry. Those two work together. VOICExperience is the educational component; The VOICE Festival is the producing arm that provides outreach to the community. Those things put together really have to make it accessible to everyone.”

Zouves aims to welcome not only opera fans, but young people and community members who might not be familiar with the festival’s stylings.

“We have to engage young minds who want to come and pursue singing,” she says. “We want to engage our patrons who love opera and for them to bring their children and grandchildren. We want to engage students in the Chatham County schools and say, ‘Hey, listen, this is cool, it’s funny, it’s totally a place to have fun and to be entertained.’ Looking at the theme for year five, we said, ‘We need to make this the best ever.’ What better way than to be funny? I’m about as cheesy as they get, so I love this theme! It speaks to me and my sensibilities.”

In previous years, the festival spanned two weeks. For their fifth year, it became clear that a three-week festival would strike the perfect chord.

“Two weeks just became so dense and so difficult to do everything we wanted to do,” Zouves explains. “Last year, we realized it made sense to expand the whole thing, and it’s been great.”

The Westin Savannah Harbor has worked with the festival to transform a section of the hotel and resort into a veritable vocal conservatory. Artists will stay and learn on the grounds, while patrons will visit to witness the incredible talent taking the stage downstairs.

Hotel beds have been replaced with pianos for faculty rooms on the third floor. On the fourth floor, the singers reside. Zouves is pleased that, with a third week, the artists can truly feel at home in the Westin and in Savannah.

“I think they’re really excited to get the opportunity to spend a couple nights in rehearsal and enjoy Savannah, too,” she says. “They work so hard, and it’s really nice to have a less crazy schedule. Last year we maxed out, and that’s what we want—to keep maxing out is our goal!”

The festival launches with “Shave and a Haircut,” a prelude to festival operas The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. Starring VOICE Festival co-founder and opera legend Sherrill Milnes and the 2017 Festival artists, audiences will hoot and holler as they’re led through 90 minutes of Rossini, Mozart, musical theatre, song, and even a little Bugs Bunny. It’s a great introduction to opera for folks of all ages.

Zouves is thrilled to share two operas this year.

“These are great, successful plays,” she explains. “They were comedies, they were farce, and they made the aristocracy crazy because it was the maids and servants one-upping the aristocracy. The audiences loved it! The comedy is as modern as any Adam Sandler movie. You could watch it, and it’s very current and accessible to everyone.”

VOICE Festival fans will be pleased to see some familiar faces at 2017’s events: Meechot Marrero and Santiago Ballerini—last year’s Romeo and Juliet in Romeo et Juliette—reunite in Barber of Seville, and Jessica Ann Best is back and teaming up with gypsy-jazz band Velvet Caravan for “Funny Girl with a Gypsy Swing.”

With three weeks of offerings, Savannah can meet rising artists and learn about musical history in a variety of venues.

“There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of talent,” says Milnes. “Were grateful, but more than that, there seems to be an inexhaustible mount of desire and enthusiasm from Savannah about what we’re doing.”

“Savannah is the perfect place to nurture our vision,” Zouves agrees. “It’s a European city with American standards with great food, great music, great fun. We have artists from China, Puerto Rico, France—they’re all coming to take in Savannah and take in the music of Savannah. Sherrill and I are very excited and very dedicated to the city and feel like we’re the city’s own.”

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