When the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice returns to the Catskills this July, it will have raised the bar—about two octaves higher.
Celebrating its fifth season this year, the festival welcomes countertenor Brian Asawa to its mainstage. Asawa is one of the world's foremost countertenors, having brought his powerful, flexible, and impressively high vocal range to such world-class venues as the Metropolitan Opera, the Palais Garnier in Paris, and Madrid's Teatro Real. Capable of singing within typically female vocal registers—contralto, mezzo-soprano, and sometimes even soprano—countertenors are today relatively rare. The festival will feature Asawa in this summer's edition of "Voices of Distinction," a program of some of the most exceptional vocal works of the Baroque period. The artist will also host a free lecture titled "The Art of I'castratti," in which he will discuss the historic, long-abandoned practice of castrating young singers as well as the vocal aesthetic of a modern countertenor.
Another high note of the festival, and an accent of this year's Spanish theme, will be a staging of Gioachino Rossini's "The Barber of Seville." Based on Pierre Beaumarchais's comic French play of the same name, the opera buffa is one of the most popular and widely performed operas in the world—few today can hear its overture without Bugs Bunny coming to mind. Festival Executive Director Maria Todaro and internationally acclaimed baritone and Phoenicia newcomer Lucas Meachem will top the bill, singing the principle roles of the beautiful Rosina and the clever Figaro.
Phoenicia's festival does not limit its many voices to the realm of classical song. Carey Harrison, a Catskills resident and award-winning novelist, actor, and playwright, will perform the world premiere of his new play "The Seven Favorite Maladies of Ludwig van Beethoven," accompanied by international pianist and festival trustee Justin Kolb. New Paltz-based storyteller McKenzie Willis will read from his new book Tales of the Rainbow Forest. And audience members themselves are invited to attend a series of two free workshops on shape note, a system of musical notation that associates pitches with shapes rather than key signatures or complex symbols. The workshops will be an opportunity for anyone to vocalize in harmony, regardless of prior musical knowledge.
Aside from the international stars drawn to the region each summer, an intimacy with the audience and the local community is, and always has been, an essential element of the festival. The multivenue event features performances in a variety of local spots including Wesleyan Church, the Phoenicia Railroad Station, the Shandaken Theatrical Society Playhouse, and Mama's Boy Coffee Shop (where Brian Asawa will host his lecture over a few lattes). The idea, say co-founders Maria Todaro and Louis Otey, is to turn the whole hamlet into a performance venue, with patrons able to walk from one program to the next—often stopping in a small restaurant or shop for a treat along the way. The festival's contributions to its community have been noticeable, and it was named the 2012 Cultural Business of the Year by the Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce. The foundation is also involved in youth outreach: This year it founded the Catskills Academy of Performing Arts, a weeklong music program for 8-to-12-year-olds. Its loyalty to and involvement with the local community have been a major part of the annual event's global popularity and success.
The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice returns with a Spanish flare this summer, July 30-August 3. Tickets: $25-$280. (845) 586-3588; Phoeniciavoicefest.org