Festival of the Voice: The start of something big for little Phoenicia?

A crowd enjoys Verdi's Falstaff under a dusky sky at the first annual Phoenicia Festival of the Voice in 2010. Photo courtesy of the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice.

This week, the hamlet of Phoenicia plays host to an influx of visitors, including some with world class musical credentials, when the second annual Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice opens on Thursday. Even though the first event of this four-day landmark cultural event isn’t scheduled until Thursday at 7:30 pm, the village is already starting to bustle as performers and guests alike begin to arrive for the festivities.

The Festival has already grown since its official debut last year, with an extra day of programming and 20 events and performances, including an outdoor production of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni on Saturday evening. If the founders of the festival can realize their visions for its future, there is a lot more creative growth yet to come – and potentially, big changes in store for little Phoenicia.

Opera singer Maria Todaro, who co-founded the festival with Kerry Henderson and Louis Otey, is an internationally acclaimed operatic mezzo-soprano. All three festival founders now live in the Phoenicia area, and have deep connections with the region.

“I am French, but no other place has ever felt as homelike for me on Earth as here. This is home,” said Todaro.

If the Festival of the Voice continues to grow by leaps and bounds, its planners will face a tough balancing act: How to bring tens of thousands of visitors to a hamlet of 400 people every summer without transforming it beyond recognition.

While she hopes the festival brings economic growth to the area, Todaro doesn't want to turn Phoenicia into Disneyland.

“I would never want to see a Macy’s open on Main Street. We came here because we ran away from all of that,” she said. “It is also important for the success of the festival that the charm of this community remains intact as we grow. We were advised by high-level professional consultants to link the image of our festival to the charm of Phoenicia and the surrounding region as much as possible.”

Todaro said that the Festival of the Voice was inspired partially by a smaller “Opera in the Park” event she helped organize in 2009. Phoenicia's response was extremely enthusiastic, she said.

“We were very touched by the involvement of the community,” she said. “We were blown away, actually, by the way Phoenicia responded. 800 people showed up and stood in the rain to hear that recital, and people volunteered to help us moving forward in every way possible.”

Michael Koegel, owner of the trendy and friendly Phoenicia eatery Mama’s Boy, acknowledges that some locals have some concern that if the festival takes off, the town could change.

“I hear people say ‘Oh I don’t want Phoenicia to get too big,’ but I don’t think that is really a problem for us,” he said. “If we became more of a year-round town, with a vibrant arts infrastructure and thriving businesses, and all of our real estate values go up, I think that is a good thing.”

Koegel said that last year's Festival of the Voice was his highest-grossing week of the summer.

“Having the festival here while it grows definitely will lead to more jobs,” he said.

Paul Pettinato, owner of Al’s Seafood Restaurant, a fixture in Phoenicia since 1940, says that while he didn't see much of an increase in business during the Festival of the Voice last year, he's optimistic about the long-term impact of the festival on the region.

“Anything that is positive for the town sooner or later helps everybody,” he said. “I think our biggest problem here will be accommodations; we just don’t have the number of rooms we need here for everything in the summer.”

Finding room to host the thousands of tourists the event attracts may well be the Festival's biggest challenge. Tom Sraser of the Phoenicia Belle Bed and Breakfast says the town fills up fast in the summertime.

“Anything that puts Phoenicia out there in the greater world is good for the town, for the businesses in town, and for the Catskills region as a whole,” he said. “Unfortunately, this year the festival coincides with the Timberlake Camp 50th anniversary, so we were already booked out for this weekend this time last year. Overall, I think I could have booked this place five times over this week.”

Linda Blank, one of the owners of the Black Bear Campground in Phoenicia, said the campground could not keep up with demand.

“July and August and most of September, there are no sites available, that is our busiest time,” she said. “I persuaded some people who weren’t specifically looking for the festival to book other dates to provide some sites for festival-goers, but we still got more than we could accommodate.”

Todaro believes that it is important for the festival to keep a close working relationship with the surrounding community as the event continues to grow. She says the festival organizers have already made some changes to accommodate the needs of local business owners.

“We added a fourth day this year – not because we wanted that ourselves; it costs us a great deal more to do so,” she said. “We added it because of some feedback we received from local businesses last year. They said it was great and lots of people were in town, but attendees were so busy fitting in events running from one to another that they had little time to spend on Main Street. This year we decided to repeat some of our program events so festival-goers could take time away from the festival to do other things without having to miss something important to them.”

Todaro says that none of the founders are personally profiting from the festival yet.

“I sold my old home and a city apartment in order to support the festival and my participation in it, and my house here now is up for sale. I will replace it with a smaller one,” she said. “That’s how much I believe in this project.

For a sneak peek at what could be in store for Phoenicia, it's just a couple of hours' drive northwest to the little Otsego County town of Cooperstown, home of the Glimmerglass Festival (formerly the Glimmerglass Opera). While Glimmerglass is now a two-month-long event with a huge international following, it began in much the same way as the Festival of the Voice: from a small and dedicated group of friends with a vision.

Joan Desens, a spokesperson for Glimmerglass, describes the humble beginnings of what has grown to become one of the American opera world's brightest lights.

“In 1975, a gentleman who was a professor of German at the State University College at Oneonta traveled abroad to enjoy opera by attending some of the main festivals taking place there,” she said. “He recognized that our community resembled an area hosting one of the European summer festivals and thought, 'What a wonderful place; we can do something like that here in Cooperstown.' He asked a friend and fellow opera enthusiast, 'How would I get people interested in starting something like that?' and she said, 'Let's run an ad in the Penny Saver.'”

The first Glimmerglass festival featured four performances of La Bohème, staged in the auditorium of the Cooperstown High School before an audience of about 1,200 local residents. Today, Glimmerglass draws 30,000 people annually to the Cooperstown area for a variety of performances, and with them come much needed revenues for the community to support regional employment both inside and outside of the festival.

Desens is proud of the economic contribution Glimmerglass makes to the surrounding area. But she urges a wider view of the positives that a cultural festival can offer a community.

"Throughout the year, [Glimmerglass] provides a place where artists of note can share their skills and talents with people in the community and just be their neighbors and friends,” she said. “It becomes an ongoing artistic and cultural and social conversation with the community that is invaluable; perhaps even more so than the positive economic impact that Glimmerglass provides to this area.”

Though the Festival of the Voice is still small, Desens sees similar potential in it.

"There was the same positive energy to create something special at the start of Glimmerglass as there is inside the core group starting the festival you have in Phoenicia now: People building something they believe in," she said.

The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, Thursday, August 4 through Sunday, August 7, 2011, Phoenicia, New York. For more information and a full schedule, visit phoeniciavoicefest.com.