By Jenna Scherer, Tue, 7/30/2013 – 10:10 am

Fest-goers listen to opera under the stars at the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice.

There are plenty of small towns in America that have come to be defined by the festivals they host; but it’s not every place that can say that attendance causes the population to balloon to nearly 18 times its size. The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice holds that distinction; last year, approximately 5,500 people showed up to check out the four-day performance series. In a hamlet with a population hovering just above 300, that’s a hell of a boom.

The seed of the fest was planted in 2009, when three professional opera singers, all Phoenicia residents—Maria Todaro, Louis Otey and Kerry Henderson (who has since left the Voice Fest to helm the Kingston Festival of the Arts)—staged an outdoor choral concert to help raise money for new playground equipment.

“Believe it or not, with a few flyers, this community effort, 800 people showed up. And it was even raining that day,” said Todaro, who is now the fest’s general director.

Bolstered by this wellspring of support, they decided to put together a full-blown three-day series in 2010, and the Voice Fest was born. This year’s fourth iteration is bigger than ever, with 21 events spread out over four days (August 1–4), featuring internationally renowned singers and musicians, and spanning genres from classical to gospel.

“When people think about Phoenicia, they think about pancakes and tubing. When we tell people we’re doing a performance here, they think, Oh, it’s a sorta mom-and-pop thing,” said Otey, the Voice Fest’s artistic director. “But the people that are singing—during the rest of the year, they sing at the Met, Paris Opera, Covent Garden. They’re willing to become involved in something that they see potential in.”

The 2013 fest is centered on the music of Verdi and Wagner, two opera giants who were both born 200 years ago. Opera aficionados can check out a Wagner concert by four world-class vocalists (Friday, August 2); Verdi’s tragic Rigoletto, starring acclaimed tenor Barry Banks (Saturday, August 3); and the Italian composer’s legendary Requiem with a chorus of 110 and a full orchestra (Sunday, August 4).

Even if you’re not an aria lover, there’s plenty to see. The fest opens with “A Gospel Celebration,” featuring gospel performers from New York City (Thursday, August 1). You can also catch Jewish liturgical music (Saturday, August 2), Latin jazz (Saturday, August 2 and Sunday, August 3) and Terrence McNally’s Master Class, a play about opera legend Maria Callas (August 2–4). Performances, talks and workshops take place in venues all over town, from the mainstage in Parish Field to churches and storefronts.

“It’s gonna be a rockin’ thing. People are gonna come and just gonna be lifted way above our little mountains,” said Otey.

Phoenicia residents are even opening their homes to the 200-odd musicians in need of a crash pad. Currently the fest relies on this kind of generosity and volunteer support, but Todaro hopes that the Voice Fest will eventually create jobs for locals.

“The thing that makes us continue—because we really have no reason on a personal level, we’re not making money, we don’t need the stage—is the reaction of this community toward the project, and the potential for the future,” she said.

The young festival has grown exponentially in four years, both in numbers and prestige; there are plans to add a fifth day of performances in 2014. Otey believes that the success points to a new direction for the arts in America.

“One of the reasons that a lot of the singers and artists we get come here is that they believe that the future of arts is in these grassroots movements,” he said. “The future of the vocal arts is not necessarily in an institution like the Met or other big places; it’s in a place like Phoenicia, where people get involved on the ground level.”

Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice. Thursday, August 1 through Sunday, August 4. Multiple venues in Phoenicia. General admission for individual events runs from $0 to $25; VIP tickets to some events are available for $55; a full-festival VIP pass to every event is available for $350. For more information and a full schedule, see the Voice Fest’s website or Facebook page.

Jenna Scherer is an associate editor at Time Out New York. She has written on theater, art, film, music, robots and sundry goings-on for a variety of publications in New York City and Boston.

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