Kerry Henderson: I think that with performance, you're always entering into the unknown. With a festival like this, it's the great unknown. We're out in the open. We have a wonderful shell that will cover the orchestra, so the musicians and their instruments don't get wet, but that's it. We don't know. We pray for fair skies. But thunder could happen and it might happen just at that right moment, just as the Commandatore comes, <sing> "Don Giovanni," you know. I think it's that element of surprise. I think also there's a lot of things happening around the same time in the same place. The whole town this weekend becomes festival town. It's defined by the arts and in this case, the vocal arts. I think that's incredibly exciting. It's the energy. It's the buzz that festivals create that I think is so attractive to people and so exciting and so healing.
Up and hot - opera
Jo Reed: That is Kerry Henderson, a baritone and the executive director of the Phoencia International Festival of the Voice. Welcome to Art works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works, I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Phoenicia, NY is a small town nestled into the Catskill Mountain -- breathtakingly beautiful, economically hurting and the proud home of the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice,.The festival was begun three years ago by three of the towns' residents, who just happen to be internationally acclaimed opera singers: Kerry Henderson, Louis Otey and Maria Todaro, whom we heard singing an aria from Don Giovanni at the top of the show. But while the three founders come from the world of opera, they were determined to celebrate the whole spectrum of the human voice as an instrument of artistic expression, healing and peace. And so the Phoenicia International Festival of the voice was born; a four-day festival presenting world class performances of opera, song, baroque and choral music, and the vocal arts of traditional cultures. How the festival came to be sounds a little like an old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movie, with Judy and Mickey exclaiming in answer to some financial problem, "Hey! Let's put on a show! We know how to sing! We can use grandpa's barn!" Here's co-founder Kerry Henderson to explain.
Jo Reed: How crazy?
Kerry Henderson: My day, when did one day end and another begin? In fact last night, we were in the park. I was in the park till 12:30. And Maria and Louis were in the park till 5 a.m.
Jo Reed: I heard from Ros there was a huge storm when you were about to do a sound check.
Kerry Henderson: Man, that seems such a long time ago. It was just last night, I think. There was a big storm, a lot of water. It turned out that the breaker box wasn't the correct one in the park, so we had technicians running back and forth to Kingston, which is half an hour away. It's the closest place to a decent hardware store. So Ros's sound check was delayed considerably, but she got it. She got it finally and they got everything going in the pouring rain. We've got this amazing team of sound engineers. Yeah, this year, the second year, we decided it was high time we had really, really decent sound, since we're bringing people in from all over. Some of the artists are internationally acclaimed and we really want to honor their voices, first and foremost, so we needed a decent sound system. Last year, we sort of got away with it. It was country style. Everybody loved it, but this year, we were determined to have top notch sound.
Jo Reed: Let's have a little history about what we're talking about. This is the Festival of the Voice. I want a little history. What's the origin of this?
Kerry Henderson: About two years ago now, two and a half years ago, I was standing out in the parish field behind my home in Phoenicia. It was actually right through this gate here. I bumped into a friend of mine who happens to be a parent and at that point, was wanting to raise some money for playground equipment for local children. A light went off in my mind and I thought immediately of my good, new friends, Maria Todaro and Louis Otey, both opera singers who sing all over the place, and who also happen to live in Phoenicia. Opera is my background. I sang for many years at the Sydney Opera and at companies in America and in Europe. I thought of Maria and Louis. We could put on a country opera. And I suggested that to the parent who was on the organizing committee and she thought it was a great idea. We had no idea how many people would come. Anyway, within a very short amount of time, a wonderful group of parents got together, people from the town, everybody lending their skills. And we put up a tent in the park, made a makeshift stage, borrowed a few things and did an opera concert. That night was very, very stormy. In fact, I've never seen a storm like that. This was all predicted as well, but 700 people turned out, and it was just a huge success. We raised money for the playground equipment. The kids were happy, the parents were happy and people started begging us to do some more. So Maria, Louis and I put our heads together and over the following winter we came up with this idea of a festival in our town, using the whole of our town, the parish field and all of the venues, but a festival celebrating the marvels of the human voice. So that was, in a nutshell, the origin of the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice.
Jo Reed: And last year was the first year you went into festival mode?
Kerry Henderson: Yeah, Jo, yeah. And last year we had a little more time to organize, not much. Last year we organized was the inaugural festival and we organized that in five months. First of all, Maria, Louis and I meeting at their home and at my place, and having coffee, just talking about how we were going to do this. What came to us, that we would need a team around us. So we asked all of our friends, basically could they help? Who would be interested in helping, our friends who live around here, anyway. And so we sort of formed an ad hoc committee and started organizing the first festival.
Jo Reed: Did you find support from the city officials or the town officials here in Phoenicia?
Kerry Henderson: Yes, absolutely. I think with any venture like this, it's difficult at first for some people to wrap their heads around it. This town, geographically, we're right in the middle of the Catskill Mountains. Our town has just over 300 people. It's famous for tubing on the Esopus River runs right through town. In fact, the Esopus was one of the big, big trout fishing rivers, one of the most famous in the world at one time. It's famous for tubing. It's famous for pancakes-- we have an amazing pancake store, and outdoor pursuits, really. So to come along and say that we wanted to do a festival in town, based upon the human voice, must have been a little bit daunting for some people. But everyone came round and very quickly. We went to town board meetings. We met with business owners. These are the first things that we did, explaining what we wanted to do and where we saw that this venture could go, and how we thought this could really help people here, really uplift their spirits. This is a depressed area. A lot of people are on hard times here. The voice is just so healing. Just to sing is an amazing feeling. To hear great singing is incredibly healing. Also, we have a little bit of experience, Louis, Maria and I, because we've sung around the place a bit with other festivals. I've sung at Spoleto in Australia actually, and Louis's sung with Spoleto in Charleston a few times. I think we really saw how festivals can change an area for the better, can actually uplift the economy. And so we would always go armed with a few of those sort of statistics, which are really quite stunning. So yeah, there's the two things. There's a spiritual uplifting, and then there's economic healing that comes through putting on festivals like this.
Jo Reed: It's really amazing, because both things really are true and I think artists are often kind of shy about saying, "Look, there's a real economic payback when you do this."
Kerry Henderson: Absolutely. I think artists are a little shy of talking about money. We've had to learn. We're partnered with local chambers of commerce, heads of chambers of commerce and people have just come to us who have mentored us in this. And our thinking of artists is not geared towards the financial naturally, so that's been a real learning curve for us.
Jo Reed: I bet.
Kerry Henderson: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Now you're putting on, what is it, 20 events?
Kerry Henderson: Twenty events in four days.
Jo Reed: While your background is opera, as it Maria and Louis's, you're really looking at the voice in all its spectrum as well.
Kerry Henderson: Absolutely, Jo. It's the voice in all its multifaceted glory. We're from the opera world so that's what we know. We have connections at a high level in the opera world, so that's great. We'll always do it with core opera. But around that, oh, there are so many diverse genres that are just wonderful. This year, we had Simon Shaheen representing our world music genre.
Jo Reed: Who, I must immediately add, has also been given a National Heritage fellow award back in the day.
Kerry Henderson: That's right. He's really wonderful. I've been listening to his music and it's gorgeous and moving and contemporary. It crosses the boundaries between east and west. This is what it's about. Everything we're doing is about this great oneness, bringing all the different aspects of humanity together, teaching us that we're all one. I think there's no better way than great music for doing this. Tonight, for instance, we have the wonderful gospel singer, Rozz Morehead, who we had at the festival last year, actually. She was just stunning. People were crying, people were jumping, people were clapping. The joy that she infused in her audience. Last year, she sang at the little church around the corner, the beautiful Methodist church. This year, we've given her the opening show. People loved her that much.
Rozz Morehead up and hot
Jo Reed: I find it also interesting that you really are using every venue the town has to offer.
Kerry Henderson: Yeah. This is quite a European model. Finding a great town, and we live here and we love this little town. It has lots of little venues that lend themselves naturally to events. So the idea was to create a walking itinerary of the town. You come, you park, you leave your keys behind and you walk around, you take in this gorgeous little mountain town. The three churches in town are used, the beautiful local theatrical society, the theater, the Shandaken Theatrical Society. We have a beautiful train museum with an operating train that the kids ride on, on the weekends. We're using that for the kids shows. And of course, the major venue is the parish field, this beautiful field that's abutted by Mount Tremper and the mighty Esopus Creek, and that's where we've set up our magnificent shell, to do the major shows.
Jo Reed: One of the major shows that you're also performing in, along with Maria and Louis, is Mozart's "Don Giovanni."
Kerry Henderson: Oh, I just love this piece. It was one of the first operas that I ever did when I was about 20 years old. And to return to it now after all these years is just a blessing.
Up and hot, and under…
This is one of the great things of being off to program a festival. One thing we do do, is because we want to sing too, is Louis and I need to find pieces where there are two baritones and "Don Giovanni" is perfect. There's Don Giovanni and there's his sidekick Leporello.
Up and hot…
Jo Reed: Tell me, how do you go about programming a four-day, 20 event festival?
Kerry Henderson: That's a very good question. You start, and it comes. Things come. It's a lot of intuition and it's a lot of faith, really because we're a fledgling organization. This is only our second year, as we mentioned before. We don't have the luxury yet of a sizeable budget where we can look at things and go to other festivals with a shopping list. We're more intuitively relying on things to come to us, people to come to us. We meet fellow artists when we're performing in our own careers. We see where they might fit in. Louis just worked with Elizabeth Futral last year, the amazing coloratura soprano who's working everywhere at the moment. He asked her to come along, and she came along and opened our first festival, which was just really fortuitous, to have one of the leading sopranos in the world opening our first every Phoenicia Festival of the Voice. And these artists are largely coming for just very little money, because they believe in the vision, and they believe in us, and we like them. We all get on. A communal meal is prepared every night at someone else's home and everybody gets together and talks and chats. It's sort of old style.
Jo Reed: It is, because the artists are staying in people's houses all around town.
Kerry Henderson: Absolutely. In this area, there are very few hotels, bed and breakfasts even. They're all booked up on the weekend and we don't have a budget for that. But the whole community has come together and is billeting people. People have a little cabin out the back, an artist stays there. I have the bass, Morris Robinson, staying in my loft. It's just an incredible coming together of artists and creating, in a way, an artistic community as well. We have the two things working together. We have our local community here and our support system here, and we also have the community of artists who we're bringing here, who we like, who we get on with, who we enjoy eating with, talking about our careers, our difficulties with, and hopefully over the years, really developing a family there. I think there's great strength in that and I don't think that happens much in the world today.
Jo Reed: I wonder, in this small town of Phoenicia, if people who live in the area if they go to -- since we're talking about "Don Giovanni"-- there are many, many offerings across the spectrum of the voice. We really should be clear about that. But I wonder if they feel a kind of ownership that they might not in another venue.
Kerry Henderson: I think you're completely right. I think that there's a developing sense of pride and that this is what our town can do. This is one way that our town relates to the world. This is how we host people. This is how we bring people in and show people what we are. I think there can be great pride in that.
Jo Reed: And I know last year's festival was smaller, but did you see an economic boost in the weekend that the festival happened last year?
Kerry Henderson: Yeah. Well, for our first festival, we gathered a decent crowd. We had over 3,000 people to events over the three days. After the festival, we went around and we talked to local business owners, and most of them had seen a rise in their business. It's not rocket science to actually see that when you bring thousands and thousands of extra people to an area, that they're going to spend money.
Jo Reed: Off the top of my head, the Spoleto figures, what is it, 75 million?
Kerry Henderson: Yeah, it is. It's around $75 million it brings to the local area every year. For two weeks, yeah, $70 million, and Spoleto is one of our great models for this festival. We've really been looking at how they do things there, and how that festival really revived a crumbling city and just infused all this amazing energy there, as well as great economic goods, great economic healing.
Jo Reed: And I'm also assuming that a number of people in the community, they're volunteering their houses, but they're also volunteering their services throughout the weekend.
Kerry Henderson: Oh, absolutely. We could not do this festival without the help of skilled people from the whole community. We have 120 volunteers this year who are donating their time. And this is not just the people you see in the park, as far as the ushers and the stage crews and the hospitality people. The other day, we had a team of carpenters, 20 guys, who put up this huge stage in about eight hours. We have people with skills in rigging, who are climbing the ropes, hanging the super title equipment. I can't tell you how many people have donated food and meals. We have amazing chefs in this area, it seems, and they're all coming out of the woodwork. They're feeding our artists for free. We could not do it without the support of our entire community.
Jo Reed: This might be an unfair question, or one that you can't quite answer. In this year between year one and year two, did you have a different sense of the community in some way, because of the coming together of having this festival?
Kerry Henderson: I think I developed a much greater appreciation and respect for people around me. There were people who I, in the normal course of my career and life, I wouldn't come into contact with. Now it's like the guy down at the store is helping to usher. The kid who I would pass in the street is a computer who has ended up designing and creating our entire website. And in fact, last night was rigging all of our lights until five in the morning. We couldn't have done it without this guy. That's just one example, too. There are a myriad of people who've contributed in similar ways.
Jo Reed: I wonder, too, if because of that contribution, whether they're thinking about art, if they're thinking about the voice differently, the possibilities of the voice.
Kerry Henderson: I'm sure they are, Jo. Working on the festival, they're around that vocal vibe the whole time. A lot of them have never even come into contact with certain types of vocal music that we're doing. Many, many people here, when we did our first opera in the park to raise money for the playground equipment, many of the people had never ever been to an opera before in their lives, but they were drawn in by the energy, by the voice. It's not about understanding it. It's about something much deeper than that. I truly believe that. I tell people that often, because I'm referred to as, "Oh, the expert," you know, "tell me so I can understand." Yeah, understanding and education as far as classical music, yeah, it's important and leads to greater appreciation, but I think the fundamental thing is just being exposed to the physical sensation of the sound.
Jo Reed: Finally, Kerry, five years from now, where do you see Festival of the Voice?
Kerry Henderson: Whoa! That's a big, big, scary question. It's a real leap of faith. I would love to be able to give our friends and talented artists from around the country and the world jobs here. I'd love to create jobs for ourselves, so that we can live here and keep on contributing to the community, and don't have to go away so much. Wow. I see the festival being talked about far and wide, here, in our region, but throughout the country, too, and spoken about internationally, because as a place where the best people perform, but that it's really such a fun, fun place to go. You can go there and have a really good time. Hopefully people will still be allowed to bring their bottles of wine to the park and open then up and picnic under the stars. Exactly the same as what it is now, but just expanded and breathing and living, and supported, which is crucial, supported.
Jo Reed: Kerry, thank you so much.
Kerry Henderson: Thank you so much, Jo. It's been a pleasure.
Jo Reed: That was baritone and executive director of the Phoenicia International festival of the Voice, Kerry Henderson.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
We heard choral music from the Harvard Chamber Singers and gospel singer Rozz Morehead. As well as Maria Todero, Michelle Jennings, Barry Banks, Toby Newman, Louis Otey, and Kerry Henderson singing Don Giovanni, all in performance at the Phoenicia International festival of the Voice; used courtesy of the festival. Special thanks to Justin Kolb and Barbara Mellon.
If you are moved by the power of the voice, mark your calendar for October 27 when The 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors award ceremony takes place at 7:30 p.m. at the Sidney Harman Hall, in downtown Washington, DC. The NEA is honoring general director Speight Jenkins, mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, Stage Designer John Conklin and composer Robert Ward. If you can't make it to Washington for the event, don't despair! We are webcasting it live. Go to arts.gov and click on Opera Honors for more information about this free event or the live webcast.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, the president and CEO of Opera America, Marc Scorca.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.