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The Arts
July 12-18, 2006

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Nina Kotova

Star Power: Cellist Nina Kotova is the festival's artistic director.

Tuscan Sum

Festival del Sole celebrates Napa as Cortona's new twin city

By Brett Ascarelli

A few years ago, Barrett Wissman, who is the chairman of IMG Artists, went to the movies in Cortona, Italy, where he lives part time (Montana and Texas compose the other parts). The Tuscan theater was a beautiful old opera house, built during the 19th century, but Wissman was dismayed to find only six people in the audience. He decided it would be "interesting" to revitalize it, and met up with fellow villager, the famous house-renovating author Frances Mayes, to discuss the possibilities. Thus was born the Tuscan Sun Festival, which has rolled through Italy's hills with art, literature and music for the last four summers.

This year, for the first time, there will be an American counterpart to the Tuscan Sun Festival. Wissman has founded the Festival del Sole, which will be heralded by maestro-conducted drum rolls July 16-23, just three weeks before the Italian version commences. The Festival del Sole will bring an unusually high-caliber set of musicians to Napa, among them, soprano Renée Fleming, conductor Stéphane Denève, violin prodigy Sarah Chang and the stunning Russian cellist Nina Kotova, who is also the festival's artistic director and is married to Wissman.

As for the star-studded lineup, Lisa Walter, spokesperson for Yountville's Lincoln Theatre, reports hearing an IMG employee say that "in regard to the concerts alone, it would likely take about two years in a major metropolitan area to see all of these artists come through town on tour."

IMG is an agency that specializes in promoting fine-art performances, and although Wissman's agency connections have helped draw some of these internationally acclaimed musicians, he says that most of them are coming to Napa simply because they've enjoyed themselves so much in the Cortona gaiety. Because these festivals are low-key, Wissman says, "the artists love to go, and when an artist loves to do something and the artist talks to another artist--that speaks much more loudly than anything else--say, a manager or publicist, for example."

Although nobody will comment on the specifics, and Wissman himself sidesteps the question, he reportedly looked at several different venues around the country before settling on Napa for the Tuscan festival's counterpart.

Michael Savage, the executive director of the Lincoln Theatre, who has also served at the Napa Valley Opera House and oversaw the renovation of the San Francisco Opera House after the 1989 earthquake, had for years hoped to hold a food, wine and music festival in Napa. When Wissman approached him, he jumped at the idea, hoping this might position the valley to draw international visitors as does the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., which was also formed as the American twin to an Italian musical event.

"Napa has a lot of Italianesque features--terrain, climate, culture," Savage says. "Food is very much part of the culture here, like in Tuscany and Umbria [where the European version of Spoleto is held]. And, of course, we have a wine culture as well."

Although Savage and Wissman are hoping for strong local attendance, they are trying to tap into the larger Bay Area's appetite for classical music, art, food and wine. To that end, Savage has been working with the San Francisco Opera House to spread the word. The two men hope that this festival will eventually situate Napa as the summer arts and culture mate to San Francisco, similar to the famed outdoor music venue Ravinia, near Chicago, or Tanglewood, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra spend its summers.

"What I liked about Napa is that it's part of a larger metropolitan area that's quite substantial, but that didn't already have a major summer festival like this," says Wissman. "This can serve as a catalyst. Napa is a great place. There are always summer venues outside the city, but San Francisco frankly doesn't have anything like that."

To learn more about the Festival del Sole, running July 16-23 at various venues in Napa, check the July 5 archive at for last week's accounting of events. For tickets and details, go to

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