Your Source For The Arts In Atlanta

One of the Atlanta Opera's biggest hits, Maria de Buenos Aires, returns to Paris On Ponce next season.

News: Atlanta Opera’s Tomer Zvulun on the 2018–19 season, and a bold new direction

The Atlanta Opera announced its 2018–19 season Thursday, with its mainstage series kicking off in November with West Side Story and also featuring the Atlanta premiere of an operatic version of Dead Man Walking next February that includes Rome native Jamie Barton as Sister Helen Prejean.

The season includes Eugene Onegin, a coproduction with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Hawaii Opera Theatre, Seattle Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre. The season will close in April 2019 with La Traviata starring Czech soprano Zuzana Markova in her US debut. All the mainstage shows will be at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

For the opera’s Discoveries series, Le Maison Rouge at Paris on Ponce will host two shows: the Southern premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird in September and the return of Maria de Buenos Aires in March 2019. The Atlanta Opera also plans a still-unnamed production at the Performing Arts Center at City Springs under construction in Sandy Springs.

Tomer Zvulun, the opera’s artistic and general director, recently sat down with ArtsATL to discuss the upcoming season.

Tomer Zvulun

ArtsATL: What is your intent with the 2018–19 season?

Tomer Zvulun: The way we approach the season is to focus on our core audience, first of all, the people who are most devoted to us. The first and last mainstage shows are like two pillars at the beginning and the end of the mainstage season, shows that are extremely popular and that everybody will flock to: West Side Story and La Traviata. In the middle, we program Dead Man Walking and Eugene Onegin.

The casting is very exciting. It’s a phenomenal season in terms of singers. All of the mainstage productions are major collaborations with other opera companies. They were all created within the past year, and we have major stake holding in all of them.

West Side Story is a major coproduction between Atlanta Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Glimmerglass Festival and [Lyric Opera of Chicago] celebrating the Bernstein centennial. It’s going to be done in Houston first this spring, then in [the] summer at Glimmerglass, then Kansas City, and then it’s going to come to us.

ArtsATL: West Side Story is really dance intensive. 

Zvulun: It is, and from a logistics standpoint it’s complicated because of the collaboration with all those companies. We are repeating some of the singers that will perform in Glimmerglass and Kansas City, so there are solutions there. Vanessa Becerra will sing the role of Maria, [and] Brian Vu will portray Riff. It’s a major undertaking. One important thing is that the original choreography by Jerome Robbins is going to be preserved, by choreographer Julio Monge, to keep the original intention of Robbins.

ArtsATL: That challenges the principal singers and your choice of principal singers. Is the dance in Tchaikovsky’s  Eugene Onegin even close to that difficulty?

Zvulun: West Side Story is more stylized. The approach is different for Eugene Onegin, which I will be directing and have previously directed. It has major elements of dance, beautiful dance moments that Tchaikovsky wrote. The Atlanta Opera has one of the absolute best choruses in the country. They’re going to be dancing those dances. We’re not hiring dancers for it because I strongly believe that the dance in Onegin was meant for the peasants in Act One, the middle class in Act Two and the nobility in Act Three. You didn’t have solo dancers running around in those circles, so why not take the people that are actually the characters and have them dance?

Eugene Onegin is one of my favorite operas, the most famous Russian opera in the canon. Maria Zifchak is singing the role of the mother, Larina. William Burden [will be] making his debut as Vladimir Lensky. Raquel González is singing Tatyana and David Adam Moore, who was here in 2015 for Schubert’s Winterreise, is Onegin.

ArtsATL: Of special interest among the 2018–19 mainstage productions is the powerful contemporary opera Dead Man Walking by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally.

Zvulun: Dead Man Walking is the most popular American opera of the 21st century. It’s one of the more intriguing things we have ever brought to Atlanta. It’s based on a famous story by Sister Helen Prejean that was later made into a major motion picture with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It’s an explosive theme about the death penalty, and there are going to be a lot of opinions about that. What is great about the opera is that it does not take a side about whether the death penalty should exist or not, but it’s a serious discussion. It’s more about the journey that nun is taking to forgiveness and following your faith than it is about the murder and the horrible violence that person committed.

Dead Man Walking has never been performed in the Southeast, and so that is a major thing for us. It will feature the debut of Jamie Barton in the role of Sister Prejean. She’s never sung it before. I think people from all over the world will come to see her because she’s incredible. Also, Michael Mays, who is the quintessential Joseph de Rocher, is coming to bring his interpretation. Then there’s the fact that Prejean is alive and hopefully will come to Atlanta and tell about her experience. This opera is very, very popular and is on its way to the Met in 2020.

Closing the season is La Traviata in a new coproduction with Washington National Opera. It’s going to be one of the most gorgeous productions ever seen here. Just lush, beautiful.

La Traviata is going to mark three important debuts at the Atlanta Opera. Violetta will be sung by Czech soprano Zuzana Markova, [and] this will be her American debut. She’s very famous in Europe, but she has never sung in America. Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang is going to be singing Alfredo. This is a very talented young man, now launching a major career. The bass-baritone Fabián Veloz will portray Germont. Arthur Fagen, our music director, will be leading the performances. We’ve got tremendous work going on with the orchestra. It was recognized this season, with Flying Dutchman, how far along they have come.

ArtsATL: The Atlanta Opera’s Discovery Series, performed in alternative venues, has become a poplar attraction. What’s up with it next season?

Zvulun: We are doing a Discovery Series that has a nod toward different styles of music. In this case it’s jazz and tango.

We start the whole 2018–19 season with Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, based on the life of Charlie Parker written by Daniel Schnyder, who is a jazz musician. It was created in 2015 and presented in proscenium theaters in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. But what we wanted to do is perform it in a place that would simulate a real jazz club like the original Birdland in Manhattan, where Charlie Parker was their regular headliner. We’re going to take Paris on Ponce, one of my favorite spots in Atlanta, and convert it into a jazz club. Schnyder is going to rewrite it, reducing the orchestration to fit that venue.

We’re also bringing back Maria de Buenos Aires due to popular demand. We did it two years ago. It was sold out, we added performances. It was so successful and yet a lot of people did not have a chance to see it.

ArtsATL: In an ArtsATL article last month, it was reported that the Atlanta Opera is going to be involved in some way with the new Byers Theatre at the Performing Arts Center at City Springs in Sandy Springs, that will open its doors next season. Can you say anything about that?

Zvulun: It’s a wonderful new venue. Perfect size, quite impressive. We’re adding now basically another production at Sandy Springs. It’s at the end of next season, in May, and the piece that we will be doing there is “to be announced.” It’s going to be a wonderful surprise. Something completely different.

But it is very important to be clear that the Atlanta Opera continues to perform our four mainstage productions at Cobb Energy Centre. We’re doing our Discovery Series as planned, at Paris on Ponce, two per year, and actually we’re growing them.

ArtsATL: So this single production in Sandy Springs is in addition to all that. Atlanta Opera seems to continue to both expand its repertoire as well as becoming more adventurous since you arrived five years ago. It seems like it’s working well for the company.

Zvulun: We’re at a place where we are able to do more adventurous repertoire. If you look at season 2013–14, the opera programs when I arrived, there were three operas: Faust, Tosca and Barber of Seville. You fast-forward five years and you have West Side Story, Dead Man Walking, Yardbird, Eugene Onegin, Maria de Buenos Aires and La Traviata. So it’s very diverse, very progressive, and the audience is embracing it. People love innovation. When you are doing things that are outside of the box, that challenge the audience, that get their curiosity going, they will show up.

From a financial standpoint, the Atlanta Opera made a strategic decision when I arrived to increase its footprint. Instead of cuts out of fear that we won’t be able to maintain and sustain, the decision was to increase our input and move from 12 performances a year to 32 performances a year and diversify them. The financial impact of that was opposite to what you would think. Despite the fact that we grew so much, we are way more financially solid than before because the one thing that is important about a nonprofit is that it is based primarily on the funding from the community. The community is completely behind us. The support is there. People want to see Atlanta Opera become a major international opera company.