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The Atlanta Opera's Tomer Zvulun has transformed a sleepy company into one attracting international notice. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

Tomer Zvulun discusses the Atlanta Opera’s 2016-17 season, expanding vision and reach

The Atlanta Opera's Tomer Zvulun ushers in the company's biggest season in a decade. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
The Atlanta Opera’s Tomer Zvulun ushers in the company’s biggest season in a decade. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

The Atlanta Opera announced its upcoming 2016-17 season today, which will feature four main stage productions for the first time in six years. The season opens with Mozart’s classic Abduction from the Seraglio. It is followed by Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, Donizetti’s bel canto jewel Don Pasquale and Puccini’s Turandot.

There will also be two Discovery Series productions that will be performed outside opera’s traditional stage confines. One is the tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires, by Astor Piazzolla. The second is an obscure Mozart masterpiece: La finta giardiniera (The Pretend Garden Girl). 

ArtsATL talked to Tomer Zvulun, the company’s general and artistic director, about the upcoming season, the company’s artistic trajectory and his personal creative vision for the future of the Atlanta Opera.

ArtsATL: What does the upcoming season mean for the trajectory of the company?

Tomer Zvulun: When I got here in 2013-14, we were doing three main stage productions and the company’s philosophy was doing big titles. Not a lot of them, three a year, and not exposing the audience to more and different tastes and styles of opera. So the first thing that we’ve done since I got here was trying to expand what we do. That’s why we came up with the Discovery Series. 

Soldier Songs was presented at downtown's Rialto Center. (Photo by Rafterman Photography)
Soldier Songs was presented in November at downtown’s Rialto Center. (Photo by Rafterman Photography)

The business idea behind it was let’s increase the artistic risk and lower the financial risk — very important because business is connected to art, we have to fund it. That’s what we do in chamber operas that are not so expensive and allow us to see how the audience is reacting to them.

The first year of the Discovery Series was one show, Three Decembers, that allowed us to be introduced to [composer] Jake Heggie and new American music. The reaction to Three Decembers was very positive. Next we were able to expand the program to two experimental projects. One was Schubert’s Winterreise and the second was Soldier Songs. And we saw the audience has an appetite for those things.

It was a departure from the company’s trajectory because the other side of the equation is to introduce the audience to the classics. We continue to do that, but we do them in a reimagined, innovative way. So if you saw [our Madame] Butterfly or Rigoletto or La bohème, the approach was very cinematic, very visual, very different than traditional productions.

As we move into the future, those two elements are connected to our philosophy, which is the renaissance of opera in America — both in the main stage productions that have to connect to sophisticated 21st century audience, and be very visual and theatrical — and at the same time perform operas like Three Decembers, Soldier Songs and Silent Night [by] composers like Jake Heggie, Kevin Puts. That’s the direction.

If you take that philosophy and throw it into the 2016-17 season, you can see that the biggest thing we do next year is we expand on main stage from three to four main stage productions for the first time in six years. The productions are important operas that people know. Now that we have four main stage productions, we also have the opportunity to do other things.

ArtsATL: So what’s the lineup of main stage productions for 2016-17?

Zvulun: We open the season with a well-known Mozart opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, [with] a wonderful team of singers. Both of them are singing at the Met right now. Ben Bliss is singing [Belmonte] in Abduction at the Met and Amanda Woodbury is singing at the Met [as Leïla in The Pearl Fishers]. Kevin Burdette is our Pirate King [in Atlanta Opera’s Pirates of Penzance next month], and he’s all over the map. He’s great. Tom Key from Theatrical Outfit is going to be Bassa Selim.

[That will be] followed by Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, which I think is going to be the event of the season.

ArtsATL: Silent Night received the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2012.

Zvulun: Yes. It was premiered in 2011 in Minnesota, [and] is the famous story of the Christmas truce in World War I. The Germans are trying to kill the Scottish, trying to kill the French, and all of them are coming together to celebrate Christmas and drink brandy and play soccer. 

(Photo by Philip Groshong/Cincinnati Opera)
Don Pasquale plays off filmatic themes. (Photo by Philip Groshong/Cincinnati Opera)

That extremely successful opera had its European premiere in 2014 in a production that I created at Wexford Festival. We’ll bring the production from Wexford to Atlanta. We now own it together with Wexford, and then its going to go to the Glimmerglass Festival [in Cooperstown, New York]. It’s going to be a great show, one of the performances was planned to happen on Veterans Day. It’s not a coincidence that Soldier Songs happened on Veterans Day. We wanted to create a theme here. Silent Night marks the return of Matthew Worth, who starred in the Soldier Songs, and it’s the first time a female conductor is coming to conduct in Atlanta.

The third production of the season on the main stage is surprisingly never done in Atlanta, Donizetti’s bel canto jewel, Don Pasquale. It is going to be a production that transposes Don Pasquale into Hollywood in the 1920s. Don Pasquale [bass Burak Bilgili] is an aging silent movie star and the invention of the “talkies” is getting him to fall out of favor. The production of this starts from black and white silent movie world [and moves] into this explosive colorful Technicolor production. 

Then we close the season with the grandest opera of all operas, Turandot — an opera that was not seen in Atlanta for a decade. It opened the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and that was 10 years ago. This is a beautiful, colorful production that has been very successfully done in Seattle, Minnesota and Cincinnati. This wonderful tenor, who I think stole the show in La bohème, Gianluca Terranova, is coming back to sing Calaf and our music director, Arthur Fagen, is conducting.

ArtsATL: Looking at this photo of the set for Silent Night, it appears to be very abstract.

Zvulun: It is. The challenge with recreating World War I is that if you try to make it too realistic, you’re going to get caught in the whole “trenches” idea and location is very problematic, especially in a modern opera that has many scenes — some 20, 25 scenes in Silent Night. Instead of creating a turntable which sometimes can be clunky, we created a world that goes like that [vertical] and each part of the set is a different army.

The Atlanta Opera will stage the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Sky next season. (Photo by Erhard Rom)
The Atlanta Opera will stage the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Sky next season. (Photo by Erhard Rom)

ArtsATL: The Atlanta Opera has had evolving manners of production and staging. You’ve been using a lot of projection for scenes, but I’ve also noticed moving collages of images as a kind of visual overture. I think of Ingmar Bergman’s film of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, where during the overture he visually prepares the viewer for fantasy.

Zvulun: Funny that you say that, because The Magic Flute was how I got into opera. What I will never forget is how Bergman opens Magic Flute. As an artistic director you have two ways to go about it: you can close yourself in the ivory tower of the intellectuals and the purists, which I’m happy to do because I love opera, but the other way is to think about it from the point of view of the audience and how you can unleash a world that is so magical for audience members.

ArtsATL: So are you applying film production ideas back to the stage? 

Zvulun: Absolutely, because film is the greatest influence on my life. Bergman, Orson Welles, Hitchcock are the greatest influences on my work. I think that’s why I love Puccini so much because Puccini is the most cinematic [opera composer] of all of them.

This idea of taking the audience and throwing them into another world, it’s really connected to the theme of our Discovery Series next year: immersive productions in unusual locations, where the production engulfs you and it takes you away from the idea of seeing something in the proscenium theater and feeling that you’re going to come and see a show. There’s something detached about that sometimes.

Zvulun wants to modernize opera without losing its historic foundations.
Zvulun wants to modernize opera without losing its historic foundations.

This year we’re choosing to do the two productions in a completely different environment. There’s a wonderful tango opera by Astor Piazzolla, Maria de Buenos Aires, we’re doing next year. María de Buenos Aires is going to happen in a cabaret nightclub. We’re going to recreate this seedy environment of the Buenos Aires nightclubs. 

The second production is a very interesting take on a very obscure masterpiece: La finta giardiniera (The Pretend Garden Girl) by Mozart. Rarely done. We call it The Secret Gardener. We want to do it in a garden, in a park, so that the set is the garden. The other unusual element is that it’s going to be our first bi-city collaboration — with the New York-based company On Site Opera

They’re going to do that in the Upper West Side in a park, probably on 89th Street, I hope, between Amsterdam and Broadway, the Upper West Side Community Park. Then we’re going to take and [perform it] here in Atlanta in a beautiful garden.

The idea about those productions is that they’re going to happen all around you and in very unusual locations. 

ArtsATL: So all of this is pushing the nature of opera forward, even for well-established works; how the audience can relate to it. 

Zvulun: We have to find a way to transpose this 400-year-old art form to a highly sophisticated 21st-century audience that can get anything they want in a click of a mouse or an iPhone or on Netflix. We have to find a way to make it visual and theatrical and involve multimedia if need be, but the base of opera will always remain voice in music — that’s why it’s survived.

ArtsATL: Does this change, not the voice of the singer, but maybe the acting capacity of the singer? Like the way legitimate theater was changed by going from the distant grand stage to film, and then from film to television?

Zvulun: Absolutely. The days are past when you come to an opera production and you expect a very large woman to stand in the middle of the stage with horns on her head raising her hands saying strange things in strange languages. One of the things we strongly believe is that this is a different generation and we have to engage them in a way that is different. However, it’s really going to keep the respect for what opera is and make sure that those updates or transpositions keep the original story, the dramaturgy, the intention of the composer and the librettist in place. Too often, I see productions that are trying to do that with gimmickry. We’re not interested in gimmicks. 

I prefer to take it from a different angle. When we did Rigoletto the question was not what time period is it or where is it; the question was “What is this about? Who is Rigoletto? He’s a hunchback, he is handicapped emotionally and physically, how does that look in the world? That’s why his hunchback grew the whole time and his limping grew the whole time. It was such a different way to tell that story without trying to be gimmicky, and that’s what I am after.

I want to say how excited I am to see that the Atlanta audience is open to new repertoire like Soldier Songs and Three Decembers. That really heartens us and allows us to expand our programming and bring pieces like Silent Night to the community. It’s an important statement to talk about the fact that the [Atlanta] Opera is expanding and allows us to do more productions, six offerings next year, which is the most we’ve ever done in this opera company. I’m excited about that. We’re going to open in September and close in late May.

ArtsATL: That’s a a full season, and good volume in terms of production pace.

Zvulun: We don’t want just provide quantity, we want to make sure that the quality is very, very high. That’s why we’re growing in a gradual way — from three to four, to five, to six. We’re going to stay at six now for a while, I think, to keep the quality.