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Tomer Zvulun: "The performing arts found out exactly how much music we could still make with what we had left." (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

Preview: The Atlanta Opera’s Tomer Zvulun on the new season, return to Paris on Ponce

This week, The Atlanta Opera kicks off its 2017–18 season with one of its Discovery Series productions, The Seven Deadly Sins, at Paris on Ponce. It’s the company’s biggest, most expansive season ever: four mainstage productions plus two Discovery Series productions for a total of six productions and 32 performances in all. That’s not even counting the Atlanta Opera Studio Program — a new program designed to help develop emerging talent – and its copious educational performances for students.

ArtsATL spoke recently with The Atlanta Opera’s general and artistic director, Tomer Zvulun, about the upcoming season.

ArtsATL: Can you give us a rundown of The Atlanta Opera’s upcoming season?

Tomer Zvulun: We kick it off Thursday night with a very unusual Discovery Series production of Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, starring Jennifer Larmore, who is a wonderful singer, as Anna I. [Gina Perregrino will also portray Anna I in four of the performances.] It’s a cabaret version that will include both The Seven Deadly Sins and an evening of Weill’s famous songs. It is designed as a kind of seedy 1930s-style cabaret evening at Paris on Ponce, which is a perfect venue for it. It also marks the auspicious company debut of director Brian Clowdus, who is head of the Serenbe Playhouse and will feature some of our brilliant studio artists. It will also include the company debut of Broadway performer and dancer Meg Gillentine, who is going to play Anna II and choreograph it. [Rolando Salazar will conduct.]

Then comes our first mainstage production, in November, at Cobb Energy Center, Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. It’s a coproduction with Houston Grand Opera and Cincinnati Opera, and it’s going to premiere in Atlanta, which is a major thing for us. It stars an international cast that includes Jay Hunter Morris as Erik; Senta is played by Melody Moore, a wonderful soprano based in San Francisco. The Dutchman is sung by Wayne Tigges, and making his Atlanta debut is Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson as Daland. I will be directing, and our music director Arthur Fagen will be conducting.

ArtsATL: Atlanta Opera last performed The Flying Dutchman in 2009, and you were stage director, but this is an entirely new production this November. What is really unique or special about it?

Zvulun: First of all, the scale of the production itself is tremendous. The chorus is a very large chorus, often as many as 60 people on stage. Senta’s world is very confining and depressing, very monochromatic: a big factory, with a massive 32-foot wall at the back.

Zvulun says opera’s “ivory tower” is no longer viable for modern audiences.

ArtsATL: An industrialized world.

Zvulun: In Act II it is, but she escapes in her mind into an incredible, romantic world where it’s all fantasy, so it’s transformed, you see, with the aid of multimedia into a completely different world when the Dutchman arrives. Her escape is this fantasy of the Flying Dutchman.

In Act I, which is the storm, it is a completely abstract sea and storm, with a tremendous dynamic feeling to it, really aided by multimedia, again. You’ve got that wall, and you got the action and the projections, and when the Dutchman is coming in, this tremendous red sail’s coming into it.

Act III moves us into this romantic Wagnerian world. The two of them are meeting, and it almost ends like a Hollywood ending – this is where she commits suicide. She climbs up to the top of that wall, and she jumps from it.

ArtsATL: So there’s this dichotomy between fantasy and harsh reality — harsh fantasy and harsh reality.

Zvulun: This is another interesting aspect of it. You know there’s a lot of ghosts in it, and those ghosts are going to be multiplied by dozens of projections, so there will be real actors playing the ghosts, but in addition to them there will be . . .

ArtsATL: . . . projected virtual ghosts?

Zvulun: . . . everywhere, and you will not know where they start and where they end.

ArtsATL: In the end, opera, even old ones, reflect our current times, so it remains a viable, living art form.

Zvulun says the opera will continue to look at alternate spaces that proved so successful with Maria de Buenos Aires at Paris On Ponce.

Zvulun: Yes. In terms of the company, there is a certain innovation that is, that has been going on in the past five years, and it continues to grow — innovation and collaboration. Our Discovery Series is now going to Theatrical Outfit, [and] it returns to Paris on Ponce at the Beltline. Our Magic Flute, our education show, is now with the Center for Puppetry Arts. It has puppets in it. It’s a version for families in English.

ArtsATL: So it’s still centered in grand opera, but spreading out a lot more into the general culture, the general population — not such an isolated art form.

Zvulun: No. The ivory tower is no longer viable. The Discovery Series has allowed us to spread out into this whole city. And I want to go on record and quote the amount of places that we have performed in the past five years. Think about it: Emory University, Kennesaw State University, the Alliance Theatre, the Rialto Theatre, the Conant Center at Oglethorpe University, Theatrical Outfit, Paris on Ponce on the Beltline, Atlanta Botanical Gardens, the High Museum — the list goes on and on. What is incredible about the Atlanta Opera is it is now “the people’s opera.” It is no longer the exclusive group of people that now go to the Cobb Energy Center. Everybody wants to see what we do, and where people are attracted the most is to those unique opportunities to see things in unusual spaces. Last season’s Maria de Buenos Aires was a great example of that, a tango opera in an old brothel. It worked pretty well.

ArtsATL: What are your thoughts on the rest of the season?

Zvulun: We continue our mainstage season in late February with a fresh production of Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment. That marks the return of the wonderful Argentinian tenor Santiago Ballerini, who stepped in at the last minute and saved our performance of Don Pasquale last year when our tenor got sick. He was the cover; he did a marvelous job.

This will mark Stephanie Blythe’s first time at the Atlanta Opera. She sings The Marquise. This also marks the return of Stefano de Peppo, who was here for The Barber of Seville a few years ago. He sings Sulpice, and Marie is sung by this wonderful up-and-coming ingenue named Andriana Chuchman, who sang the role at Washington National Opera last year. The Daughter of the Regiment will be directed by Lorin Meeker and conducted by Christopher Alan.

Zvulun says the upcoming season is intended to be in tune with the times.

Then at the end of April we will perform Bizet’s Carmen. People are already going crazy in terms of ticket sales in anticipation because it is arguably the most famous opera, and it has an incredible cast. Most exciting is the return of this phenomenal Italian tenor, Gianluca Terranova, who was [an] immense success in Turandot as Calaf and Rudolfo in La bohème. It will be his [role] debut as Don Jose. It will also be the company debut of mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde, an east European starlet, and the return of Edward Parks as Escamillo, fresh from singing the title role in the world premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs at Santa Fe Opera. Micaëla will be sung by an Atlanta favorite, Nicole Cabell, who sang Juliet [in Romeo & Juliet] and [Pamina in] The Magic Flute. Arthur Fagen, our music director, is conducting, and Brenna Corner, who is an alumni of our studio artist program, is directing.

The other Discovery Series [production, in April] will be an incredible event, and that is the fully staged world premiere of Jake Heggie’s Out of Darkness. It’s a story about persecution of the LGBT community and the Jewish community during the Holocaust. It is a two-act, spectacular opera that he wrote with his collaborator Gene Scheer. They are also responsible for Three Decembers that we did here a few years ago. It is a collaboration with Theatrical Outfit, and as a matter of fact, their wonderful artistic director Tom Key is one of the stars in the show.

Then we close our mainstage season [in June] with the Atlanta Opera premiere of Sweeney Todd. It’s the original Broadway production, the one that Angela Lansbury starred in in 1979, but we are doing an new version of it. I’m directing it. It’s for two casts — that is, two Sweeneys. One is Shuler Hensley, the famous Broadway performer, in his company debut. The second one is Michael Mayes, who was the quintessential Joseph De Rocher in Heggie’s opera, Dead Man Walking. He has been seen in Walking all over the world, a phenomenal performer who is making his Atlanta Opera debut. The role of Mrs. Levitt is going to be sung by Meredith Arwady, and there are a bunch of supporting roles. I’m very exited about Vanessa Becerra, who is singing Joanna. Joseph La Conte is singing Anthony. Tom Fox is returning for Judge Turpin, and the conductor is Tim Meyers, who’s also making his Atlanta Opera debut and is conducting Bernstein’s West Side Story this season at Houston Opera.

ArtsATL: What is the common thread that runs through all of these productions? What ties them all together?

Zvulun: I feel like this season is very attuned to our times in a way because there is a line going through the season that really talks about the “outsider,” the character of the outsider. Obviously Out of Darkness is about the persecution of gays and Jews; Sweeney Todd is a consummate outsider; Carmen is about a gypsy that runs away.

ArtsATL: The Dutchman is certainly an outsider. 

Zvulun: That sort of absolute outsider. With Daughter of the Regiment, you can find the outsider if you look, a woman in the middle of a [company] of men, but that stretches it a little bit. Seven Deadly Sins is definitely about an outsider, an immigrant who comes to America and views those seven deadly sins in seven different regions. I think it says something about the season.