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The Atlanta Opera will return home when it raises up its “Big Tent” series for two iconic operas in April in the parking lot of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre for a pandemic-shortened spring season.

The opera has not performed inside its Cobb Energy home since last March, when the pandemic shut down the venue in the middle of the company’s two-week run of Porgy and Bess. Tomer Zvulun, the opera’s general and artistic director, says he is hopeful the opera can return to the Cobb Energy stage this fall.

“It feels like we’ve been in exile,” he says. “In April, we’re going back home. We won’t be inside, but it’s like we will actually be able to see the promised land from where we’ll set up the tent.”

The opera will return April 15 for two world premiere adaptations of classic operas, a flamenco-style The Threepenny Carmen and The Threepenny Opera. The productions will be performed in repertory, on alternating nights, with nine performances of The Threepenny Carmen and six performances of The Threepenny Opera.

Actor Tom Key will play narrator roles in both opera productions this fall. (Courtesy of Theatrical Outfit)

Both productions will be filmed for late summer distribution on Spotlight Media, the digital streaming service the opera created during the pandemic. “What COVID revealed is that digital offerings are not just optional, they’re a necessity,” says Zvulun. “The crisis was the impetus for that. We’re not wasting this crisis. Digital is not just a patch for 2020, it’s given us the infrastructure for the opera company of tomorrow. Once we’re back to performing normally, digital will become a huge strategic focus for us.”

Zvulun says the two operas were chosen to reflect the times. “Both productions are about society in starvation, communities on the fringe or marginalized. Opera is so often considered an elitist art form. It actually started as a ‘peoples art form’ with women in Italy washing clothes in the river and singing.”

The productions will feature members of the Atlanta Opera Company Players. The Threepenny Opera will also include flamenco superstar Sonia Olla, and both productions will have noted Atlanta stage actor Tom Key in narration roles — Key appeared in the opera’s Out of Darkness in 2018. Threepenny will feature puppets created by the Center for Puppetry Arts.

The “Big Tent” series will also include three concerts. On April 17, the “Crossroads — The Sequel” concert will explore the country, bluegrass and blues influences on American popular music. On May 8, “The Concert for Unity” will celebrate Black music. A third concert, as yet untitled, is scheduled for May 1.

Zvulun adapted both operas.

Carmen is perhaps the greatest opera in the canon, he says, and he directed it when he was at the Metropolitan Opera. “It’s a grand opera,” he says. “We’ll take it down to four small scenes. The story is about freedom. What is freedom and what is sexual freedom? It was written in 1875, and the world is different now.”

Tomer Zvulun

Tomer Zvulun adapted both productions to make them leaner and shorter.

He worked six months in consultation with the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music to adapt The Threepenny Opera. Weill wrote the opera, which premiered in 1928, with lyricist Bertolt Brecht. “Brecht was telling harsh truths about corrupt capitalism,” Zvulun says. “Weill came and delivered it in a sweet, tuneful way.” The traditional version is nearly three hours long; this one will be condensed to 90 minutes.

It’s supposed be on the scale of a big, Broadway musical with dozens of singers and actors. “But how do you do that in COVID?” Zvulun asks. “We’re using puppets for the chorus. Part of that is COVID, but it’s also a storytelling device.”

Zvulun says Weill has been the underlying theme of the opera’s innovative “Big Tent” series, which began with critically acclaimed fall productions of Pagliacci and Kaiser of Atlantis under a circus tent on the baseball diamond at Oglethorpe University with social distancing and health safeguards devised by a team led by Emory University’s Dr. Carlos del Rio.

Both productions began with the Weill–Brecht song “Mack the Knife.” Weill once said, “If the boundaries of opera cannot accommodate the theater of our time, then these boundaries must be broken.” Zvulun says those words have inspired the opera since the pandemic shut down live performances worldwide. The Atlanta Opera was the only major opera company in North America to stage shows last fall.

“We had to break the boundaries so we could perform,” Zvulun says. “Out of this deconstruction something beautiful emerged. We saw it as an exciting opportunity rather than looking at it as a setback.”

The opera purchased a custom-made circus tent without walls so that fresh air can circulate. The venue will have a capacity of 200 audience members, with small casts and reduced orchestrations. As in last fall, entry times will be staggered. Audience members will be required to wear masks, and health-screening surveys and temperature checks will be conducted.

The opera is putting plans for the 2021–22 season in place, and expects to be back inside its Cobb Energy home. But the company is prepared to pivot if necessary. 

“Our tent will be in Cobb Energy’s parking lot,” Zvulun says. “It’s a symbolic choice. We can look out and say, ‘Over there is where we belong and we’ll be back sometime soon.’”

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