Singing in the Rain | Brunswick

Singing in the Rain

Tomer Zvulun, the young stage director and General Director of The Atlanta Opera, talks to the Brunswick Review about the challenges the company faced, including a hurricane, to offer live performances in the 2020-21 season.

Prior to the pandemic, Tomer Zvulun was already well known as one of the leading young stage directors in the US opera community. A native of Israel, he spent seven seasons at the Metropolitan Opera and led successful runs of productions for the Seattle Opera and many others. He came to The Atlanta Opera company in 2013 as General and Artistic Director and there, his leadership has reshaped the company into one of the most successful in the country. That turnaround was the subject of a case study by Harvard Business School, and he was invited to film a TED talk on the topic of innovation in opera.

Yet it was in the crisis of the pandemic that Zvulun and The Atlanta Opera shone brightest. Most opera companies around the world felt forced to close in response to coronavirus restrictions, furloughing staff and leaving artists, typically freelance workers, to fend for themselves. The Atlanta Opera refused that option, pushing forward instead with an ambitious program of scaled-down productions held outdoors under a large circus tent with open sides, with a rigorous regime of testing and social distancing for all involved. And they launched a full-scale video production, including streaming capacity to share those performances and others created at a variety of venues, as widely as possible, marketing them under a newly created Spotlight Media site.

The company also put some of its idled functions to work in service to the community: Its costume shop made masks and other PPE for healthcare workers; its vocal artists were coordinated to create singing telegrams that could be commissioned and sent electronically to those isolated from their loved ones.

Classical music performance organizations typically handle event scheduling a year or more in advance. By choosing to address the changed conditions of the pandemic in the moment, The Atlanta Opera was throwing itself into uncharted territory. As one of the only opera companies in the world offering performances live, and one of only a few with a robust online offering, the group won international attention, in the Financial Times and other outlets.

The crisis measures Tomer and the company put in place during the pandemic have transformed his company, in ways that may set an importance precedent for the opera community in reaching a new generation of audiences. As performances return to the indoor theater, the “Big Tent” series will continue, hosting productions under The Atlanta Opera’s Discovery series. That series has become a vehicle to explore new works by young composers and aspects of the repertoire relevant to our time. One work performed during the pandemic, for instance, was Kaiser from Atlantis, a little performed one-act opera written in a Nazi concentration camp, by a composer who was later killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. It was programmed alongside Pagliacci, a short tragedy from the standard repertoire involving characters in a traveling circus.

The art of the circus is something that inspires me. It didn’t matter what kind of crisis was in the world. From World War II to the Great Depression, circuses popped up like mushrooms. You were able to go in and get lost in this glamorous world, even while outside everything is falling apart.

“The two pieces that we’ll be doing on that series in the coming season are looking at sexual fluidity and accepting people and encourage them to come as they are,” Tomer tells the Review. “Laura Kaminsky’s As One, from 2014, which is the story of a transgender young person; and the musical Cabaret, which is, again, about sexual fluidity, the dangers inherent in not accepting the other, in not accepting diversity. It also involves the rise of fascism, specifically Nazism.”

We spoke to Tomer about this rapid evolution of The Atlanta Opera, and about handling a hurricane and the other unusual challenges of the Big Tent productions. We also talked about how the future looks for him, for the opera world in general, and for the cultural life of the city he calls home.

What set The Atlanta Opera apart in handling the pandemic? How were you able to confront the problems head on when others weren’t?
First of all, there’s a certain ethos in this company that believes that the obstacle is the way—the stoic idea that the greatest inventions come in situations that are so far from perfect that you have to invent something new. What can we do to create a new performance experience that can work in the pandemic? That attitude, that perseverance is what led to all those innovations.

We talked to epidemiologists who said outside is safer than inside. So we said, “Well, OK, let’s buy a circus tent and open the sides.” So we’re literally outside with a roof over our heads. The art of the circus is something that inspires me. It didn’t matter what kind of crisis was in the world. From World War II to the Great Depression, circuses popped up like mushrooms. You were able to go in and get lost in this glamorous world, even while outside everything is falling apart.

So many people are involved in any opera production—unions, performers, boards, subscribers. Did factions develop? Was there a lot of pushback?
I’m super-lucky that I have a board of directors that trusts management. So very early on, we had serious discussions about the options that were on the table: hibernate for who knows how long, which would mean cutting off most of your budget, letting most people go; or find an innovative way to get through this.

My board and my management team were completely on the same page. It was like, “We cannot afford to close. The world needs performances right now more than ever.” The product didn’t need to be as perfect as we would do normally. Performing in the fall of 2020, there was no expectation like that. The fact that we were able to do 20 performances of Pagliacci, and Kaiser from Atlantis, and three concerts—that was the achievement.

There were no factions. The board, the management were unifed, moving forward. The orchestra got on board. The stagehands were thrilled to be able to be employed. In the middle of it, there was a hurricane. It was Hurricane Zeta that hit the tent in the middle of performances. But even then, stagehands were talking about pushing forward despite the obstacles.

In a large sense, you sort of had the weather on your side in Georgia. An outdoor season in the winter in New York for instance might not have been possible. But the downside is you had a hurricane to contend with.
It’s warmer in Georgia than elsewhere on the East Coast, but it’s a stretch to say the weather was on our side. There were hurricanes. There was torrential rain going on. There was the sound from the train, which was not far away. There are airplanes flying overhead. There were some problems with bugs that we didn’t know we were going to have. There were just obstacles left and right.

It’s a matter of your mindset. If your mind tells you that when there are obstacles you should shut down, that’s your choice. If your mind and the ethos of the company tell you that when there’s an obstacle, there’s an opportunity, you will find a way.

You put safety protocols in place to prevent the spread of the virus. Can you describe that process?
The protocols were there not to prevent an infection. You cannot prevent an infection. You can prevent an outbreak. That was the whole point. There are 37 pages of protocols from masks at all time, even for singers, to social distancing, including staging. Where there is no social distancing then you had to have barriers. So we had those Plexiglas barriers for the orchestra, and vinyl barriers for singers onstage. The audience had to be in pods with six feet between those pods. The audience had to undergo a temperature check when they arrive. They have to fill out a survey about whether they got sick. The singers and the whole crew were divided into groups. Some groups had to be tested every week, some had to be tested once.

Tomer 880X560

Tomer Zvulun is the young stage director and General Director of The Atlanta Opera.

The opening night of Pagliacci in the big tent—there must have been a lot of anxiety that the safety protocols were going to be effective and that it was all going to work?
The anxiety accompanied us until closing night in the fall. It was scary as all hell. We didn’t know as much back in October as we know now. But we trusted the scientists that we hired, the epidemiologists, to tell us what the protocols should be, and we clung to them.

There’s something about live performance that is extremely moving. We heard a lot of accounts in the past year and a half on the emotional impact of finally hearing live music again. People have tears in their eyes when they finally hear or see a performance. So yes, we were scared, but it felt significant to be one of the only opera companies in the world doing that in middle of the pandemic. It had meaning for people. That was a big deal.

What are you keeping of the innovations from the pandemic?
First is the tent. We sold out all of the tent performances of Carmen. You couldn’t get a ticket. Half of the people that came had never come to the opera before. So there’s a huge opportunity there for new audiences. Moving forward, the tent is going to come back because it’s a great way to introduce people to the art form.

The second thing is digital. We never shot our productions before. We had archival performances, but we never had high-quality, high-definition films of our operas. Now, everything is filmed and the competencies that were created in the pandemic are going to accompany us into the future.

How does that work financially? Are you able to generate revenue from digital performances?
Online performances have multiple ways that they can be monetized. Subscriptions is one—the Atlanta Opera Spotlight Media platform, where we charge for membership, just like Netflix, or Hulu, or Amazon. We have hundreds of new subscribers from all over the world that never came to Atlanta but now they can watch our productions wherever they are. So that’s a source of revenue. We discovered during the pandemic, that Georgia has a major tax credits system for companies that produce film, so that’s an advantage. Then there is third-party distribution, through selling advertising, for instance. TV stations want to purchase our content. Streaming platforms will pay for licensing our products.

Can you talk about choosing Threepenny Opera and Carmen for this series? Both of those stories deal with people on the lowest rungs of society exerting what little power they have. Was that intentional?
Absolutely intentional. The spirit that hovers over the whole season is the spirit of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht [the composer and librettist, respectively, of Threepenny Opera]. Kurt Weill believed opera needed to reflect its time. He lived in a time that was very similar to ours—the ’20s, after his Spanish Flu pandemic, after World War I. Threepenny Opera was created in 1928.

The spirit of that time is marginalized society, society on the brink of starvation—that’s the Weimar Republic. It’s very dire outside, but inside it is hot, it’s great. Carmen in its way is also about marginalized societies—the Roma, a group they called the gypsies at the time. So there’s something about the theme that really felt right.

In a threepenny world, you can’t afford to do grand opera. In our world, it’s not economics really, but from a safety standpoint you can’t afford it—80 people on stage, a chorus of kids, multiple dancers and supers, an orchestra of 70. So instead it’s billed as “Threepenny Carmen.” It was shortened to 90 minutes, with an orchestra of 10. There was an element of scrappiness in it. And that’s the idea of the whole season.

What’s been the outcome of all this for fundraising?
Absolutely a banner year in terms of supporting the opera company. We have new donors. The board members stepped forward and gave us even more than before. There was a certain ethos, as I said earlier. We’re building that ethos for this company—on all levels from the management, to the staff, to the board of a company—an ethos that finds a way, perseverance, grit, something that people connect to, innovation, invention, scrappiness. And people believe in that.

How does that translate into other challenges, like diversity, which is a huge element for most of the classical community right now?
Diversity starts on stage—the performers, what you choose to program. When people feel comfortable with the people they see on stage, they show up and diversity’s created in the audience, in the board, in the staff. If we only do shows that don’t feature diverse performances, that will never happen.

The reason I’m attracted to opera myself is that you take a show like Carmen—set in Seville in Spain, written by a French composer, directed by an Israeli dude, conducted by an Argentine conductor, choreographed by a Venezuelan choreographer and starring an African American (soprano Jasmine Habersham as Micaëla), with a Flamenco dancer from Spain (Sonia Olla). We choose to celebrate diversity in cultures. That’s why we do operas, because operas talk about different cultures.

For the classical community in general, the conversation around diversity now feels new. I don’t recall conversations like this happening 10 or even five years ago. People are saying, we want to be more diverse—in the repertoire, in the casting—and to make sure that we’re sensitive in the way that we're presenting it. Diversity is the air we’re breathing now. So it is changing—it takes time, but you have to start somewhere.

We’re building that ethos for this company—on all levels from the management, to the staff, to the board of a company—an ethos that finds a way, perseverance, grit, something that people connect to, innovation, invention, scrappiness. And people believe in that.

How is the repertoire changing? I’m not familiar with The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, a work in your 2021-22 season.
Masterpiece. It’s incredible. Written by Mark Campbell and Mason Bates, and the subject is of course one of the most iconic people in the 20th or 21st centuries, a fascinating character who is really flawed. He’s like a character from Greek mythology, with all the talent and the powers, standing at the intersection between high tech on the one hand and meditation and zen on the other, who still touches all of our lives with this technology. Mason Bates’ music is so exciting. He has influences of techno and digital music. He’s actually a DJ in his spare time. The music is so lyrical at times and so propulsive, infectious and modern.

How did you come to the Metropolitan Opera and then to Atlanta?
I started in the Israeli Opera, doing all things. I was an usher. I was a stagehand. I was a stage manager. I was an assistant director. I just grew up there in the theater. I had plans to go to medical school and I was accepted. I was on the way.

But I just realized that this is my life. So instead I went to school to study music and art in Tel Aviv in the Open University. Then I was lucky enough to come to Boston University as a visiting scholar to the Opera Institute there and spent three years working as an assistant director and stage manager on multiple productions there.

From there, I started making my way into regional circles, like the Opera Theater of Saint Louis. I assisted Colin Graham, who was a mentor in Saint Louis and he worked at the Met. And many other directors who really influenced me, like Stephen Wadsworth.

Then it became a Cinderella story. And at the age of 30, I was offered my first contract at the Met and assisted Stephen on a production of Iphigénie en Tauride. So, you know, six years after I came to the states, suddenly I'm directing Placido Domingo at the Met in a revival of Iphigénie. The Met offered me a contract for a stage director there. And at the same time, my mentor Speight Jenkins offered me a production in Seattle. That was the watershed moment. A lot of productions came my way. I stayed at the Met for seven years, which is the best school for how to work with singers, how to work with designers.

From there, I was tapped by Atlanta Opera to be the general director. Had no idea how to run a company. (LAUGHTER) Learned on the job. And then my board was smart enough to send me to get my executive MBA at Harvard Business School, which was amazing. I’ve been in Atlanta for eight years now. And I love what I do.

How do you see the future of The Atlanta Opera, post-pandemic?
Firing on all cylinders. The competencies that were created here during the pandemic are going to serve us very well in the future. It’s going to be a company that does tremendous main stage productions along with alternative productions, from a circus tent to shows at the Botanical Gardens and other unusual locations. We believe in immersive experiences. And then, on the other hand, a digital focus—from streaming platforms to podcasts to audio recordings, et cetera—to serve a new generation.

Where do you see your career going from here?
I am really happy here. I had opportunities to go a few other places. But I’m super happy where I am. I believe in a balance of work and life. I have a great family that I’m very devoted to, and I have a great company here and a great town. I’m committed to this city.

Who knows what the future holds? But I believe in doing well where you are in the moment. Be here now.

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Carlton Wilkinson is the Managing Editor of the Brunswick Review. He is a former journalist, an award-winning columnist on music for TheStreet and the Asbury Park Press, and holds a Ph.D. in Music.

Photography credits: (top) Jeff Roffman; (bottom) Patrick Heagney.