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.