As the pandemic raged and shut down live performances worldwide, the Atlanta Opera’s Tomer Zvulun took inspiration from composer Kurt Weill, who once said, “If the boundaries of opera cannot accommodate the theater of our time, then these boundaries must be broken.” The company pushed those boundaries over the past year when it purchased a circus tent and gained national attention as the only major opera company in North America to stage live productions during the pandemic shutdown of 2020.
Zvulun, the company’s general and artistic director, is relieved that the opera will return to its home base—the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre—this fall with a production of Julius Caesar, followed in January with The Pirates of Penzance. Also on tap is perennial favorite The Barber of Seville in March and The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs in May. The opera will return to the tent in late spring with two productions: Cabaret and As One.
Zvulun planned the season as a tonic to the turmoil of the past 18 months. “This is an escapist season that is not about grand opera; it’s a transition year,” he says. “We decided to open with Julius Caesar. It focuses on the love story between Caesar and Cleopatra and sweeps you away with hope and optimism that love conquers all. We wanted to have an optimistic season, fun and inspiring.”
Zvulun, 45, was born in Israel and fell in love with opera through the Ingmar Bergman film The Magic Flute. He served as an army medic and planned to become a doctor. Instead, as his passion for opera grew, he focused his studies on the arts and stagecraft. He emigrated to the United States in 2001 and, by 2007, was working at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
In 2013, Zvulun took the helm of a sleepy opera company with a $5 million annual budget. The Atlanta Opera has blossomed under his care. It has gone from producing three shows a year to six. He has brought in fresh, updated versions of the classics and coupled them with provocative modern pieces such as the haunting Holocaust-themed Out of Darkness, starring veteran Atlanta actor Tom Key.
The organization’s budget has more than doubled, and the Atlanta Opera has transformed into a company that has gained international notice, where top performers are drawn by its spirit of creative adventure.
One way the company has broken traditions is with its innovative Discoveries series— shows that are staged in smaller, more intimate venues, such as performances held for several years at La Maison Rouge inside Paris on Ponce—intended to court new fans to the world of opera. In the months before the pandemic, the company was preparing to take another leap: presenting Das Rheingold, the first installment of Wagner’s Ring cycle—four operas believed by many to be the greatest musical accomplishment in history and perhaps the most ambitious to stage.
Then came March 2020. The opera was performing Porgy and Bess, starring Atlanta native Morris Robinson, when it had to close midproduction. Medical experts told Zvulun that the moratorium on indoor performances might last as long as two years. The prospect of shuttering the company for that long was not acceptable.
“We decided to use this adversity and transform it into opportunity,” Zvulun says. “We knew being outside was safer than inside. We started thinking of the idea of perseverance and the idea that came to my mind was the idea of a circus.”
Zvulun was drawn to both the practicalities and symbolism of the circus. With health protocols in place for performers (onstage masks, plexiglass booths) and the audience (masks, social distancing, temperature checks), it would be possible to safely stage productions in the open air under a big tent. He took inspiration from the history of the circus as an escape from troubled times. “In the Great Depression, in World War II, circuses would pop up just outside the rail station to provide some refuge and escape for people devastated by reality,” he says.
The opera purchased a massive circus tent and staged six concerts and four outdoor productions. In the fall, they staged Pagliacci, a story about, appropriately, a traveling troupe of clowns, and The Kaiser of Atlantis on the Oglethorpe University baseball field. (A hurricane blew through during one performance.) Then, in the spring, the opera presented The Threepenny Carmen and The Threepenny Opera in a parking lot at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, the latter rounding out its cast with puppets from the Center for Puppetry Arts. The opera sold out most of the Cobb performances and had to add extra seats and standing room. Zvulun says half of those attendees were new fans.
Through a $500,000 Lettie Pate Evans Foundation grant, the opera also invested in its own streaming service. It built an editing studio and hired videographer Felipe Barral to capture all four tent shows, along with concerts and original documentaries for streaming. The films, still available on the company’s website, earned a laudatory review in the Wall Street Journal and will remain a mainstay of future seasons.
Decisions are still being made about house capacity for Julius Caesar in November. If the pandemic continues to surge, Zvulun says his company knows what to do. He will lean into one certainty about the boundaries of opera. “Sometimes,” he says, “the obstacle is the way.”
Scott Freeman is the executive editor of ArtsATL. He formerly worked at Atlanta magazine and is the author of four books, including biographies of the Allman Brothers and Otis Redding.
This article appears in our September 2021 issue.