The Atlanta Opera's general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun, with The BIg Tent and the Cobb Energy Centre in the background. (credit: Felipe Barral / TAO)

Safety comes first as The Atlanta Opera continues to innovate with live performances under The Big Tent

A conversation with TAO’s general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun

Mark Gresham | 13 APR 2021 (posted 6:00am EDT; updated 3:45pm EDT)

This Thursday, April 15, The Atlanta Opera opens its spring 2021 season of live performances. Due to the lingering coronavirus pandemic, the performances will again all be held outdoors in the company’s Big Tent, as they were in the fall of 2020, only this time on the campus of their pre-pandemic home venue, the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, located northwest of Atlanta, just outside the city limits. EarRelevant’s Mark Gresham recently spoke by telephone with Tomer Zvulun, TAO’s general and artistic director, about what the company is bringing to the table in terms of continued safety and new artistic innovation for their two upcoming operas: Threepenny Carmen (a scaled-down production of Bizet’s ever popular Carmen, opening April 15) and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (opening April 22), as well as three different Saturday matinee concerts. The following Q&A is drawn from that conversation, and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mark Gresham: First, would you mind telling us, Tomer, about the overarching theme that The Atlanta Opera’s 2021 spring season shares with the innovative fall 2020 Big Tent Series productions that drew the company international attention during the ongoing pandemic.

Tomer Zvulun: The overarching theme for this whole season is based on a Kurt Weill quote that has been an inspiration for us this whole time, and that is: “If the boundaries of opera cannot accommodate the theater of our time, then these boundaries must be broken.” I feel like we’ve been breaking boundaries at every turn. When we planned this whole year, I knew that I wanted to do Threepenny Opera as the cornerstone for this season because there’s something about the times in which it was written, the style of the piece, the story, that really reminds me of the times that we are in right now. It’s the twenties of another century but still the twenties, and that kind of inspiration led to having the spirit of Kurt Weill hovering over the whole season.

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MG: For these two operas coming up, the Threepenny Carmen opening this Thursday, and The Threepenny Opera opening next Thursday, you’ve had to reduce the size of the productions due to the circumstances that continue to be presented by the pandemic, but could you talk about how how you chose these particular shows?

TZ: All productions this season must be done in a condensed and reduced way because of COVID. Our model of dealing with the pandemic is minimizing the risk. Making sure there is no outbreak is still the most important part of our performances. In order to do that, as we did in the fall, we’re performing outdoors under the Big Tent.  Our shows have no intermission, a show lasts only 100 minutes or 90 minutes ideally, our shows have reduced orchestra of 10 or 15 players and no chorus. The chorus that we had in Pagliacci was “canned” in the video Zoom way.

Both Carmen and Threepenny Opera have choruses but we have different solutions for that. The solution in Threepenny Opera is using over 20 puppets and puppeteers and in Carmen is having with us Flamenco dancers who will enhance the spectacle. That’s the reason why those two pieces, that are both uber-popular and very, very beautiful musically, have been chosen and performed the way that they are.

l-r: Tomer Zvulun in rehearsal for "Threepenny Carmen" with Flamenco dancer Sonia Olla and mezzo-soprano Megan Marino. (credit: Felipe Barral)

l-r: Tomer Zvulun in rehearsal for “Threepenny Carmen” with Flamenco dancer Sonia Olla and mezzo-soprano Megan Marino. (credit: Felipe Barral)

MG: What did you learn since the fall that you’re applying to the spring operas and concerts, both artistically and in terms of audience and company safety?

TZ: The fall was extremely successful from a safety standpoint. We were one of the only companies in the world to perform live during the pandemic in 2020 and really the only opera company in America to have two full productions and three concerts – 20 performances. I mean, that’s huge. That is something we’re very proud of, and we want to continue the streak of safety success.

All the protocols are kept in place, despite the fact that we are safer now than we were in the fall. Now that there are more vaccines available, most of us are vaccinated, and there’s a smaller number of infections. But we want to be above and beyond in terms of the safety of our donors, the public, and our staff and performers, so we’re keeping all those safety regulations.

Talking about lessons, the big, big lesson that we learned is there is no replacement for live performance. While digital is something that we’re very much focusing on, we are very focused on trying to figure out a way to perform despite the challenges. That’s number one.

In rehearsal for a scene Carmen at The Atlanta Opera's home rehearsal studio. (credit: Felipe Barral)

In rehearsal for a scene from Carmen at The Atlanta Opera’s home rehearsal studio. (credit: Felipe Barral)

That said, number two is that there is no replacement for the acoustics of the Cobb Energy Center or a theater, and you just have to embrace the idea that the sound is never going to be as engulfing and beautiful and lush, but the fact that we are performing live and that there is a theatrical entertainment event happening is the opportunity here. So, the obstacle is the way. And there’s a big focus on the design, on the theatricality of the productions, on the acting, on the costumes, the sets, the projections, and of course on the music. But until we are back in the performance space, singing without masks, it’s not going to be the pristine sound that you came to expect in an opera house, and that has to be okay.

MG: You’ve always had a more comprehensive theatrical approach to opera rather than the familiar “stand there and sing” approach, and it really suits our current times better, I believe, so it would seem that more inventive theatrical elements would be a necessary part of your productions this season, especially now in the spring.

TZ: I’m super excited about it. Look, I love opera because it’s a combination of all the art forms from design to voice to music, to cinema, to dance, to puppetry. We had a show in the fall with circus performers. The passion that I have for the fact that these productions are cross-pollinating many art forms is not new to me. We miss the sound in the theater, there’s no way around it. But there is no alternative right now. We can’t perform in the theater with full chorus and full orchestra so what are we going to do? Are we not going to perform? We’ve got to perform and we’re going to make lemonade out of those lemons that we were given.

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MG: Obstacles often create opportunity for creativity.

TZ: Actually, the pandemic created so many opportunities in terms of storytelling, in terms of activating alternative ways to perform safely, from activating the puppets in Threepenny Opera and Pagliacci to involving Flamenco dancers in Carmen, to involving circus performers in The Kaiser of Atlantis. To me it’s exciting, and we look forward to the day that all restrictions are going to be removed and we see the light at the end of the tunnel.

MG: Given that, some people might suggest that there is a creative “silver lining” to all of this, all of these obstacles and difficulties caused by the pandemic. How do you respond to that?

TZ: I think “silver lining” is a disservice to the actual situation. “Silver lining” is problematic because it basically says that there’s just a sliver of a silver lining here, you know, like if the situation is really bad and woe is us, but we try to find some positives here.

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To me, there is incredible burst of creativity and opportunity and beauty, and rather than missing what can be – and will be in the future – we prefer to focus on the immense possibilities that are ahead of us right now.

That’s what we did in the fall and had a great time doing Pagliacci and The Kaiser of Atlantis. I’m having a ball coming up with this zany Threepenny Opera starring the Center for Puppetry Arts, our Company Players performers and Tom Key; and a Flamenco version of Carmen that is blood, sweat and tears with the Company Players, our musicians and Flamenco dancers.

So I don’t like the term “silver lining.” I just think this is the situation. It is what it is and the obstacle is to wait. What we’re doing is a new art form, basically; a new product. It’s opera in a circus tent that is told in a fresh way, that takes all those restrictions and harnesses them for creativity rather than apologizing for the situation that we’re in.

The Big Tent and TAO's artistic "village" that surrounds it, seen from above. (credit: Felipe Barral)

On the campus of Cobb Energy Center: The Big Tent and TAO’s artistic “village” that surrounds it, seen from above. (credit: Felipe Barral)

MG: When we get to that point where you can go back into an indoor hall, of any size, what do you think you’ve learned from this season or are learning from this season that can be reapplied to a post-pandemic world.

TZ: We learned a ton. We learned that there is no replacement for live performance. As cliché as that sounds, it is the absolute truth. We miss live performance. We appreciate being on film, but this fall really has proven that the energy that comes from the stage and back to the stage from the audience is irreplaceable and we can’t wait to be back with our fans and with our chorus and our orchestra.

The other side of it is, while you are not going to replace live performance, digital is the future. Digital is a very important supplement and accompaniment for everything that we do. We are going to have a huge focus on broadcasting our digital productions that are now available as part of our Spotlight Media. With a huge focus on film, we created some capabilities with Felipe Barral and other professionals. We invested in equipment, in cameras and a green screen, so all this will be brought up to our operations in the future.

Then there are some important questions about what kind of experience the audience wants to have. The success of the fall Big Tent Series and the success of the spring series here – we’re already selling out like hot cakes – indicates that the audience wants to be surprised. That’s the reason that the Discoveries series that is now entering its eighth season has had such success. Audiences in Atlanta and perhaps worldwide are not only going for the proscenium experience: they want to be delighted and surprised and they like thinking out of the box. As we continue to move forward in a world that will have fewer restrictions, I know that our creativity is going to continue to come up with solutions and new ideas that will delight and attract new audiences. ■