Being a general and artistic director for any opera company is quite a massive challenge. Especially a growing one like the Atlanta Opera. Now imagine giving yourself another massive job on top of such, say director of three productions for your upcoming season.
Most people would balk at the proposition, but not Tomer Zvulun who is not only running the Atlanta Opera but throwing his creative genius behind three high profile productions for the 2017-18 season.
It’s really nothing new for Zvulun, who started out as a medic in the Army on a path to become a doctor before dropping out to pursue his career as a director. Eventually, he got the chance to move into the managerial side of things, ultimately choosing to find a balance for his two passions. His vision has been a major reason behind the successes of such operas as “Silent Night,” for which he created a new production.
This upcoming season he brings three completely different works to life, the first being Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer” and the latter being Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and Jake Heggie’s “Out of Darkness.”
Two Years Plus
He’s been working on these productions for the last two years, noting in a recent interview with OperaWire that his first step was to sit with the text.
“So for ‘The Dutchman,’ I not only go through the libretto but also looked through the biography of Richard Wagner and the performance history of the opera. Then I go into just text with character and scene breakdowns. I ask the big questions: Why are they there? What do they want? ” he noted. “Then we ask other questions? Why are we telling that story? What do we want audiences to take away from that story?”
From there the team starts to design the piece, with Zvulun noting that he places tremendous care in who he picks to be the costume, light and set designers.
“Then we have more meetings and we ask even more questions. Where are we? What do we want to tell? Why tell it? Do we want a traditional telling? How could we push the envelope? What are the audience expectations?”
The first overall is focused on preliminary designs, climaxing in a presentation that takes place before the first rehearsal. Three weeks of rehearsal eventually ensue before the entire piece is put together on the stage.
This is how Zvulun has learned to work throughout his career and exactly how he is approaching Wagner’s early masterpiece.
Conceptually, Zvulun revealed that his main point of focus is the juxtaposition between the mundanity of the real world and the fantastical one that obsesses its protagonist Senta.
“Dutchman is about the fascination of a woman with a certain mythological character. On the other hand, it’s his fascination with something that is more familiar and normal than his own cursed life at sea,” Zvulun explained. “Each one is obsessed with the path not taken. With the grass being greener on the other side. And I think that is a universal feeling for all people, especially in the arts.
“People in the arts are constantly thinking about what would happen if they had health insurance, and stay at home to be with their kids or partners, instead of traveling all the time. On the other hand, people who are not artists with a family may be obsessed with being on the road in Paris or directing an opera in Minnesota. The lives they don’t have. This is the endless symbolic invitation of that piece.”
To explore those themes the production team is placing Senta’s world in a factory to provide a stark contrast to the more supernatural one inhabited by the Dutchman. This co-production with the Houston Grand Opera and Cincinnati Opera will utilize projections and other technology to “really explore these radical differences.”
In keeping with the theme of exploring contrasts, Zvulun’s other directorial effort in 2017-18 won’t require him to concoct a new way to mount a beloved classic. Instead, his direction of “Sweeney Todd” will emanate from the original Broadway Production that has made this masterpiece a classic.
Zvulun emphasized that mounting “Sweeney Todd” was crucial because it will be the first time that Atlanta Opera audiences get to see it.
“I view Sondheim as one of the great composers of our time. I think he is extremely theatrical and the work is powerfully musically,” he noted. “The idea of casting it with classically trained singers and a full orchestra is incredible.”
Preparing a Delicious Feast
So while he puts the finishing touches on his production, Zvulun is taking care of a number of other taxing, but ultimately fulfilling assignments as general and artistic director. One of those tasks is planning upcoming seasons.
Zvulun generally prepares a season two to three years in advance at Atlanta, involving himself in not only the selection of repertoire but also the casting process.
“It’s a great privilege because you come up with the titles and then we look to make a healthy mix,” he stated. “For example next season you have a grand German opera by Wagner, you have a French comedy, a world premiere by a living composer, you have a rarely performed cabaret piece, you have arguably the most popular opera and then you have a great American crossover piece. It’s kind like preparing a meal with different flavors.”
Once the titles have been decided, it is time to put together the ingredients that will make the audience crave every entry on the menu. This is perhaps one of the aspects the Zvulun enjoys most.
“When I am directing in other places, my influence on casting is limited. But at Atlanta, I am able to cast those people myself and that is one of the best perks of the job,” he noted. “Then we can work with people that are really appropriate for the piece.” Among the artists, he wound up casting are Wayne Tigges, Jay Hunter Morris, Melody Moore, and Kristinn Sigmundsson, among others.
Because of constant moving parts around the opera world, Zvulun and company look to lock up lead roles two to three years in advance. In past years, this might have been a tougher task, but the company is quite fortunate to have developed a studio program for young singers to increase its own pool. This has led to some diamonds in the rough that Zvulun believes will make a huge impact on the larger world stage.
“We constantly find new and promising talent with our system, and I think some of them could have a major impact. For example, we have a great Argentinean tenor in the program and he is so good that we decided to cast him in Daughter of the Regiment. That will be a great way to introduce him to the world.”
More important than just assembling the pieces together, however, is getting people to join in the feast. Opera remains a tough proposition for some communities, but Zvulun has found a secret ingredient to entice his intended audience.
“Bringing in pieces that have civic impact or will get communities to talk is one answer,” he asserted. “The pieces in our Discover Series, for example, allow us to touch subjects like the veteran community or the LGBT community. Or the Jewish community.”
He noted the example of “Soldier Songs,” which was performed with the company a few seasons back and propelled immense discussion about the treatment of veterans.
“The whole season centered on the fringe societies, like veterans,” he emphasized. “And we know that in America right now there are a lot of communities feeling like they are on the fringe.
Next season the company is turning to the questions of discrimination against the LGBT and Jewish communities with “Out of Darkness,” an opera that could not be more timely.
Another way to entirely new audiences is through local collaborations. The company recently took on “María de Buenos Aires” at La Maison Rouge.
Taking the opera off the main stage made it more accessible to the communities and the result was a stream of sold out performances, forcing the addition of two more shows.
“We became the talk of the town because we moved away from the main stage to do something within the community with a different subject matter,” he noted.
Looking forward, Zvulun is anticipating the growth of his current ventures, including the Young Artist Program and Discoveries series. In his five years, he has managed to expand the company’s number of yearly productions from three to six but admits to wanting more.
“We want to do more new productions, expand our young artist program, elevate the quality of the productions,” he asserted.
We all know he can handle those challenges. And more.
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