Theater Review - Tomer Zvulun is looking to expand Atlanta Opera"s reach

Company's general and artistic director wants to build audience with more modern productions like Three Decembers

Of all the art forms, opera may be the most intimidating to the uninitiated. The word conjures up images of four-hour performances sung in a foreign language, where you may not understand what is happening on stage. By including contemporary works such as Three Decembers in its performance season, the Atlanta Opera is looking to make the art form more accessible to a modern audience.

Tomer Zvulun has been the general and artistic director of the Atlanta Opera for two years, and his energy and enthusiasm remain fresh. "My favorite motto is 'increase the artistic risk, but lower the financial risk,'" he says. "I believe in a very healthy diet where your main courses allow you to survive well, but you fill in with additional appetizers and desserts, smaller bites that will increase your palate." So, for every steak and potatoes night of Madama Butterfly and Romeo and Juliet, the company will also have some tasty snacks like Three Decembers.

In explaining why this work is more relatable for contemporary audiences, Zvulun notes that it was written in English by a living composer, Jake Heggie, who is actually coming to Atlanta to attend the local premiere performance. Whereas Heggie is known for his large-scale operas such as Dead Man Walking and Moby-Dick, Zvulun describes this more intimate work as "a beautiful chamber opera," which will be performed at the Alliance Theatre, a comparably small-scale theater as opposed to the opera's usual grand home at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The story focuses on the struggles of an American family dealing with the loss of the patriarch, and it takes place over three decades from 1986 to 2006 in Connecticut, New York, and San Francisco. Best of all for opera-phobes, the run time is less than 90 minutes, so you're not committed to an epic evening. Zvulun cites the relatable familial narrative of coping with loss and the interesting aspect of considering how different family members' memories and colored impressions of events can diverge from reality.

Even though Zvulun himself has previously directed this work in Boston, he brought in Emma Griffin to take the helm in Atlanta. He has remained somewhat hands off to let her do her job. "She has a wonderful touch when it comes to relationships and creating a world where it's very honest and the characters are believable," he says of Griffin. "When you hire someone you trust, you just sit back and enjoy what they do."

Zvulun's exciting approach to running the company is reflected in the more established works in the repertory as well, so if you enjoy Three Decembers, you may also be interested in the company's take on classics like La bohème. Even with Madama Butterfly this year, the company made extensive use of modern multimedia presentations to ensure that the visual elements keep pace with the strength in the musical side of the production.

"We're advancing with time and making sure that what we put on stage is not only of the highest musical and vocal quality but also of the most effective visual quality," Zvulun says, adding that next season he intends to balance out the impressive classics of La bohème, The Pirates of Penzance, and Romeo and Juliet with smaller works such as Soldier Songs, set to be performed around Veteran's Day at the Rialto Center for the Arts, and Schubert's Winterreise.

Performing at smaller theaters around Atlanta, such as the Rialto, is a key part of Zvulun's strategy to help the opera become integrated into the artistic makeup of the city. The company recently collaborated with Kennesaw State University, Emory University, the Swan House, and the High Museum of the Art for performances designed to reach a wider audience while still entertaining Atlanta's core opera fans. Zvulun is also working on ventures with opera companies from around the world to bring the Atlanta Opera to an international level.