Living in a threepenny world

The Atlanta Opera extends its Big Tent Series into spring

Atl Opera Pagliacci Mack The Knife 2
Photo credit: Ken Howard
ATLANTA OPERA COMPANY: Mezzo-soprano Megan Marino performing “Mack the Knife” as a prelude to ‘Pagliacci.’ The song served both as a teaser for the spring production of The Threepenny Opera and reference to the 2020-21 Atlanta Opera season theme of living in a threepenny world.

From the patio of a downtown neighborhood pub (see Listening Post) to the parking lot of a major arts and entertainment center, Atlanta’s music community will find a way to safely gather and celebrate the collaborative spirit, even if it means breaking a few rules along the way.

The Atlanta Opera recently announced an extension of the Molly Blank Big Tent Series, which features world premiere productions of George Bizet’s Carmen and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, as well as three themed showcase concerts featuring The Atlanta Opera Company Players and guest performers. The full opera performances are scheduled on alternating nights between April 15 and May 9. The themed concerts are “Crossroads: The Sequel” (April 17), “Imagine Broadway” (May 1), and “Concert for Unity” (May 8). See the Atlanta Opera event page for schedule and ticket information.

A year ago, the Atlanta Opera unwittingly played the role of the canary in an infectious coal mine when an audience member who attended a March 10 performance of Porgy and Bess tested positive for COVID-19. Ultimately, the opera company canceled all remaining 2020 season productions.

Shaken but undaunted, the Atlanta Opera regrouped and reimagined what it would take to produce grand opera for live audiences during a global pandemic. The result was The Molly Blank Tent Series, which featured performances of two operas, Pagliacci and The Kaiser of Atlantis, staged during October and November under a circus tent with open sides to allow for air circulation, situated in the middle of an athletic field on the campus of Oglethorpe University.

In front of a limited audience seated at “pods” (2-4 folding chairs around a small table), primary singers belted out arias, duets and recitatives from within specially constructed clear vinyl containers, which looked for all the world like grandly operatic go-go dancer cages. Supporting players wore masks, the chorus chimed in via Zoom projection displayed on a large screen above the stage, and a scaled-down orchestra played in a separate tent adjacent to the big top.

While the setup sounds awkward, the overall impact of the performances was musically satisfying, emotionally engaging, and at times dramatically astonishing, as when a train rumbled by during The Kaiser of Atlantis, an opera conceived in a concentration camp, eerily echoing the transportation by German Nazis of Holocaust victims to their doom. In ways both harrowing and transcendent, The Big Tent Series was a transformative experience, which could be seen as a means of broadening the popular appeal of grand opera. As noted by reviewer Heidi Waleson in the Wall Street Journal: “One of the few American companies to perform live for in-person audiences during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Atlanta Opera has already “demonstrate(d) how imaginative direction can harness COVID restrictions for artistic effect.”

The 2021 spring edition of The Molly Blank Big Tent Series features world premiere productions of two iconic operas, which have been deconstructed and reconfigured in accordance with current pandemic conditions. As conceived by General and Artistic Director of the Atlanta Opera Tomer Zvulun, the staging of The Threepenny Carmen and The Threepenny Opera will observe safe health protocols and follow procedures developed by a task force of epidemiologists, public health specialists, and doctors from Emory University, the Grady Health System, and the Georgia De-partment of Public Health.

Creative Loafing: The Atlanta Opera’s initial response to COVID was remarkably decisive and consequential. What have you learned from this unprecedented experience?

Tomer Zvulun: We took a risk. We believed in a certain ethos and a certain idea. The idea was that the obstacle is the way. We’re going to take what stands in our way and make it the way, and what was in the way was a pandemic. So, instead of shutting down, we decided to use the limitations to create something new and innovative. Along the way, the whole company and the whole community bought into the idea, which will ensure the show will go on in the safest way possible.

The Big Tent Series represents changes in virtually every aspect of operatic production. To put the question bluntly, what were you thinking?

In essence, it didn’t matter what we would put onstage. The fact that we did perform live shows in front of 2500 people, with 130 musicians, artisans, staff and singers employed without a single outbreak — that’s the story.

Along the way, the audience saw two gorgeous productions of Pagliacci and The Kaiser from Atlantis, which were different and innovative, and we’re proud of them. But it’s not the point of just telling the story about a clown in Pagliacci or about an emperor who doesn’t want to go away in Kaiser from Atlantis. It’s the story of a company of singers who were going to perform regardless of what else is going on in the world because we believe the world needs art. We need to be performing right now.

It would seem the choice of productions was influenced by a keen awareness of the pandemic.

Think about it. Kaiser from Atlantis was written during the Holocaust in a concentration camp. The last thing you can imagine is having an opera performed in a concentration camp in the darkest of times, during a world war. You have a bunch of people finding a way to perform. That’s the ethos I’m talking about.

Pagliacci is an opera about a circus. Think about the history of circuses and the idea of perseverance. Whether during a depression or a world war, the circus would pitch a tent by a railway station and create a world of magic and escapism. It was this idea — that we will create an escape, a refuge — despite all that is going on, which goes beyond a theatrical event. It speaks to the ethos of a company and city, a community, which embraces the idea of daring, the idea of perseverance and striving for greatness against the odds.

As a prelude to the Big Tent Series productions of Pagliacci and The Kaiser of Atlantis, why did you include a mysteriously haunting performance of “The Ballad of Mack the Knife,” the best-known song from Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera?

I knew I wanted to do The Threepenny Opera from the moment I realized that our lives were forever changed. There is something about that opera, the collaboration between Bertolt Brecht, the librettist, and Weill, the composer, and the times in which it was conceived, between the world wars, which reverberates with me. Weill has been quoted as saying. “If the boundaries of opera cannot accommodate the theater of the time, then those boundaries must be broken.”

Based on this idea, we staged operas in a big tent. We produced The Kaiser of Atlantis, which is in a sense from the same period and is highly influenced by Weill’s music; you can hear the influence in Viktor Ullmann’s score. In all of these operas we’re doing, there are characters and situations that are dangerous: the emperor who kills everybody, the character of Death, the jealous clown. Mack the Knife is dangerous. There is something mysterious about that tune that covers the whole season.

One of the most interesting outcomes of this extraordinary period has been the development of Spotlight Media, the online side of the Atlanta Opera, where subscribers can access beautifully shot videos of opera productions, behind the scenes reporting, cast discussions, and other informative content.

I think it was the CEO of Microsoft who said COVID pushed two years of digital transformation into two months. We would never have spent the resources and funding on Spotlight Media had the pandemic never happened. We would have spent the money on putting on amazing opera productions. What we quickly realized was that we absolutely must find a way to connect with our audience, since we couldn’t connect with them live. We were very lucky in that, when the situation arose, we received a major grant from the Woodruff Foundation, which allowed us to purchase equipment — cameras, editing devices — to create Spotlight Media.

Moving forward, the digital component is going to be a huge strategic focus for the Atlanta Opera. This is not going to disappear when COVID-19 is behind us.

The 2021 spring season edition of The Molly Blank Tent Series features significant changes, yet remains captive of the coronavirus pandemic.

To me, the idea of coming back home to the parking lot of the Cobb Energy Center, but not being able to get into “the house” is symbolically important. Seeing the temple from afar, but not quite getting there, feels very biblical, very Jewish. We’ll be there in the hope that we will be back in our home in November.

What is the connection between the two featured productions, The Threepenny Carmen, based on Georges Bizet’s famous work, and The Threepenny Opera, by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht?

We live in a threepenny world. These are operas conceived for a society in starvation mode about communities that are marginalized. Carmen is about people on the fringe of society. The Threepenny Opera is about beggars, prostitutes, and thugs.

We made versions of these operas appropriate for COVID-19. You can’t have 80 choristers onstage for Carmen or a chorus of picadors and matadors to do the “Toreador Song.” At the same time, we are working with an amazing flamenco dancer from New York, Sonia Olla, who brings a special flair to the production.

You can’t have an ensemble of thugs and thieves and prostitutes onstage for The Threepenny Opera. You have to figure out a way to tell that story, which strips away the elements of grand opera. For this world premiere, puppets will replace the proletariat. This was an amazing opportunity to collaborate with Jon Ludwig, my colleague at the Center for Puppetry Arts.

Meanwhile, we’ve been working with the Kurt Weill Foundation to create a version of The Threepenny Opera, which lasts only an hour and a half, down from three hours. It will include all of the beloved songs from the 1954 off-Broadway production. Tom Key, former artistic director of Theatrical Outfit, is going to play the role of narrator for both The Threepenny Carmen and The Threepenny Opera. —CL—

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