LISTENING POST: Operatic Change

You don’t need a dramaturg to know which way opera is going

WORLD PREMIERE: ‘Forsyth County is Flooding (with the Joy of Lake Lanier),’ is part of the 96-Hour Opera Festival at The Ray Charles Center for the Performing Arts at Morehouse College.PHOTO CREDIT: Raftermen
Photo credit: RAFTERMAN
WORLD PREMIERE: ‘Forsyth County is Flooding (with the Joy of Lake Lanier),’ — music and lyrics by Marcus Norris (right), book and story by Adamma Ebo, left — is part of the 96-Hour Opera Festival at The Ray Charles Center for the Performing Arts at Morehouse College.

The old grand opera ain’t what she used to be. Changing times bring different perspectives, proprieties, budgets and strategies for producing opera at the highest level. Advanced technology and futuristic materials allow for innovative staging, set and costume design, spawning fresh interpretations of traditional repertoire and inspiring imaginative new works. And, yet, in the flux of contemporaneous change, an old school competition, properly incentivized, also holds the power to move the needle forward.

The third annual 96-Hour Opera Festival presented by The Atlanta Opera in collaboration with Morehouse College at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center is a 3-day event comprising two major public-facing productions. On Sat., Jun. 15, at 8 p.m., the festival hosts the world premiere of Forsyth County is Flooding (with the Joy of Lake Lanier), the first commission fostered by the 96-Hour Opera Project (as it was initially called), with music and lyrics by Marcus Norris, book and story by Adamma Ebo. On Mon., Jun. 17, the festival showcases five 10-minute operas by selected teams competing for The Antinori Grand Prize of $10,000 and an Atlanta Opera commission.

The world premier and competition showcase are open to the public. The 96-Hour Opera Festival also includes a work-in-progress presentation on Sun., Jun. 16, of Steele Roots by composer Dave Ragland and librettist Selda Sahin, last year’s Antinori Grand Prize winners. This presentation is limited to a select audience including mentors and judges. The 2024 judging panel includes Tinashe Kajese-Bolden, Artistic Director of the Alliance Theater and director of Forsyth County is Flooding; New York Times bestselling author Andrea Pinkney-Bolden; opera and theater director, writer, educator and actor Tazewell Thompson; dramaturg and Director of Opera Commissioning at The Metropolitan Opera Paul Cremo; Carlos Simon; Doug Hooker, opera aficionado and former executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission; and The Atlanta Opera’s general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun.

“The 96-Hour Opera Project is designed to support under-recognized creatives and grow their stories and perspectives within the field of opera,” says Zvulun. “This vital program is one of the highlights of our season and we are excited that it has grown into a festival in such a short time.”

Although partners, Marcus Norris and Adamma Ebo have pursued separate artistic careers, which includes collaborating on projects. Their breakout feature film, Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul, starring Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown, premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The social satire was written and directed by Ebo with music by Norris. In 2020, Norris founded South Side Symphony, inspired by the query, “What if orchestras didn’t exist and were invented today by a young Black man?” In 2023, Beyoncé hired Norris to orchestrate several songs for the 50-piece orchestra that accompanied the superstar singer’s surprise 2023 return to live performance in Dubai.

Raised in Atlanta, Ebo wrote and directed Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul based on her and identical twin sister and producer Adanne’s experience growing up in the city’s megachurch culture. The acerbically comic film is loosely based on the public tribulations of controversial Atlanta pastor Eddie Lee Long who died in 2017. With Adanne, Ebo has written for Amazon’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith and the animated series Batman: Caped Crusader. She also directed episodes of FX’s Atlanta. A graduate of Spelman College, Ebo received a full fellowship to UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television and graduated with an MFA in Directing & Production. She met Norris while attending UCLA.

In a recent telephone interview, Norris and Ebo discussed Forsyth County is Flooding (with the Joy of Lake Lanier). The interview was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

But, first, a brief introduction to the 10-minute opera adapted from The Atlanta Opera website: Forsyth County is Flooding (with the Joy of Lake Lanier) is a one-act dark comedy, which explores some of Georgia’s terrifying, uncomfortable and uncanny histories and happenings related to the unsavory genesis of Lake Lanier in Forsyth County. In this modern-day ghost story, a private detective and a witch claiming to be connected to spirits are hired to uncover a weird supernatural mystery involving puddles. Puddles everywhere.

Did the concept of Forsyth County is Flooding (with the Joy of Lake Lanier) stem directly from winning the Opera Project competition in 2022 or was it an idea that had been percolating for a while?

Adamma Ebo: I’m from Atlanta, so the idea of doing something about Lake Lanier has been in my head for years. I worked with Donald Glover on Atlanta and my interest was piqued by a Lake Lanier bit that opens season three. When the 10-minute Opera Project came along, it felt like the perfect opportunity to do something with it.

Although set up like a purely fictional mystery, the opera is somewhat based on documented historical events including the extraordinary number of fatalities that have occurred at Lake Lanier over decades, and darker episodes of Atlanta history. On the other hand, the descriptions make Forsyth County is Flooding sound like a comedy. How does that work?

Ebo: That’s how I like to operate. I love dark comedy. I love satire, which is at its best when talking about something very real. The Atlanta History Center gave us a few kicking off points, but a lot of those ideas were too serious; like, there’s no way for us to make this subject or incident comedic [laughs]. When they brought up Lake Lanier, how and why it got built, that idea clicked with the rumors I heard growing up about the lake being haunted. We could find humor in this fictional town and talk about how we feel about Lake Lanier. The darker parts, like the murders and displacement of black folks, can come later with knowledge of the true history.

Musically speaking, how do you translate this weird, dark mystery into an opera?

Marcus Norris: The music is thematic; a lot of it sounds mysterious, ethereal. Like many operas, each character has a motif. Their voices are very distinct, their styles are very distinct, and when we put all of these contrasting forces on stage together, that’s something you have to hear. And, of course, there are big arias, which move the drama along.

What about the influence of black music? What aspects of the black experience are detectable in the opera’s score?

Norris: The way the melodies happen is characteristic of black music. There’s a lot of varied repetition. I give the performers the freedom to embellish in a way that pulls from the jazz tradition. Some of the players in the orchestra have jazz backgrounds, so we speak that language as well.

Ebo: A lot of elements feel to me like they pull from black gospel, especially because we’re tapping into this spiritual element, which can mean a lot of different things.

Have you been to Lake Lanier?

Ebo: When I was growing up in Atlanta, in the summer we would go to Lake Lanier, but I never got in the water.

Because it was haunted?

Ebo: One hundred percent! I’m a big swimmer and there’s a lake behind my grandparents’ house. I love to swim. I’ve been in oceans, but I’ve never been in Lake Lanier.

ORIGIN AND MISSION: Jessica Kiger. PHOTO CREDIT: Erin and Bryan Sintos

In a separate telephone interview, Jessica Kiger, Director of Community Engagement & Education at The Atlanta Opera, discussed the origin and mission of the 96-Hour Opera Festival. This interview was also lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What was the impetus for the Project, which evolved into the three-day Festival?

Jessica Kiger: During the pandemic, we were working remotely and dealing with all the challenges that came along with that period. The opera world was looking for ways to be more inclusive and become a vehicle for young artists. A few years earlier, The Atlanta Opera had produced the 24-Hour Opera Project. During one of our remote meetings, Tomer (Atlanta Opera general and artistic director) suggested that we revive the competition, but with a different goal, which is to support composers, librettists and other artists of color and from under-represented communities.

Creating an opera in 96 hours presents quite a challenge. Surely, the composer and librettist don’t start from scratch beginning on the first of four days?

Kiger: They are given around a month to complete their pieces, which are sent to the singers before they arrive. We just got the pieces for this year’s competition on Friday [a couple of days before this interview – LP]. During the 96-hour period, the focus is on defining and making revisions to the piece, working with the team and, especially, the singers who really bring the piece to life.

How does one tell a grand, sweeping story of operatic splendor in 10 minutes?

Kiger: You can tell a full story arc. We have seen lots of operatic nuances and colors coming out of the pieces. Even pieces that haven’t won were incredibly beautiful and operatically expressive. In 10 minutes, you get a sense of the talent of the composers and librettists and what they would be capable of creating with a full cast production.

What can you tell me about the competition pieces presented at this year’s 96-Hour Opera Festival?

Kiger: The contestants were invited to create a 10-minute story based on a certain precept. The story prompt reads: “In an apocalyptic future, a human artist imparts the meaning and practice of their craft to an android whose mission it is to teach it to future generations. Write a scene in which an artist and their robotic protégé are having a lesson. What must the protégé learn to affirm its identity, to celebrate its inherent freedom, to protect against silencing and erasure – to embark on new dimensions with power and joy?”

Given the story prompt, I wonder whether anyone is using AI in one form or another in their 10-minute opera?

Kiger: To my knowledge, no one is.

Tix: The 96-Hour Opera Festival Showcase $10. Forsyth County is Flooding $20. Both performances (Festival Package) $25. All tickets general admission. The Ray Charles Center for the Performing Arts at Morehouse College, 900 West End Ave. SW, Atlanta 30310.


Sat., Jun. 8


LAKESIDE ZEN: Zentropy and George Trotter will bring pro-rock and other grooves to the Lounge at Pine Lake. PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy Zentropy

Zentropy, Trotter, Pine Lake Lounge — Expect an evening of electro-funk swing, prog-rock energy and atmospheric grooves when Zentropy performs at “The Lounge,” an affectionate nickname for the beachhouse at Pine Lake. Zentropy is Allen Welty-Green (keyboards/synths), Kenito Murray (drums, percussion) and Kevin Andrews (bass/guitar). With George Trotter (multi-instrumentalist/device wizard) also on the bill, adventurous audio and visual effects will be in the mix. Donations for admission are encouraged. Libations and light snacks available via cash or Venmo.
$10 donation. Doors 7:30 p.m., music 8 p.m. Pine Lake Lounge at the Beachhouse, 4556 Lakeshore Dr., Stone Mountain, GA 30083


Sun., Jun. 9


AVANT ART: Mirrored Fatality (crouching in black and white attire), along with HIDE, Harpy and Whiphouse, will be performing at eyedrum. PHOTO CREDIT: Ricky Silva

HIDE, Harpy, Mirrored Fatality, Whiphouse, eyedrum — Avant subversive weirdness and dark-hearted guitar thrashing awaits adventurous ears at eyedrum on Sun., Jun. 9. Headliner HIDE, an electronic duo based in Chicago, create sample-based compositions using a combination of self-sourced field recordings, pop culture elements and media references. Harpy is experimental music noise from Louisville, Kentucky. Mirrored Fatality, according to their website, are a nonbinary Kapampangan-Pilipinx and Pakistani-Muslim performance art duo (named Mango and Samar) who “share their rituals, altars, and medicine through DIT (Do It Together) experimental and healing noise punk,” a characterization with which this reviewer concurs. Atlanta-based Whiphouse kick out the ounk jams with gothic aplomb.
$12. Music 8 p.m. eyedrum, 515 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. SW, Atlanta, GA, 30312.


Thu., Jun. 13, Sat., Jun. 15, Sun., Jun. 16


FIREBIRD FINALE: The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra closes the 2023-24 season with music from Stravinsky’s ballet “The Firebird,” as well as German violinist Veronika Eberle performing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. PHOTO CREDIT: Louie Thain

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall — Return to the future when the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) conjures up the Belle Époque with performances of music by Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky on Thu., Jun. 13, Sat., Jun. 15, Sun., Jun. 16. “The Beautiful Time” was a period at the turn of the 20th century when Paris was home to many luminaries, such as Stravinsky, Ravel, Pablo Picasso, Claude Debussy, Gertrude Stein, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Proust, whose influence on Western art and music remains strong in the 21st century. For the closing concert of the 2023-24 season, Maestro Nathalie Stutzmann will conduct the ASO in a performance of Stravinsky’s breakthrough ballet, The Firebird, and Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso (Morning Song of the Jester) and Menuet antique. Also on the program is the return of German violin virtuoso Veronika Eberle performing Beethoven’s bravura Violin Concerto.
$28-135. Times vary. For more info, check the Atlanta Symphony Hall website. Atlanta Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree Street NE, Atlanta, GA 30309. 404-733-4800.



Fri., Jun. 14


GOOD REENACTMENT: Pylon Reenactment Society perform at Boggs Social & Supply. Small Reactions and Go Public share the bill. PHOTO CREDIT: Jon Boydston

Pylon Reenactment Society, Boggs Social & Supply — Some reenactments are more worthy than others. With the blessing of the surviving original band members, Pylon Reenactment Society (PRS) carries forward the legacy of the “Athens scene” of the 1980s without getting caught in the doldrums that characterize so many tribute or reunion groups. Led by vocalist Vanessa Briscoe Hay, the sole remaining member from the original Pylon lineup, PRS is blazing its own path. The jagged new wave energy, punky minimalist vibe and sharply declarative vocals remain prominent in the mix, which, far from sounding nostalgic, proves how far ahead of its time Pylon has always been. Sharing the bill at Boggs on Fri., Jun. 14, are Small Reactions and Go Public.
$15. 8 p.m. Boggs Social & Supply, 1310 White Street SW, Atlanta, GA 30310. 404-600-2693.


Thu., Jun. 20-Sat., Jun. 22


GOING GLOBAL:The three-day 2024 Spivey Hall Summer Global Music Festival features the Georgia Polka Connection, led by Atlanta Braves organist Matthew Kaminski. PHOTO CREDIT: Emily Butler

Spivey Hall Summer Global Music Festival — Spivey Hall’s three-day Summer Global Music Festival, showcasing seven ensembles representing different regions and cultures from around the world, has been cancelled, with plans to reschedule in 2025. 



Thu., Jun. 20


SOLSTICE BLUES : Mudcat & Band celebrate the summer solstice in concert at Sycamore Place Gallery. PHOTO CREDIT: Ben Rollins

Solstice Party! Mudcat & Band, Sycamore Place Gallery — Coinciding with the arrival of the Sun at its northernmost point on the equator, Mudcat & Band will perform some of the finest blues you are ever likely to hear on planet Earth in a concert on Thu., Jun. 20 at Sycamore Place Gallery in Decatur. A masterful, self-taught, Piedmont-style guitarist, singer, songwriter and historian, Daniel “Mudcat” Dudeck is an Atlanta institution. For the past few decades, he has been a regular headliner at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack, Blind Willie’s and Northside Tavern. As an unofficial keeper of the traditional blues legacy, Dudeck has performed the world over with the likes of Dickey Betts, Derek Trucks and Taj Mahal, as well as with local Atlanta legends including Frank Edwards, Eddie Tigner and Beverly “Guitar” Watkins. The Sycamore Gallery space and patio is a delightfully casual setting for encountering artwork, listening to music and hanging out with friends on the longest night of the year.
Donations suggested. 8 p.m. Sycamore Place Gallery, 120 Sycamore Pl., Decatur, GA 30030 Facebook.



Wed., Jun. 26


DARK SEEDS: Atlanta contemporary chamber music players perform “Seeds in Darkness,” a program of music by Ben Shirley at the First Existentialist Congregation. PHOTO CREDIT: Steve Eberhardt

Seeds in Darkness: Music by Benjamin Shirley, First Existentialist Congregation — Fans of contemporary chamber ensemble music will not want to miss “Seeds in Darkness,” a special program of music composed by cellist Benjamin Shirley. The musicians paricipating make up an all-star assemblage of Atlanta’s cutting edge performers and improvisers including Majid Araim (mandolin), Julian Scott Bryan (percussion), Chris Childs (piano), David Gray (guitar), John Gregg (drums), Chip Epsten (violin), Ofir Klemperer (piano), Gabriel Monticello (double bass), Monique Osorio (vocals) and Paul Stevens (vibraphone). The program took root during the COVID pandemic, inspired by “Seed Tension,” which was written for an ensemble that combines members of the composer’s many projects including Artifactual String Unit, Mute Sphere and BASrelief. Atlanta Improvisers Orchestra co-founder and conductor Klemperer will play a solo piano piece called “To the Ground” while Mute Sphere will perform a suite of songs titled “/Darkness” based on poems by Linda Pastan. Shirley notes, “All of this music was composed since I became a parent, which, for me was closely linked to experiencing the pandemic.”
$15 suggested donation. Doors 8 p.m., music 8:30 p.m. First Existentialist Congregation, 470 Candler Park Dr. NE, Atlanta, GA.