New production of ‘Madama Butterfly’ kicks off Atlanta Opera season

The Atlanta Opera got a new general and artistic director last year, but it’s only this year that local opera audiences really get to know him.

Tomer Zvulun, who’s built an impressive career staging operas around the world, stepped into the position in April 2013. But because opera companies map out their seasons far in advance, the Nov. 8 season opener of “Madama Butterfly” is the first opportunity for opera patrons to see his artistic vision begin to take root.

The new production is indicative of Zvulen’s goal for the opera to create and own more original productions rather than rent sets and costumes from other productions.

For Giacomo Puccini’s tragic opera about a Japanese geisha who falls in love with an American naval officer, Zvulun brought in a creative team he calls “my favorite designers.” Set designer Erhard Rom and lighting designer Robert Wierzel are long-time collaborators who helped create the critically well-received “Lucia Di Lammermoor” that Zvulun oversaw as a visiting director to Atlanta in 2011.

A highlight of the new production design for “Madama Butterfly” is a 50-foot screen on which various images — Nagasaki Bay, cherry blossoms, Navy ships in the harbor — will be projected.

“Japanese shoji screens are a common device for ‘Madama Butterfly,’” says Rom. “The projections help give us a location … and they also express the emotional, psychological parts of the story. For instance, there’s a sequence where we see what the central character is dreaming about, and we can see the dream happening on stage.”

To share the financial burden of building new productions from the ground up, Atlanta Opera is collaborating with other opera companies. “Madama Butterfly” is a co-production with Virginia’s Castleton Festival and New Orleans Opera. “Rigoletto,” opening in February, is co-produced with Boston Lyric Opera.

Creating new productions is crucial in generating interest among Atlanta audiences, says Zvulun.

“Their excitement about new, vibrant productions is very palpable,” he says.

Zvulun describes his cast for “Madama Butterfly” as young, vibrant performers who are as strong vocally as they are dramatically. American tenor Adam Diegel will sing the role of Pinkerton, and Russian-born, now U.S.-based soprano Dina Kuznetsova performs the role of Cio-Cio San.

Kuznetsova, who specializes in the Czech repertoire, previously performed the role of Cio-Cio San to great acclaim with the English National Opera in 2013. Her Atlanta Opera performance marks her American debut.

Although Cio-Cio San is often perceived as demure and meek, Kuznetzova contends it’s actually her outrageously fierce – perhaps delusional — will and determination that are most central to the character.

“She’s made of steel behind all that tradition and propriety,” says Kuznetsova. “Her training basically dictates her behavior in so many situations, but she still chooses the path she pursues.

“The most challenging part of the role is that it’s never-ending,” she continues. “Once you go on the stage, you practically never leave. There is so much emotion, and there’s a new aria at every switch. By the time the second act passes, I’m just completely emotionally torn and exhausted.”

Although the season officially begins with opening night of “Madama Butterfly,” the opera already set the tone for a new era with a new event: a choral concert performed at Emory University and Kennesaw State University in September.

Zvulun hopes to increase the number of annual productions, events and performances to increase the opera’s presence in the city. In addition to the main stage productions of “Madama Butterfly” in November, “Rigoletto” in February and “Marriage of Figaro” in April, the Atlanta Opera is adding a contemporary opera in a smaller venue.

The company will present “Three Decembers” by leading American composer Jake Heggie at the Alliance Theatre in May. The chamber opera for three performers and 15 musicians is based on a short play by Terrance McNally about an aging actress seeking to reconcile her relationships with her two adult children.

“The entire season is an indication of the kind of work we’d like to bring to Atlanta in the future: a combination of well-loved opera masterpieces in new interpretations and at the same time, new works by American composers,” says Zvulun.

But the bigger goal, says Zvulun, is to make Atlanta part of what he calls the American Renaissance in contemporary opera.

“It strikes me how lucky we are in America because there’s a new generation of composers that are very, very exciting,” he says “They write beautiful, melodic music that really touches people. I think it’s one of the most exciting things happening in the arts in America, this new generation.”

Considering the recent closure of Georgia Shakespeare and the on-going lockout at the Atlanta Symphony, some may say this is a risky time to roll out changes to a long-standing arts institution, but Zvulun insists the time is right.

“It’s part of the challenge that’s on all of us, and it makes our mission even more valuable to me,” he says. “I think there’s a great audience for opera in Atlanta, and I’m very optimistic about the future.”

For a taste of the upcoming season, Zvulen and supporter Bob Edge host Opera with an Edge, offering a sampler of season highlights and a visual preview of “Madama Butterfly” at Cobb Energy Centre Nov. 3.

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