Tomer Zvulun wants to ‘infect’ Atlanta with a love of opera

EVENT PREVIEW

“Tosca”

8 p.m. Oct. 5, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8, 8 p.m. Oct. 11 and 3 p.m. Oct. 13. $26-$133 plus fees. The Atlanta Opera. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org.

GETTING TO KNOW TOMER ZVULUN

3 Favorite Movies

1. Coppola’s “The Godfather, Parts I & II.” “An operatic tale of family, power, violence and ambition told in the most poignant and human way. It was the source of inspiration for a new production of ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ that I directed for Opera Cleveland in 2010.”

2. Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” “The ultimate suspense movie. Deeply psychological, intense and universally human.”

3. Fellini’s “Roma” and “Amarcord”: “They are inseparable for me, a tale of youth, family and love for life that is told in the most colorful, funny, human way. The inspiration for my production of ‘Gianni Schicchi’ and ‘L’heure Espagnole’ at Juilliard Opera in New York in 2011.”

3 CDs most listened to recently

1. Wagner’s “Ring Cycle”

2. Paul Simon’s “Graceland”

3. Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”

3 Favorite Atlanta Restaurants

1. Canoe

2. Restaurant Eugene

3. Cardamom Hill

BUSY, BUSY

In addition to responsibilities at The Atlanta Opera,Zvulun directs the following 2013-14 productions :

  • Boston Lyic Opera: “Rigoletto” (March)
  • Pittsburgh Opera: “La Boheme” (March)
  • Kansas City Opera: “Der Fledermaus” (April)

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Go to MyAJC.com/sundayliving to see a video preview of the Atlanta Opera’s production of “Tosca.”

Between the theaters of war and opera, Tomer Zvulun has weathered all kinds of drama in three action-packed decades of life. But nothing quite prepared him for a request from esteemed opera director Stephen Wadsworth in 2007.

Zvulun was assisting on productions of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” and a premiere of Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride” at Seattle Opera before they moved to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. At the Met, where time and rehearsal space are tight, the otherwise-occupied Wadsworth told his young associate director, “OK, you take Placido (Domingo) into the dance studio with the men’s chorus and stage the entrance of Orestes.”

He later told Wadsworth his heart was in his mouth at the prospect of this trial by fire.

“I knew by then that those artists, and my staging, were absolutely safe in his hands,” recalled Wadsworth, who has gone on to become a mentor. “He had the authority, the clarity of thought, the technique, and he was ready. He aced that rehearsal, and every one thereafter, and the Met took notice, and so they grabbed him.”

So have companies worldwide, from Washington, D.C., to Buenos Aires and Tel Aviv, as the Israeli Army medic-turned-opera-director has gone on to become one of opera’s rising creative leaders.

Now, The Atlanta Opera has hooked Zvulun, too, appointing him its general and artistic director. Zvulun, 37, took over in June after moving with his wife, Susanna Eiland, from New York to Atlanta, which will become home base for a career that will continue to unfold here and abroad.

Having already directed three productions for The Atlanta Opera, including “Lucia di Lammermoor,” which turned up on several best-of-2011 lists, he will launch the company’s 2013-14 season as the director of Puccini’s “Tosca,” Oct. 5-13 at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

Zvulun’s multifaceted life experiences should be beneficial as he takes over a 33-year-old arts institution at a crossroads. Moving into the administrative suite marks a personal crossroads as well for Zvulun, who has never had to fund-raise for a company with a $5 million budget.

“I like challenges,” he says, asserting his desire to “infect” the city with a feverish enthusiasm for opera, which he believes has the power to change lives.

As proof, there is his own story.

He grew up in the small Mediterranean coastal town of Ashqelon, an hour south — “and a lifetime away” — from Tel Aviv. The son of a factory-worker father and stay-at-home mother, he was a film-obsessed teen. Henry and Mazal Zvulun’s boy would record classic movies off the TV on VHS tapes that he’d replay over and over. He also would queue up at local cinemas to catch current fare (Coppola, Scorsese, Allen) and international revivals (Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini). A big influence in these growing-up years was his uncle, Israeli filmmaker-animator Baruch Zevulon.

The teen, who was starting to deepen his appreciation of opera as well, had what he described as a mind-blowing experience when he took in Bergman’s 1975 film adaption of “The Magic Flute.” This perfect union of opera and celluloid opened him to the visual possibilities that could enhance all that powerful singing. Soon after, he saw his first live opera.

“That was it,” he recalled. “I knew immediately that that’s the route I was going to pursue.”

Cinema continues to inform Zvulun’s highly visual, multimedia opera work today, and he was tickled when The New York Times praised his “Felliniesque” touch in a review of the Puccini comedy “Gianni Schicchi” at Juilliard Opera in 2011.

But before he could pursue opera studies, Zvulun, 18, entered the Israeli Army in 1994 and trained as a medic.

Asked about his three years of service, Zvulun turned uncharacteristically quiet and solemn. He prefers to keep those memories private.

While in the Army, though, he considered pursuing a path in medicine.

“I had a side of the brain that was geared toward chemistry and biology and was highly interested in that, and then I had another part that was highly interested in theater and music and cinema,” he recalled. “When I finally got out of the army, it was like, ‘Oh yeah, I know what it is — I want to live.’”

In other words, opera won out. He studied arts at Tel Aviv’s Open University and, while still a student, began working his way up from the bottom at The Israeli Opera. In 2001, he moved to the U.S. as a visiting scholar at Boston University.

“My parents were very excited about the medical path, as good Jewish parents would,” Zvulun recalled. “And let’s say that they were not too excited about me a.) not pursuing medicine; and b.) leaving Israel for so many years; and c.) pursuing something that they were unfamiliar with — until they came (to the U.S.) to visit. And when they did, they were blown away and thought that this was the right thing for me to do, and they’ve been very supportive.”

His first big break came at Seattle Opera, where he was hired as a resident assistant director for the 2006-07 season, having what he termed an “All About Eve” experience before his first show. The director of “Der Rosenkavalier” was let go before opening night and Zvulun was pressed into service.

His good work led to a call from the Metropolitan Opera, where he has worked every season since 2007-08, and The Atlanta Opera, for which he debuted as director of “Flying Dutchman” in 2009.

Four years later, The Atlanta Opera is his company to run.

He’s taking over an enterprise that went the entire 2012-13 season without a full-time leader after Dennis Hanthorn, the general director for eight years, and his board parted ways.

The reason for Hanthorn’s abrupt departure was never made public, but apparently was over programming choices. Shortly following his exit, William Tucker, now board chairman, called the city’s tastes “traditional” and spoke of wanting the company to produce “works that Atlanta grasps, and typically that’s the top 30 pieces in the global opera repertory.”

That would sound like the equivalent of a creative straight jacket for Zvulun, who has a knack for bringing fresh life to opera’s warhorses while also being a proponent of 21st century composers (including Jake Heggie, Kevin Puts and Osvaldo Golijov).

But the new general and artistic director is by all estimations a glass-half-full (or fuller) thinker, radiating enthusiasm and focused energy both in conversation and rehearsals. He noted that Opera America magazine ranks Atlanta Opera as a second-tier company — a measure based on budget rather than quality — and asserted without hesitation that the city deserves a first-tier one.

“If you look at Houston and Seattle, important hubs just like Atlanta, they have first-tier companies,” Zvulun said. “I don’t think there’s a reason in the world that Atlanta will not have a first-tier company, and that’s what we’re going to go after.”

That’s a bold statement because it means that Zvulun and his board will have to double its annual budget to $10 million, in a city where opera DNA is not necessarily in the blood.

But on the positive side, where Zvulun likes to reside, the new leader is taking over the company at a stage of relative stability, achieved after an unexpectedly generous $9 million bequest in 2011 from longtime board member Barbara D. Stewart.

Due to financial challenges that were in play even before the recession hit, Hanthorn had trimmed The Atlanta Opera’s season from four productions to three for the 2010-11 season (the offerings have remained at the same number since). A month before Stewart’s bequest, a portion of which was used to establish an endowment now topping $6 million, Hanthorn lamented, “If we have one mistake it’s over.”

Instead, Zvulun represents a fresh start for a company no longer burdened by debt. He believes it’s possible for The Atlanta Opera to grow in every way — from budget to programming and from profile to economic impact.

“I think we want to keep the financial risk where it is right now or lower it, but increase the artistic risk,” he said. “That ties into the artistic product. If you can produce different things at different costs in different places, then you can achieve (it) all.”

In addition to the three-opera season at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre (he’s eager to get back to four), he points to the recently announced Molly Blank Jewish Concert Series as the first in what he intends to be a succession of “community engagement productions” based on collaborations with other Atlanta cultural organizations.

The three-concert series featuring The Atlanta Opera launches Nov. 9 at the William Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum, a partnership forged between the two institutions before his arrival and funded by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.

But Zvulun is busy making connections of his own.

After meeting a who’s who of the city’s arts leaders at an August welcoming reception at the Buckhead home of Robert and Betty Edge, Zvulun was quick to follow up with several. Theatrical Outfit leader Tom Key and Leslie Gordon of Georgia State University’s Rialto Center for the Arts are among those with whom he’s having continuing conversations.

Zvulun’s interest in working with other metro cultural groups “is a thrilling attitude for the new leader of The Atlanta Opera to possess,” said Key.

Robert Edge, who chairs the Charles Loridans Foundation, one of the city’s important arts funders, praises Zvulun’s openness to new ideas and willingness to listen.

“Tomer brings a lot of resources to the task,” he said. “I believe he has the talent and savvy required to achieve terrific results. I hope he gets the support he needs in order to carry out his vision for opera in our city.”

Zvulun, who has led something of an artistic gypsy’s life since coming to U.S., said he’s happy to call Atlanta home, to set down roots and possibly even have a family. His wife is a Birmingham native who was pleased to return South.

“This is not just a pipe dream about a show in a theater that 2,500 people see,” he said, noting the $39 million economic impact this summer’s remounting of Wagner’s three-part “Ring” cycle by the Seattle Opera was projected to have on that city. “This is what this opera company can mean to a city. It can change the life of the city.”

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