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Everyday Heroes: Tomer Zvulun

The Atlanta Opera

When Tomer Zvulun arrived in Atlanta in 2013 to become general and artistic director of The Atlanta Opera, he took over a sleepy opera company that staged just three productions a year and barely had an imprint in the city.

In the decade since, Zvulun’s leadership has transformed the company. The Atlanta Opera has doubled the number of productions it does each year, but more importantly the artistic vision behind those productions has gained international notice.

Credit: Photo Courtesy of Orel Cohen

Credit: Photo Courtesy of Orel Cohen

Aside from staging fresh, updated versions of the classics, the opera has become known for its Discoveries series that brings in new and provocative pieces that are staged in smaller venues across the city. But Zvulun’s creative spirit met its strongest challenge in the first year of the pandemic when opera companies and other arts organizations went silent across the world.

He knew there was a desperate need for live performances and art during that time. But how to do it?

He remembered the story about violinist Itzhak Perlman, who broke a string early in a concert at Avery Fisher hall in New York City. Rather than halt the concert and go through the long process of putting in a new string, Perlman carried on. But going from four strings to three changed everything. He had to improvise, recompose the score and reinvent melodies as he played. It turned into one of his signature performances and ended with a standing ovation. “You know,” he told the audience, “sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”

Zvulun took inspiration from the Great Depression and World War II, when a circus would pop up outside rail stations and string up a tent.

“They would provide some refuge and escape for people devastated by reality,” he said.

That led to a tonic that arts patrons needed: live performances safely held under the big tent when every other major opera company in North America was shut down.

The Discoveries series also led to The Veterans Program that provides free tickets to all veterans, plus active military and their families.

The seeds for that program were planted in 2015 when the Discoveries series staged Soldier Songs, a chamber opera about a young military recruit training for the army, going to war and then surviving the aftermath. Zvulun wanted to ensure that veterans and current soldiers not only knew about the show, but could attend it.

Zvulun was invited to speak to the board of the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association, not exactly the target audience for opera. He shared with them his own experiences as a medic in the Israeli army and something he seldom spoke of: the loss of a friend in combat.

“I thought it was too personal and not appropriate [to talk about],” he said. “I don’t know why, but that’s something that a lot of veterans have in common.”

With the support from The Home Depot Foundation, 750 tickets were donated to veterans for that show. They did it again the following season when the opera staged Silent Night, the true story about the Allies and Germans putting down their guns and walking into No Man’s Land one Christmas Eve during WWI.

The Veterans Program was created in 2017 that provided free tickets to veterans and military personnel to all main-stage productions at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. When West Side Story premiered in 2018, 750 veterans attended opening night.

“There’s the perception that soldiers fighting for country and freedom are the opposite of what opera represents,” said Zvulun. “But in the past few decades in America, tremendous operas are being written about social justice, racial tensions, human rights and capital punishment. This is a great time of renaissance in American opera and a huge opportunity to shatter old stereotypes. Opera is not for the elite anymore. Opera is for everybody.”


WE’RE STRONGER TOGETHER: A SPECIAL PROJECT

This place we call home is filled with ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary feats. Their selfless acts make this region so special – and they bring out the best in all of us. With the holidays upon us, we wanted to share their inspiring stories, celebrate their accomplishments, and offer ways that you can help.

Just as the 55 people we’re profiling can’t do it alone, nor can we. That’s why we worked closely with our partners to bring you this collection of uplifting stories.

We hope they leave you feeling inspired and ready to tackle the busy new year that lies ahead.

We hope they make you feel more connected to your community or to your neighbors.

And maybe, just maybe, they will motivate you to come up with your own small way to make a big difference in the lives of others.

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