Atlanta Opera receives $500k grant, launches streaming platform

Atlanta Opera fans can now enjoy staged productions and exclusive content on the new web-based streaming platform, Spotlight Media, thanks to a half-million-dollar grant from the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation. These digitization efforts will replace the audience experience during the pandemic and complement live performances once unrestricted opera begins again in Atlanta. The grant money will also fund infrastructure enhancements and the creation of a digital film studio.

Accessible through the Atlanta Opera’s website, Spotlight Media currently offers a videotaped version of “Kaiser of Atlantis,” performed in October as part of the Molly Blank Big Tent Series at Oglethorpe University, and “Mezzo Extravaganza,” which highlights arias by Jamie Barton, Gabriella Beteag, Daniella Mack and Megan Marino. The premiere of the second big tent production, “Pagliacci,” as well as the exclusive “Love Letters to Atlanta” song series, is planned for the coming months. Content can be purchased a la carte or viewed with a subscription for $99 a year or $15 a month.

Tomer Zvulun has dedicated his time as general and artistic director at the Atlanta Opera to integrating technology and digital thinking into performances. A streaming platform and digital studio may have been somewhere in Zvulun’s eventual plans for the opera, but in the current pandemic reality, streaming is nearly the only way to deliver new performances to audiences. The digital platform is an obvious, safe alternative to live concert viewing in the coronavirus era.

“What this crisis revealed is that people need to have access to digital offerings,” Zvulun said. “And even when they feel safe and are coming back to the theater, it would be valuable for an opera company to have everything captured in high definition with a team that knows how to do that.”

The opera’s fall series of performances, staged under strict safety protocols in an open-air tent on a baseball field, with both singers and audience in masks, proved successful. During the eight weeks of rehearsals and performances involving a team of more than 120 performers and staff, viewed by around 2,000 audience members, no outbreak occurred, Zvulun said. The company is currently planning another series of performances for the spring. But even with donor support and ticket sales from sparse live opera performances, the inability to perform a standard opera season in an auditorium has hit the opera hard.

Credit: Courtesy of Ken Howard

Credit: Courtesy of Ken Howard

“As with many arts organizations, the pandemic has forced us to look at our business and how we can reach more people in different ways,” said Ashley Mirakian, the opera’s chief of marketing and audience development. “We think (streaming) is not just a flash in the pan; we think this is the future.”

Even before securing the award, Zvulun had been focused on staffing a digital team that could provide content for housebound audiences. Streaming opera is nothing new; the Metropolitan Opera has broadcast its Live in HD series to movie theaters since 2006. But Zvulun and his staff thought about how to make the experience different. His team reached out to organizations such as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which has been streaming recorded concerts since September, and Opera Philadelphia for digital guidance.

Mirakian said overcoming the challenges of the pandemic has drawn arts organizations closer because everyone is trying to figure out the best way forward. Creating a film studio and tapping into the wealth of film knowledge in the surrounding area was a logical step.

“We have a really amazing film industry, and that kind of talent is something that all of our nonprofit arts organizations are looking at right now,” she said.

Local filmmaker Felipe Barral had planned to work with the Atlanta Opera to film regular season productions, but when the pandemic started shutting down live shows, he, like many others, saw the chance to pivot. The Atlanta Opera went all in and developed the idea of a creative digital media studio, an in-house production company where singers could perform experimental opera for digital release.

“We just moved into this startup mentality with research and development,” Barral said. “We want to push the envelope of what Atlanta Opera can be in the digital space and in any other kind of content we can create around it.”

From his perspective, it starts with creating a unique film presentation from the staged production. In filming “The Kaiser of Atlantis,” Barral crawled around on stage during rehearsals and some of the live shows, getting close shots, wide shots and everything in between. He approached the filming from a cinematic perspective, telling a story with his camera instead of simply showing a singer during an aria and then moving onto the next scene.

“In a lot of ways, it’s a totally different experience to what you’re used to seeing,” Barral said. He hopes the film of the performance will add something for audiences even if they attended in person.

Zvulun also sees these filmed versions as a record in time. During the fall performances, singers either sang from behind masks or while contained in clear, protective cages. Capturing these unusual performances in a circus tent is a permanent document of how the opera survived the pandemic.

The tent operas were a success for Zvulun, but he’s still aware of the sharp dichotomy right now between people looking to stringent safety protocols before even considering an event and people who are going about their lives somewhat normally. This divide also exists among singers. Zvulun said the opera created the big tent festival with an eye toward the risk-averse so that everyone could enjoy it.

“Sometimes we took it a step even beyond what is probably necessary,” he said. Still, he can’t wait to return to the status quo. “We obviously want to get back to quote-unquote normal performance as soon as possible.”

The pandemic has been challenging for the financial health of the opera. Tomer said the board decided to change the Atlanta Opera’s business model back in April, shifting the scale of the productions and making sure safety was top of mind. The changes also included reductions in salaries. With the adjustments, Zvulun says the Atlanta Opera is on solid financial footing and has been successful fundraising in spite of the pandemic. The challenge ahead, he said, will be scaling back up, growing from the significant internal cuts, as well as making sure audiences are comfortable. For this, Spotlight Media will continue to be an asset.

“From an earned revenue standpoint, we don’t know what the reaction of the audience will be to going back to attending a performance in an auditorium,” he said. “We’re very safe and secure financially, but the future has to be the priority.”

The Lettie Pate Evans Foundation was created in 1945 by the late Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans, the first woman to serve on Coca-Cola’s board of directors. The foundation supports education and arts and culture through donations to institutions.


Atlanta Opera’s Spotlight Media. Subscribe $15 a month, $99 a year, or purchase content a la carte.