Atlanta Opera pivots to outdoor shows during COVID-19

The local opera provides an under-the-hood look at live performances during the pandemic.
Talise Trevigne, soprano, will sing the role of Nedda in the Atlanta Opera production of "Pagliacci," which will be presented in October and November in an outdoor performance under an open-sided circus tent. Courtesy Atlanta Opera

Credit: Atlanta Opera

Credit: Atlanta Opera

Talise Trevigne, soprano, will sing the role of Nedda in the Atlanta Opera production of "Pagliacci," which will be presented in October and November in an outdoor performance under an open-sided circus tent. Courtesy Atlanta Opera

Extreme times call for creative measures.

This fall, the Atlanta Opera is going alfresco.

Today, the opera company announced that instead of ”Madame Butterfly” and Festival Puccini, Atlanta Opera will perform a completely changed program of shorter operas, with casts of eight members or less and 10-person orchestras.

In an innovative experiment, these operas will be performed outdoors, under an open-sided circus tent.

In October and November, the opera will be performing “Pagliacci” and “The Kaiser of Atlantis.” Other productions will be announced at a later date.

”There is conflicting information” about the pandemic, said general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun, “but one thing that is consistently backed up by epidemiologists is that outdoors is safer than indoors.”

The tent, pitched on Oglethorpe University’s baseball field in Brookhaven, will hold a maximum of 240 patrons, compared to the 2,750 seats available at the opera’s previous home, the Cobb Energy Center. The sides of the tent will remain open, allowing outside air to move continuously over the audience.

Numerous other precautions are planned to protect both the audience and the musicians.

Patrons will be seated in “pods” of up to four seats, each pod separated from its neighbors by a minimum of six feet. There will be staggered entry times and a touchless ticketing system.

The musicians will also be isolated from each other by plexiglass shields, and the chorus will be “Zoomed” into productions by way of video screens.

Zvulun said the opera company is being advised by a health and safety task force of epidemiologists, public health specialists and doctors, headed by Dr. Carlos del Rio, professor of medicine at Emory University, and John Haupert, president and CEO of Atlanta’s Grady Health System and vice-chairman of Georgia’s Department of Public Health.

In another innovation, announced earlier this summer, the opera has assembled a group of Atlanta performers (and performers from nearby) who will be under contract for the full season and will make up much of the cast for the productions this season.

Reginald Smith (left) and Morris Robinson, who appeared in "Porgy and Bess" last season, will be part of the Atlanta Opera's new ensemble of Atlanta artists.  Raftermen

Credit: Raftermen

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Credit: Raftermen

The announcement stated, “The singers will receive salary and benefits from the company. In return, the singers will commit to performing the season and to serving as mentors and coaches to the six members of the company’s Studio Artists program.”

That ensemble includes sopranos Jasmine Habersham and Talise Trevigne, mezzo-sopranos Jamie Barton, Daniela Mack and Megan Marino, tenors Alek Shrader and Richard Trey Smagur, baritones Michael Mayes and Reginald Smith, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny and basses Kevin Burdette and Morris Robinson.

Members of the ensemble won’t have to travel for performances, reducing their risk of exposure.

“What a great way to take care of those singers and to create loyalty to the opera company,” said Zvulun. “We hope it can go past next year.”

The pair of operas that will be performed in October and November are suited for the new experimental venue.

This fall the Atlanta Opera will perform outdoors under an open-sided circus tent, similar to the one in this artist's rendering. It's a way to present opera in safer surroundings. Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

Credit: Atlanta Opera

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Credit: Atlanta Opera

“Pagliacci” contains one of the most arresting arias in opera, Vesti La Giubba. It is less than 75 minutes long and will have no intermission. “Kaiser” is less than an hour and a half.

Written by Ruggero Leoncavallo in 1892, “Pagliacci” concerns the fatal jealousies within a commedia dell’arte theater troupe. One of the scenes includes a typical slapstick commedia scene, with plenty of physical rough-housing. Staging it in the era of COVID-19 would have been risky.

Instead, the singers are separated by plexiglass while the slapstick is performed by puppets.

Viktor Ullmann wrote “The Kaiser of Atlantis” in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, with Peter Kien contributing a libretto. Both men were shipped to Auschwitz where they perished, Kien of disease and Ullmann in the gas chamber. The manuscript survived in the hands of a fellow prisoner and received its first performance in 1975.

Instead of delaying the shows of 2020-2021 month by month, with the hope that the pandemic would recede, the Atlanta Opera made the decision in May to postpone the entire season for a full year, and to come up with something new.

It is part of a “the show must go on” attitude that the opera is borrowing from the circus. We are desperate for live performance and tired of handheld devices, said Zvulun.

“If you look at history it is packed with black swans, with unfortunate events, great depressions, world wars and pandemics. This is not new,” said Zvulun.

“Artists, like circus artists, were always able to find a way to persevere, to mount their tent and go on, because the community needs that.”

If we can do it safely, he said, the rewards will be great.


Atlanta Opera presents “Pagliacci,” music and libretto by Ruggero Leoncavallo.

Oct. 22, 24, 28, 30, Nov. 1, 5, 7, 11 and 13.

“The Kaiser of Atlantis,” music by Viktor Ullmann and libretto by Peter Kien.

Oct. 23, 25, 29, 31, Nov. 4, 6, 8, 12 and 14.

7:30 p.m.

Oglethorpe University, 4484 Peachtree Road NE, Brookhaven. 404-881-8801