After an intense battle with a bitter rival during the Roman civil war, Julius Caesar moves toward Egypt with his head held high but more than a little road weary. There he falls deeply in love with that rival’s daughter, Cleopatra, setting off a tale of family intrigue and a little betrayal that ends happily for most involved.
That might not have been exactly how it happened in 45 B.C., but it’s the tale George Frideric Handel portrayed when he unveiled the Italian opera “Giulio Cesare in Egitto” to the Royal Academy of Music in 1724.
Baroque in both music and sensibility, Handel’s chamber opera can feel as anachronistic as the subject matter. Almost three centuries later, Atlanta Opera general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun is shooting to create the stage equivalent of a mythic, fantasy universe, telling the love story in the cinematic language of today.
“The opera doesn’t really follow historic events,” Zvulun said. “We took the same concept and created a visual world that has a nod to Roman times but also creates a mythologized version of that world. So, it’s a world that’s very much like ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Lord of the Rings.’”
Early last year, nobody envisioned seeing a Handel opera starting a new Atlanta Opera season at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. In fact, the 2020-2021 season was supposed to usher in an epic version of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” with the composer’s “Die Walküre” planned for the following season. Those plans, of course, were wrecked by the pandemic.
“Porgy and Bess” proved to be Atlanta Opera’s last full production in the Cobb Energy Centre in March 2020. To provide music during the pandemic, the organization held a series of limited, COVID-safe offerings in an open-air tent.
The Big Tent Concert Series operas were stripped down, and the singers wore masks or sung while encased in plastic booths. The ensemble, when an ensemble existed, hit the audience’s ears through speakers. The small orchestra was piped in as well, playing live in a separate, smaller tent.
For its return to the Cobb Energy Centre, Zvulun knew grand opera was out of the question. In the Handel composition, there is no chorus of singers, and the cast is limited to eight. In the orchestra pit, conductor Gary Thor Wedow will lead an ensemble of 35 musicians, a far cry from the large ensemble that performed in past productions.
So “Julius Caesar” won’t be a full return to the lavish productions and full casts of pre-pandemic Atlanta Opera shows, but the masks and other precautions seen during the opera’s Big Tent series won’t be there, either. (Although audience members will be required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours.)
“The forces are smaller, but the production is going to be very impressive,” Zvulun said. “It’s just that when we cast it and prepared for it, we had in mind safety and how many people can you put on stage singing at each other.”
Atlanta audiences will see the same production Zvulun directed for the Israeli Opera at the Israeli port city of Acre, on the Mediterranean coast, in 2017. He created it with a team that included noted choreographer Donald Byrd and set designer Alexander Lisyansky. The Atlanta performances feature mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman in the title role alongside Jasmine Habersham as Cleopatra. Megan Marino will play Sesto Pompeo. The opera also features Renee Tatum, Daniel Moody, David Crawford, William Meinert and Elizabeth Sarian.
Habersham is a member of the Atlanta Opera Company players, a cohort of local singers supported by the Atlanta Opera during the pandemic who participated in the Big Tent series. The experience taught her to be more adaptable to challenges.
“Art can be done during these times and can still move people,” she said. “I do take that with me — if things need to be adjusted, I can make it work. It’s kind of like a part of my toolbox now.”
The numerous changes necessary to run an opera company during a pandemic have become part of the organization’s DNA. Future performances will benefit from the creation of the Atlanta Company Players by providing a solid foundation of local singers. The opera also formed its own film studio, and filming and streaming performances will become an even larger part of its operations.
Meanwhile, the Big Tent series will return in 2022. Zvulun was energized by the success of bite-sized opera in an unusual location, even with masks and safety precautions. Half the audience that attended “Threepenny Carmen” in the tent last spring had never been to an opera before, he said. He attributes the 90-minute running time, the lack of an intermission and the unusual setting as some of the reasons first-timers came to check it out.
“We are thinking of the organization as a whole differently,” Zvulun said.
Singers are masked during rehearsals for “Julius Caesar,” but the plan is to unmask during performances. Zvulun realizes the COVID-19 situation can change rapidly, though. He’s had to adapt countless times over the last year-and-a-half. The director has learned that preparing for flexibility, and being able to react to changing health outlooks quickly is part of living in the world right now.
“Julius Caesar.” Nov. 6-14. $45-$140. Masks and proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test results taken within 72 hours required. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885.atlantaopera.org