Atlanta Opera returns with Big Tent shows this spring

Atlanta Opera brings back its big tent productions this spring after the success of its fall shows that included this socially distanced version of "Pagliacci." 
Courtesy of Ken Howard
Atlanta Opera brings back its big tent productions this spring after the success of its fall shows that included this socially distanced version of "Pagliacci." Courtesy of Ken Howard

Credit: KenHoward

Credit: KenHoward

Adapted versions of ‘Carmen,’ ‘Threepenny Opera’ kick off the season

Three years ago, the Atlanta Opera brought a lavish production of “Carmen,” the beloved Bizet opera, to a crowded audience at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. This spring, the opera company will do it again ― with more than a few adjustments

Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun has rewritten the three-hour opera to fit pandemic precautions, jettisoning a production stacked with chorus members, singers and a full orchestra to fit a socially distanced, COVID-safe opera performed in a tent in the venue’s parking lot. The new opera, dubbed “The Threepenny Carmen,” runs concurrently with a slimmed down version of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” during the company’s Molly Blank Big Tent Series starting April 15.

“You have to take these famous operas and basically deconstruct them and construct them again so they fit COVID days,” he said.

The spring productions build on Zvulun’s first successful attempts at opera in the age of Coronavirus, “Pagliacci” and “The Kaiser of Atlantis,” held last fall in an open-air tent on the baseball field at Oglethorpe University. Precautions from the fall will still be in place. Safeguards include health screenings for patrons, reduced contact ticketing and enhanced cleaning practices. Masks will be required for patrons at all times regardless of vaccination status. The series also features three one-off concerts.

“The Threepenny Carmen” moves the action from in and around Seville, Spain, to a Spanish-themed bar. Carmen is now a cabaret singer; flamenco dancers add to the action. Social distancing requirements mean that choruses and a full orchestra are out, and singers will wear masks or perform while behind vinyl barriers. To accommodate safety parameters, the runtime has been cut to 90 minutes.

Atlanta Opera General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun.
Courtesy of Bill Mohn
Atlanta Opera General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun. Courtesy of Bill Mohn

“The music that you love is going to be there, but the evening is going to be radically different,” Zvulun said. “There’s a huge focus on the characters, on the music of Bizet and on a plot line that is very lean and neat.”

As a member of the Atlanta Opera Company Players, a cohort of regional singers that populate the pandemic shows, mezzo-soprano Megan Marino will sing Carmen for the first time this spring. Her lack of a reference point actually works in her favor, she said, allowing her to fully embrace the new opera.

Having sung the part of Beppe in Atlanta Opera’s big tent production of “Pagliacci” last fall, Marino has learned that an expansive stage and a luxuriant production is not a requirement for great opera. That experience helped her fully embrace the story behind the opera, finding comfort in reimagining the opera in service of telling the tale in an innovative way.

The thinking was, “this is a great story,” she said. “What if we rip this book apart and try piecing it together in a slightly different way?”

While the big tent experience has challenged Marino’s ideas behind opera performance, she’s also aware of how the setting has changed the audience.

“There’s something really exciting and charming about consuming opera in that different way than what we’re used to, and it brought new people to the experience that otherwise wouldn’t have shown up,” she said.

Marino has seen opera companies around the country follow Atlanta’s lead in adapting to new health and safety realities. Committing to keeping these new programs moving forward is the right thing to do, she said.

“That’s been a really exciting thing, to see how companies have pivoted to try different things,” she said. “This shouldn’t just be a COVID thing. This should be something we do all the time because it’s just really enjoyable and beautiful.”

The series continues with three concerts in April and May. Marino will be joined by baritone Michael Mayes for a sequel to the fall’s “Crossroads” variety show, a musical extravaganza that features gospel, bluegrass, blues and songs from the Great American Songbook. In May, “Imagine Broadway” brings treasured musical theater tunes to the tent. To end the concert series, Atlanta Opera unites black opera singers for a night of reflection in song during the “Concert for Unity.”

As more people get vaccinated in Georgia, the inclination might be to relax standards, but Zvulun thinks it’s important to have strict protocols. These practices, developed with the help of Dr. Carlos del Rio of Emory University and the opera’s own risk mitigation coordinator, Kylie Saunders, created an environment that was successful last fall. The Atlanta Opera is using those practices as a baseline for the spring festival, and Zvulun will be in communication with health experts to adjust safety protocols as needed.

Zvulun’s big-tent opera goals are growing in tandem with the Atlanta Opera’s commitment to digital presentation. In January, the opera launched Spotlight Media with the help of a $500,000 grant from the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation, disseminating its 2020-2021 productions, along with bonus content, to digital subscribers. Zvulun is thrilled with the response.

“As we think about a post-Corona world, it’s going to be a major part of our business operations,” he said.

At the same time, he’s ready to move beyond the tent. Eyeing the fall season, Zvulun and his staff are planning for a variety of scenarios. These run the gamut from being in the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre at full capacity without masks to keeping performances socially distanced in the open-air tent. Everyone is waiting to see how the spring festival progresses and how Georgia fares among the current vaccine rollout. The pandemic performances have instilled the skill of pivoting, and for Zvulun, there is no such thing as over-preparing.

“We’re planning for the best-case scenario,” he said, “and are prepared for the worst-case scenario.”

OPERA PREVIEW

The Molly Blank Big Tent Series. $37.25-$74.50, Cobb Energy Center, 2800 Cobb Galleria Pkwy, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, atlantaopera.org

“Threepenny Carmen” and “Threepenny Opera.” In repertory, April 15-May 9

“Crossroads: The Sequel.” 2 p.m. April 17

“Imagine Broadway.” 2 p.m. May 1

“Concert for Unity.” 2 p.m. May 8

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