‘Forsyth County is Flooding’ debuts at 96-Hour Opera Festival

Plus five 10-minute operas will compete for a $10,000 commission.
Maria Clark and Tyrone Webb perform in "Go On With That Wind" by Marcus Norris and Adamma Edo. The production won the 96-Hour Opera Festival competition in 2022, resulting in the commission of Norris and Edo's new opera, "Forsyth County is Flood (with the Joy of Lake Lanier)," which premieres at this year's festival. Courtesy of Jeff Roffman

Credit: Jeff Roffman

Credit: Jeff Roffman

Maria Clark and Tyrone Webb perform in "Go On With That Wind" by Marcus Norris and Adamma Edo. The production won the 96-Hour Opera Festival competition in 2022, resulting in the commission of Norris and Edo's new opera, "Forsyth County is Flood (with the Joy of Lake Lanier)," which premieres at this year's festival. Courtesy of Jeff Roffman

In the bite-sized opera “Go On With That Wind,” two college students of color find themselves at the 1939 premiere of “Gone With the Wind,” reacting with embarrassment at the overt racism of the movie and the perhaps subtler racism of the Loew’s Grand Theater festivities.

In the closing moments, soprano Maria Clark turns, in abject shock, to tenor Tyrone Web and sings: “Whenever I get to act, I will not let them typecast.”

The opera scene netted composer Marcus Norris and librettist Adamma Ebo first place at the Atlanta Opera’s inaugural 96-Hour Opera Project competition in 2022. It also summed up the organization’s goal: enabling teams of composers and librettists from historically underserved communities to bring new perspectives into a historically homogenous medium.

This year’s competition has expanded into a festival featuring the competition, a workshop for the 2023 winner and the premiere of Ebo and Morris’ one-act opera “Forsyth County is Flooding (with the Joy of Lake Lanier),” a commission they received after winning the first competition.

Ebo and Morris premiere their new opera June 15, followed by the competition finale June 17 at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center on the campus of Morehouse College.

Five 10-minute operas will be presented at the finale showcase, where the works will be judged by a panel of opera luminaries. This year’s mini operas focus broadly on the theme of AI: How do you teach artistic expression to a robot? The result is “The Binya and the Comya” by Lauren McCall and Mo Holmes; “Mimeo” by George Tsz-Kwan Lam and David Davila; “The Creek Rises or the Understudy” by Evan Williams and Ashlee Haze; “What is Love? An AI Story” by Timothy Amukele and Jarrod Lee; and “Jarla Smiriti — Water Memory” by Kitty Brazleton and Vaibu Mohan.

These finalists will spend 96 hours rehearsing and workshopping their operas, vying for a $10,000 prize and the chance to turn their kernel of an idea into a full-fledged opera for performance at a future 96-Hour Opera Festival. Guided by competition artistic adviser Morris Robinson, the groups will be judged by Atlanta composer and Grammy nominee Carlos Simon and Andrea Davis Pinkney, librettist for Houston Grand Opera’s “The Snowy Day,” among others.

In 2022, Ebo and Norris were brand new to opera. The two had worked together on the 2022 film “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul,” starring Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown. Adamma wrote and directed, and Norris provided the score. The two were looking to continue their collaboration and Norris, who founded the South Side Symphony in LA in 2020 and has orchestrated for Beyoncé, zeroed in on the Atlanta opportunity. Norris was to bring all his composition experiences to a new genre. In Ebo, he found a more than willing collaborator.

“Coming to this with little to no experience in it, there might have been preconceived notions about what we could accomplish,” said Ebo, who grew up in Atlanta. “At this point, it’s not really a question that we can tell a compelling story together.”

They return to Atlanta as known entities in the opera world to tell a story full of mystery and intrigue. Billed as a modern-day ghost story, “Forsyth County is Flooding” features a private detective, a witch and a whole lot of preconceived notions about the creation of a lake shrouded in myth.

“I’ve been to Lake Lanier the area a bunch of times, but I’ve never gotten in the water,” said Ebo. “My relationship to it, combined with the historical significance, being able to say something poignant and still be able to operate in the darkly comedic realm, was really interesting to the two of us.”

“It’s a mystery. It’s spooky. It’s funny,” Norris added.

Tomer Zvulun, has worked as Atlanta Opera's general manager and artistic director since 2013.
Courtesy of Orel Cohen

Credit: Orel Cohen

icon to expand image

Credit: Orel Cohen

The 10-minute products of the competition are meant to stand by themselves, but awarding a commission to the winners allows them to expand their “embryo of an idea,” said Tomer Zvulun, general and artistic director of the Atlanta Opera. The year after they win, winners participate in a full workshop of the opera, and the following year they produce the world premiere.

For this initial commission, plans changed. The two didn’t revisit “Gone With the Wind” because, as Norris said, the initial scene “was a full idea.” Instead they turned their sights to the mythology and misconceptions surrounding the establishment of Lake Lanier.

“We wanted to do something different and kind of had to show that, like, hey, we didn’t just get lucky,” said Norris. “We really are good at this thing.”

The purpose of the 96-hour time limit is not to create an artistic work from scratch in four days. Rather, the composition teams come to Atlanta with an idea fully formed and spend the week developing the act for the stage. This is a departure from the Atlanta Opera’s original 24-hour opera project that predated Zvulun’s tenure. It required participants to write and develop a 10-minute work in a single day.

“I think there’s something very cute about the idea, but I didn’t see that it yielded significant, thoughtful work,” said Zvulun.

Norris takes the blame for misunderstanding this aspect of the competition. He thought the time limit applied to the opera’s entire development, so the two showed up in Atlanta without a composition. They wrote and put together the entry in a feverish four days. It didn’t help matters that they both had COVID-19 and had to compete from their hotel rooms.

“We made it way more stressful than it needed to be,” he said.

Focusing the reinvigorated competition on composers and librettists of color was a reaction to the racial reckoning sparked by the death of George Floyd in 2020. Zvulun wanted to commission a work for the Atlanta Opera that responded to the social justice movement, but “Frankly, I couldn’t think of many composers or librettists of underrepresented communities,” he said.

The 96-hour win and subsequent commission has solidified Ebo and Norris’s fruitful collaboration.

“Our tastes are so similar,” said Norris. “There’s a built-in artistic trust and respect. … I can just let her do her thing, and I know when it gets to me, it’s going to be what I need.”

Their advice to this year’s contestants?

“Don’t be afraid to take a risk with your storytelling, with your style of music,” said Ebo. “Don’t feel like you have to be confined to what you know opera to be or you think opera should be. Just tell a good story.”

And, perhaps, write the opera scene before coming to Atlanta.


96-Hour Opera Festival. “Forsyth County is Flooding (with the Joy of Lake Lanier).” 8 p.m. June 15. $20. Competition showcase 7 p.m. June 17. $10. Ray Charles Performing Arts Center, Morehouse College, 900 West End Ave. SW, Atlanta. atlantaopera.org