Atlanta Opera turns live productions into feature films

The idea started during the pandemic but it’s now a permanent feature for opera fans.
The Atlanta Opera's in house film studio records the dress rehearsal performance of "La Boheme" to be made available for remote streaming. (Olivia Bowdoin for the AJC).

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

The Atlanta Opera's in house film studio records the dress rehearsal performance of "La Boheme" to be made available for remote streaming. (Olivia Bowdoin for the AJC).

The Atlanta Opera, like every other arts organization in the city, was in a massive bind in 2020 when the pandemic hit and shut down live productions for months.

Starting that fall, artistic and general director Tomer Zvulun staged outdoor opera performances under a custom circus tent. But he also knew a significant portion of the audience wasn’t going to venture to a live show, so he launched a movie studio to create film versions of his opera productions.

Even now, more than three years later, with opera attendance back to pre-pandemic levels, Zvulun is still fully committed to creating films of every major production as a way to showcase the opera to a worldwide audience.

The latest Atlanta Opera production is the classic love story “La Bohème,” currently at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre through Sunday, Jan. 28. Limited tickets are still available at atlantaopera.com with prices ranging from $40 to $355. A livestream of the opera will be available for free on Friday at https://stream.atlantaopera.org/. The film will be finished later this year.

Zvulun, who took over the opera in 2013 and has helped triple its annual revenue, has always been enchanted by movies.

“I grew up on classical films: Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Fellini,” Zvulun said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “My stage work has always been influenced by those great directors.”

For years, he has used both static and animated projections in his operas to give them a more cinematic feel. He previously incorporated film segments into productions of “Pagliacci,” “Three Penny Opera” and “Cabaret.”

Felipe Barral, Director of The Atlanta Opera's in house film studio, prepares to record the dress rehearsal performance of "La Boheme" on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. (Olivia Bowdoin for the AJC).

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

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Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

Five months into the pandemic in 2020, Zvulun created The Atlanta Opera Film Studio and hired former CNN producer Felipe Barral as the director. He also invested spare funds to purchase professional film equipment and a green screen, using existing space for the studio at Atlanta Opera headquarters off Northside Drive.

“Felipe enabled me to bring my two passions of stage and film together,” Zvulun said. “The pandemic just moved things along.”

Zvulun and Barral have since created eight movies and a comparable number of taped livestreamed versions of its stage productions.

The fully produced films are available for a $25 annual membership fee on the Atlanta Opera streaming site and include “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.” (There is a 30-day free trial.) The livestream stage versions are free for anybody to watch. Georgia Public Broadcasting has also aired some of the films.

Zvulun said about 8,000 people saw the Jobs opera live in 2022. “When we broadcast the film on GPB on a Sunday afternoon, 35,000 people saw it,” he said. “We aired it on Marquee TV in Europe and another 20,000 people saw it.”

The studio has also added separate documentaries, interview clips and music videos, supplemental materials to enhance the experience for people who may have attended the operas themselves. And they have distributed educational films to schools to expose students to opera.

“We want people to enjoy opera in a different way,” Barral said. “We also want to reach new audiences.”

Felipe Barral (right) filming "La Boheme" for The Atlanta Opera during a rehearsal session at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Atlanta on Jan. 17, 2024.

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin/AJC freelancer

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Credit: Olivia Bowdoin/AJC freelancer

For the time being, the studio is not financially self-sustaining but it’s not a massive drain on the opera’s finances either. “We have economies of scale,” Zvulun said. “The costs are already sunken in the analog production.”

For last year’s “Rigoletto,” for instance, Barral said the film only added 10% to the overall cost of the production.

Zvulun said the films are also a strong promotional tool for anybody who might want to donate to the opera or participate in productions.

Tomer Zvulun, a native of Israel, has worked as Atlanta Opera's general manager and artistic director since 2013.
Photo: Orel Cohen

Credit: Orel Cohen

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Credit: Orel Cohen

Barral films scenes from multiple rehearsals and live productions which are combined for the movie. In all, he used nine cameras to shoot “La Bohème” at multiple angles.

During a recent dress rehearsal with the orchestra, Barral carried a portable camera and shadowed the actors weaving in and out of props on the stage. Sometimes, he got within two or three feet of the actors.

“I want to bring you close to the action,” Barral said. “Even if you pay for an expensive front-row ticket, the orchestra is still between you and the stage. The film provides you a more intimate experience.”

For the opera singers used to performing just for a live audience, having a camera close to their face is new. “When he is close up, I try to show more natural expressions,” said Long Long, a Chinese opera singer who plays Rodolfo, the male lead in “La Bohème.”

Gabrielle Reyes, who plays Rodolfo’s love Mimi, called Barral “a master. He makes me hyper aware of the details in storytelling. For example, when Mimi is talking about her hands being frigid, I have to make sure my fingers clutch onto Rodolfo’s hand a certain way. Even when I’m falling in love with him, I think about how my hands discover him, the way I touch his cheek or the softness of his sweater. The film allows you to capture details like that in a way the patrons in the last row cannot catch.”

During the live shows in front of paying audiences, Barral may occasionally pop on stage to film but the audience is informed why he is there and he purposely tries to stay further away from the actors than during the rehearsals.

The movies also enable Barral to add scenes you don’t see on stage. For “The Threepenny Opera,” he worked with the Center for Puppetry Arts to illustrate songs and plot points with shadow puppets. For the Steve Jobs opera film, the most popular so far, he shot 44 extra sequences in the woods at Serenbe, a neighborhood in Chattahoochee Hills.

“We filmed on location and overlaid those scenes on top of actual show footage,” Barral said. “That way we created a new opera film that is the best of both worlds. With ‘Jobs,’ we had actors walk in actual nature. We had transition music.”

IF YOU GO

“La Bohème.” Presented by the Atlanta Opera. 3 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 28. $30-$355. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway. atlantaopera.org

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