Atlanta Opera Celebrates Record-Breaking 2018-19 Season
The Atlanta Opera broke new records this season. Even before its final presentation Francesca Zambello's new take on La traviata, which closed this past weekend 2018-19 was already guaranteed to be the company's highest-grossing season of the past decade, highlighted by last fall's West Side Story, the highest-selling production in the Atlanta Opera's 39-year history (Opera News).
Such success is owed in no small part to the caliber of the company's recent productions. Booked to appear at some of the foremost houses in America and around the world, their impact extends far beyond Atlanta. General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun's new treatment of Eugene Onegin, first seen at the house in March, travels to Montreal Opera this fall and Seattle Opera in January. Meanwhile his original take on Dead Man Walking, seen in Atlanta at the opera's recent Southeast premiere, heads next to the Israeli Opera, where it will mark the first staging of an American opera in Israel. After closing the Atlanta season, Zambello's new production of La traviata heads to the Glimmerglass Festival this summer. As for her hit treatment of West Side Story, it opens next month at Lyric Opera of Chicago, one of the preeminent houses worldwide.
The quality of Atlanta's productions consistently attracts an outstanding array of singers. Those who made key role debuts at the house this season included mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, tenor Jay Hunter Morris, and baritone Michael Mayes, and those making company debuts included American tenor William Burden, Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang, and Argentine baritone Fabian Veloz. Czech-born soprano Zuzana Markov made her U.S. debut at the house, and no less a figure than Stephanie Blythe, a once-in-a-generation opera singer (New York Times), hosts and headlines a special night of song in Atlanta later this month (May 18).
The Atlanta Opera is achieving similar success with two recent innovations. The Veterans Program, which provides complimentary tickets to military servicemen and women, was recognized with Arts ATL's 2019 Luminary Award for Community Engagement, and the Discoveries series, presenting authentic, intimate and immersive experiences in nontraditional spaces, saw exponential audience and sales growth. Since the series's introduction four seasons ago, its revenue has increased by almost 500%. This season's offerings played to near full-capacity houses, and although 42% of audience members were new to The Atlanta Opera, 24% of these new patrons went on to buy tickets to the one of the company's mainstage productions as well.
Now ending its fourth consecutive season in the black, the company has succeeded in securing significant funding towards future seasons. These remarkable gains result primarily from initiatives introduced by Zvulun to increase artistic risks while reducing financial ones. The opera's growth and expansiveness could be directly attributed to the man in charge, Tomer Zvulun, whose reforms to the company have seen its profile and audience grow in spades, Opera Wire has noted, concluding: The Atlanta Opera is on the upswing and becoming one of the most exciting opera companies in America.
Atlanta's present season has already triumphed, not only with audiences, but with critics as well. A definitive hit' (Schmopera), West Side Story delivered a 'must see' take on the classic (ArtsATL). This was again the work of Zambello, general director of the Glimmerglass Festival and artistic director of Washington National Opera, who drew the staging together like a well-oiled machine (ArtsATL). Vanessa Becerra gave a complex, dynamic, and passionate (Schmopera) account of Maria, Andrew Bidlack showcased his achingly beautiful timbre (Opera News) as Tony, Amanda Castro was on fire (ArtsATL) as Anita, Brian Vu proved himself a bona fide triple threat (Opera News) as Riff, and DJ Petrosino portrayed Bernardo so convincingly that it was hard to picture anyone else being as successful in this role (Schmopera). As Opera News put it, When all was said and done, Atlanta's West Side Story emerged timeless and tragic. Small wonder that a fifth performance was added by popular demand.
Zvulun himself directed a new treatment of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin as a co-production with Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Hawaii Opera Theatre, Seattle Opera, and Michigan Opera Theatre. Once again, the critical response was positive. Baritone David Adam Moore gave a strong performance as the complex, self-contradictory Onegin (Earrelevant) and Atlanta Opera Studio artist Justin Stolz, who stepped in at the eleventh hour as Lensky, simply knocked it out of the park (Earrelevant).
Also on Atlanta's main stage was the Southeast premiere of Dead Man Walking (2000), Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally's opera about Sister Helen Prejean's experience as a spiritual advisor on death row. As Opera News reported, With both the composer and Sister Helen in the audience, and a cast filled with first-rate singers, the company presented a gritty, unsettling show. The production was again the work of Zvulun himself. According to Bachtrack: The staging was magnificent, establishing the cage-like prison with stark reality and the execution chamber as an inhuman and nightmarish space. The Atlanta Opera, and production director Tomer Zvulun, deserve much credit. Anchoring the the strongest overall cast in the company's recent history (ArtsATL), superstar mezzo-soprano and Georgia native Jamie Barton made her role debut as Sister Helen, easily fill[ing] the 2,750-seat theater (Classical Voice America), and successfully establishing the sincerity and empathy that Sister Helen must demonstrate (Opera News), in a performance hailed as a genuine tour-de-force (ArtsATL). Of Michael Mayes's portrayal of condemned murderer De Rocher, Opera News marveled: The role fits Mayes's instrument and comportment like a glove: the opera could have been written for him, and his interpretation of the character is definitive. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution concluded, the Atlanta Opera production makes clear why the dramatic power of Dead Man Walking continues to strike a chord.
To conclude the mainstage season, The Atlanta Opera presented Verdi's La traviata in a lavish Belle Epoque staging by Francesca Zambello. A co-production with Washington National Opera, the Glimmerglass Festival, Seattle Opera, and Indiana University, this was hailed as an excellent new version of the perennial favorite (ArtsATL). Making her U.S. and house debuts in the title role, Czech-born soprano Zuzana Markov boasted a presence so strong here, both vocally and physically, that she [came] close to dominating the production (ArtsATL). In their company debuts, Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang was deserving of top honors (New Outpost) as Alfredo and Argentine baritone Fabian Veloz brought emotional depth and a sort of wistful, forbearing, presiding wisdom (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) to the role of Germont. With key contributions from Music Director Arthur Fagen, who drew beautiful warmth and lovely detail from the orchestra (Atlanta Journal-Constitution), and from Peter Davison, whose scenic design was fabulously effective (EarRelevant), the production ranks as [Atlanta's] most beautiful [Traviata] to date (New Outpost).
With operas celebrating tango and jazz respectively, the 2018-19 Discoveries series continued to expand its street credit for adventurous productions (ArtsATL). At Atlanta's L Maison Rouge in Paris on Ponce, Argentinean-born conductor Jorge Parodi led a revival of Zvulun's hit staging of Astor Piazzolla's tango opera, Mar a de Buenos Aires, which premiered in Atlanta in 2017, before traveling to New Orleans Opera and New York City Opera. Now back home in Atlanta, it became clear that this Mar a [was] stronger, more resilient than the one two years ago. Not only did Armenian-Argentinean mezzo-soprano Solange Merdinian give a more nuanced performance in the title role, but Zvulun had succeeded in refining and honing the work, making changes that clarified and intensified the production (Earrelevant).
For the Southern premiere of Charlie Parker's Yardbird (2015), Daniel Schnyder and Bridgette A. Wimberly's depiction of the great saxophonist's final hours, Zvulun saw an opportunity for innovation (ArtsATL), taking the opera out of the proscenium theater and into L Maison Rouge's jazz club setting. The title role was shared between Joshua Stewart, who pulled off both lyric and melismatic passages (Opera News), and Martin Bakari, who convincingly s[a]ng and acted (ArtsATL) the part of the tortured jazz icon. As Parker's mother, it was thrilling to hear the power and grandeur (Opera News) of Angela Brown's voice. Under the effective stage direction (ArtsATL) of Omer Ben Seadia, the production proved so successful that once all four originally scheduled performances sold out, four more were added. ArtsATL spoke for many when it declared: The Atlanta Opera nailed it with this year's productions.
The Atlanta Opera's mission is to enrich its community by creating the highest quality operatic and theatrical programming that reimagines the classics and introduces new works, expands and engages its audience, and stimulates critical conversations. Founded in 1979, The Atlanta Opera celebrates its 40th anniversary in the 2019-20 season. The company works with world-renowned singers, conductors, directors, and designers who seek to enhance the art form. Under the leadership of internationally recognized stage director and Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. General & Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun, The Atlanta Opera recently expanded its annual season from three to four mainstage productions at Cobb Energy Centre and launched the acclaimed Discoveries series. In recent years, the company was honored at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Best of 2015 awards, was nominated for a 2016 International Opera Award, and won ArtsATL's 2019 Luminary Award for Community Engagement, recognizing the company's successful Veterans Program, which was created in partnership with the Home Depot Foundation. The Atlanta Opera was also featured in a 2018 Harvard Business School case study about successful organizational growth, and Zvulun presented a TEDx Talk at Emory University on The Ambidextrous Opera Company, or Opera in the Age of iPhones.
For more information, visit atlantaopera.org.