Tomer Zvulun had just finished his two years in the IDF as a combat medic and was just starting medical school in Israel where he grew up. To support himself he took a part-time job as a props manager at a local opera house and, almost immediately, he fell under the spell of the stage.
“Working there blew my mind. I was working backstage, and I saw and heard the response of the audience with what we created, and I thought, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. This is what I want to do in life.”
He dropped out of medical school to continue his career in Israel and eventually came to the United States as a visiting scholar. After stints as a guest artist at opera companies in America and abroad, and after directing performances at the Metropolitan in New York, he came to Atlanta 11 years ago. Today, as the artistic and executive director of the Atlanta Opera, he has created an international reputation in the opera world as an innovative advocate for remaking the public image of opera.
“Opera gets a bad rap. When people think about it, they mistakenly think about an archaic form that is not really connected to people. In fact, it has the power of theater design, music, the human voice. And my job here in Atlanta over the past 11 years has been to break the ivory tower or to at least open the ivory tower to everyone.”
As examples of how he has expanded the boundaries of a traditional opera company, Zvulun points to the two popular works that the company produced this fall. First, the September performance of “The Shining,” an operatic adaptation done with the Alliance Theater which is based on Stephen King’s 1977 horror novel.
Second was the screening of the 1931 early sound film classic, “Frankenstein,” accompanied by a live vocal and orchestral performance conducted by the composer, Michael Shapiro. More than 2,000 ticket buyers attended the Halloween performance at the large Cobb Energy Centre theater. Many of them were dressed in holiday costumes and stayed after the performance to drink and dance in the theater’s spacious lobby. Zvulun is proud of the fact that as many as 75 percent of the youthful crowd were not regular Atlanta Opera patrons.
“The amazing thing about opera is that it is a multi-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary art form. It’s based on literature. It includes classical music and an orchestral work and the human voice that perform at such a high level. I want to make sure that we capitalize on the incredible power of this cross-disciplinary art form and attract people that love cinema like ‘Frankenstein’ or ‘The Shining,’ to know that this thing we call opera continues to exist.”
Under Zvulun’s leadership, the Atlanta Opera company has started its own video production studio. Although it was originally founded to create performances during the recent pandemic for a virtual world, with the resumption of the regular season, the Atlanta Opera Studio has continued to produce documentaries and recordings of performances.
On its website, visitors can watch performances of Wagner’s “Das Rhinegold” from earlier this year and last year’s “Madame Butterfly.” A full slate of past performances can be viewed through partnerships with Georgia Public Broadcasting and internationally with Marquee TV in Europe or through the company’s own subscription site.
A screening of two of the documentaries, including one about how the company adapted to the challenges of the pandemic, was shown last month at the Tara and Plaza theaters. The opera director believes that his is the only company in this country, and one of the few in the world, that has maintained such a commitment to reach audiences wherever they may be.
“It’s another way of taking opera out of the ivory tower, bringing it to new audiences, developing young people, and changing all of those things that so often makes opera seem so remote and only for a limited audience.”
Even such classics as Guiseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” which was premiered in 1851, but was staged this month by the Atlanta company, resonates with what Zvulun believes are very up to the moment tragedies.
“In ‘Rigoletto,’ there’s famously this incredible scene. Where the daughter of the protagonist is kidnapped and taken hostage by this group of heartless, faceless, masked, venomous, and inhumane people. And during the time we were preparing this performance, I was watching TV from Israel of a father pleading with Hamas to spare his daughter. So, this opera is so relevant, so deeply and profoundly human. And, for me, it is infused with my personal pain and the pain of my country.”