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Q&A: Tomer Zvulun, Atlanta Opera’s new general director, on his vision for reinvention

Tomer (foreground) in 2011 directing the Atlanta Opera productions of "Lucia di Lammermoor."
Tomer (foreground) in 2011 directing the Atlanta Opera productions of "Lucia di Lammermoor."
Tomer Zvulun (foreground) directs “Lucia di Lammermoor” in Seattle in 2010.

Since Dennis Hanthorn’s abrupt departure last August, the Atlanta Opera has operated without a leader. Last week, the company announced that it had chosen Tomer Zvulun, a young stage director, as its new general and artistic director. Zvulun has directed several operas here, including “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “The Magic Flute.”

The concept of a stage director taking over an opera company is a recent innovation and follows the dramatic rise in power of opera directors, once considered mere stage decorators. As the visual element of opera has grown in importance, so has the stage director, who sometimes functions more as a producer, heading a team dealing with sets, costumes, lighting and movement.

The success rate for stage directors promoted to running companies has been mixed. On the one hand there is Francesca Zambello, one of the top international directors, who in the last few years has taken over both the Glimmerglass Festival and the Washington National Opera. By most measures, both have done quite well under her leadership.

On the other hand, there is the history of Peter Sellars, a brilliant director who has nevertheless bankrupted several of Amerca’s most important musical institutions, including the well-regarded Pepsico Fest in upstate New York and the biennial Los Angeles Festival. And, of course, there is the startling case of Gerard Mortier, who took over the New York City Opera in 2007 and in less than two years managed to take a proud company with an annual budget that exceeded $40 million down to below $15 million after his resignation. In the process, the company went from a 23-opera season to the current four, after skipping an entire season for an ill-fated renovation of the opera house, which it was unable to return to for lack of funds.

Zvulun is certainly more mainstream than Sellars or Mortier, but, like them, he has no fund-raising background or experience in running an arts institution. And he will be essentially a part-time leader, as he expects to continue his work as a director. He is taking over a company that needs to drastically expand both its budget and its season, and which has lost a charismatic leader in what appears to have been a conflict with the board over direction in repertoire.

Interviewing Zvulun last week, I was struck by his honesty and obvious enthusiasm. Reviewing the recording later, I realized that his direct style reminds me of Zambello, whom I interviewed two years ago for a German magazine. It’s a good sign.

Zvulun spoke by telephone from Buenos Aires, where he is currently directing Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” for the city’s second-largest opera company, the Buenos Aires Lirica.

ArtsATL: Welcome to Atlanta and to the Atlanta Opera. Your predecessor once said that for most of the audience here, every night is a world premiere. Due to our history, where we’ve never had a strong opera company, much of the audience did not grow up with opera as a significant part of their experience. Compared to other places, many people here lack the kind of discerning knowledge regarding voices, repertoire and all the things that make for passionate support, large checks and full houses. With such a limited budget and number of performances, how can you change that?

Tomer Zvulun: The first thing is to make sure the groups that have been supporting the Atlanta Opera are getting the product they would like to see: productions that will sell and not disappoint the audience. In addition, we can introduce other pieces in a fiscally responsible way. We have to be careful, but we have to pursue new audiences.

Opera has to be exciting — not just a vocal event, but a theatrical, multimedia event. And it must be reinvented to tell the familiar stories in fresh ways. I hope to get back to four productions [per year] as soon as possible. Initially, this will mean three productions at the Cobb Center and one in a suitable setting — more intimate, less costly, with a smaller orchestra — of a piece that is perhaps more modern or less familiar. Three is not enough.

ArtsATL: The Atlanta Opera did this with some success in 2009 with Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten,” performed at the Schwartz Center.

Zvulun: Yes, that is what we are talking about. Making that a regular part of our season to bring us back to four productions as quickly as possible.

ArtsATL: Obviously the Atlanta Opera faces huge financial challenges if it is to get to the kind of scale that would make sense for a city this size. How do you respond to the observation that your resume is short on fund-raising — perhaps the single biggest job you face?

Zvulun: I think people respond to passion, to vision and to excitement. And when you have a clear vision and you generate artistic excitement, people like to help.

ArtsATLIn a similar vein, you don’t come with a background of having run a big business. What can you say to reassure us about that?

Zvulun: I’ve been an opera producer for the past decade. Your job is to provide excellent product and to be fiscally responsible. That vision can be expanded to the company.

ArtsATLYour board chairman has said that the Atlanta Opera should limit itself to “the top 30 operas of the international repertoire.” And the essential issue behind the company’s recent traumas seems to be whether it should retreat to safe productions of warhorses or take risks with expanded repertoire. Can you talk about where you come down on all of this, and on what level of freedom you’ll have in this area?

Zvulun: I’m not going to relate exactly to that quote. We will continue to offer main-stage productions that are popular, mainstream pieces, without being constrained to a number.

ArtsATL: Will you be cutting back on your stage directing work to devote energy and time to the Atlanta Opera?

Zvulun: To some extent, yes. It’s very important to me to continue to direct. I will direct up to two productions per year in Atlanta, and I will continue to work outside. This generates a network of singers, conductors, other stage directors and collaborations with other companies.

ArtsATL: Have you spoken with Dennis Hanthorn since you were first considered for this job?

Zvulun: Boy, you really ask hard questions! [Pause.] Dennis is an old friend and I love him dearly. We have been in touch, and [pause] I just wish him well.

ArtsATL: Will you be living in Atlanta as your principal residence?

Zvulun: Yes.

ArtsATL: How will you be phasing in to the job? And when will you start showing up for work?

Zvulun: I will be in Atlanta beginning in June, staying most of the summer and much of this year. This is a transition year. The 2013-14 season has been planned and cast [by the company’s senior management], so the first season I will be able to put together will be 2014-15. And I will be here as much as I can.

ArtsATL: Have you been given the authority to put together your own team as you see fit, and have you begun to think about whatever reorganization you might bring to the company?

Zvulun: Yes, I have that possibility. The staff is incredible, though. They are great people. We will start with the most optimistic view and work as a team.

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