Five weeks into his tenure as general and artistic director of the Atlanta Opera, Tomer Zvulun finally was able to catch his breath for a moment.
Zvulun, who started his tenure June 1, sat down for an interview with the Neighbor Newspapers last week after a whirlwind season that saw him direct seven operas and concerts all over the nation and the world. He was lured from New York, where he spent the past six years as assistant director of the Metropolitan Opera.
“I’ve been here for a few weeks now and I’m having a good time,” he said. “I bought a car. In New York I didn’t need one. We [he and his wife Susanna] found a beautiful apartment in Ansley Park. I’m glad to be out in nature. I plan to buy a bicycle soon.”
Zvulun, 37, replaced Dennis Hanthorn, who resigned in July 2012. Three Atlanta Opera executives ran the company in the interim.
A native of Israel, Zvulun came to America 13 years ago as a visiting scholar at Boston University, which led him to assistant director positions in five other U.S. cities. He has high hopes for the Atlanta Opera, which has a budget of $5.2 million and plans to raise $2.45 million by the time its fiscal year ends June 30. It gets the rest of budget funds from ticket and merchandise sales.
“The Atlanta Opera is a second-tier opera company in a city that deserves a top-tier opera company,” Zvulun said. “Atlanta needs to get a company that is appropriate to its size. We are looking at extending our operation and increasing the number of our performances and our number of productions. In order to do that, we have started [the Overtures] fundraising campaign for an additional $1 million [to be raised during the fiscal year] above and beyond the annual fundraising goals that already exist. Those funding opportunities will allow us to expand our operations and increase our visibility in the community and our outreach.”
In hiring Zvulun, the Atlanta Opera’s search committee was familiar with him because he had directed three of its operas between 2009 and 2011 and was already committed to directing “Tosca” in October. But he still had to go through a rigorous process in which more than 40 applicants were narrowed down to 12 semifinalists for phone interviews and three finalists for in-person interviews.
“Tomer was by far the most dynamic, forward-looking and artistically capable candidate we interviewed,” said Bill Tucker, the Atlanta Opera’s board chairman, who was involved in the search process. “It was a combination of background and global reach. He did well not only on paper but also in dealing with large groups and small groups within the board and even with the opera staff. I couldn’t be more thrilled with having him on board.”
In Atlanta, Zvulun wants to bring opera to the masses.
“Opera is the most exciting art form that I know,” he said. “At its best, a performance is a miracle. You have 50 people in the pit in the orchestra. You have 60 people in the chorus, the greatest singers in the world. A design team that includes a set designer, lighting designer and costume designer. Opera is a multi-media affair that is highly theatrical and at its best, even cinematic.
“Opera is at its core a musical affair but we aspire to make it a theatrical event that would reach as many people as we can. The challenge is to change the idea that opera is an elitist art form, that only a few people are a part of opera. Opera should touch everybody and that idea, that concept of an old-fashioned art form that is all about singing deserves to be changed.”
Zvulun said part of his plan to expand the opera is a series of four smaller performances in partnership with venues such as the High Museum of Art, the Bremen Jewish Heritage Museum and the Atlanta Botanical Garden, all in Midtown.
He has directed operas all over the nation and the world, including Buenos Aries, Argentina and Tel Aviv, Israel. But the audience in Atlanta, where Zvulun directed three operas from 2009 to 2011 before taking the job, resonated with him.
“One of the major things with my job is connecting with the audience,” he said. “And when you’re stage directing, you stay in a city for a month [for one opera production] and get a good reaction that opening night. You may not return to that city’s opera.”
“With the Atlanta Opera, I was lucky enough to stage three operas, and each time, the audience reacted well. The opportunity to [come] here and build those relationships is important to me. The potential of the Atlanta Opera is phenomenal. It’s the right time for us to do that and the right city to do it in.”
Longtime Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins said Zvulun’s “imagination and musical knowledge” will help him in his new role.
“To be a great opera director you have to have a real musical sense coupled with the sense of drama,” said Jenkins, who worked with Zvulun while he was assistant director there in 2006 and 2007 and since then as stage director of its operas. “He studies the music, he knows the music and he also knows the theatre. In the modern world, lots of people are taking on opera and are movie directors. They are rarely good. These people who direct out of a CD booklet drive me insane.
“Tomer knows and respects the music first and that’s what makes him good. He works extremely well with people. It’s not just a question of him being likable but he’s an excellent collaborator. I’ve never had a conductor who did not enjoy working with him. When he was assistant director here, he never had a problem with a director here, which is saying something.”
The Atlanta Opera will kick off its 2013-14 season with “Tosca” Oct. 5, 8 11 and 13 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre near Vinings.