How Tomer Zvulun Turned the Atlanta Opera Around |

How Tomer Zvulun Turned the Atlanta Opera Around

In the world of opera, the Atlanta Opera is an anomaly. As companies around the globe struggle to regain pre-pandemic attendance levels and are forced to scale back programming amid economic pressures, the 45-year-old regional company has been on a transformational upward trajectory. Its budget skyrocketed from $5 million to more than $15 million over the past decade, placing it among the top ten American opera companies as of 2023.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter


 See all of our newsletters

Much of its success can be accredited to Tomer Zvulun, who since 2013 has served as the Atlanta Opera’s general and artistic director. Under the leadership of Zvulun, who previously acted as a stage director for companies like the Metropolitan Opera and Seattle Opera and has presented work at opera houses across the U.S., Argentina, Canada, Ireland and Israel, the company’s number of annual productions doubled and its fundraising tripled.

Zvulun wasn’t always confident about his ability to lead the once-ailing company. When first asked if he’d be interested in running the Atlanta Opera, “I thought that would be crazy,” he told Observer. The opera’s board sent him to Harvard Business School for an executive MBA, a decision that according to Zvulun changed the fate of the company. “It opened my mind to how to treat it as a business,” he said.

That would become a key factor in how the company was able to not only weather the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic but also thrive when most in the arts were struggling. While many organizations shut down or scaled back, “we did the opposite,” said Zvulun. The company put up circus tents and collaborated with healthcare organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Emory University to safely perform, staging some forty productions throughout the pandemic. It additionally launched the Atlanta Opera Film Studio, which continues to operate today, to film and broadcast performances for those at home.

SEE ALSO: Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo On Training, Technique and Radical Operatic Expression

The pandemic also made the director realize he had another product on his hands: an immersive experience. “You’re sitting at a table, having food, having a drink and the production happens all around you. People absolutely love that,” he said. The company has emphasized innovative and immersive pieces through its Discovery Series, which stages nontraditional performances in unusual locations across the city. In its 2024-2025 season, the Discovery Series—which has seen tango operas, jazz operas and collaborations with the Center of Puppetry—will present a modern-day take on La bohème running in repertory with a production of Rent at Atlanta’s Pullman Yards.

Another initiative introduced under Zvulun include the 96-Hour Opera Project, which offers prizes, mentorship, workshopping and premiere performances for composers and librettists from historically underrecognized communities. Observer recently sat down with Zvulun to discuss his vision for the company and how he mixes business with art. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about going to Harvard Business School when you first began at the Atlanta Opera. Had you always planned to get an MBA?

I was working in Atlanta, busy directing all over the world and busy running a company, when one of my top donors said, “Look, you’re a nice guy. But you need to learn business if you want us to support you. I’m going to send you to Harvard, and I’m going to pay for it.” So I had to go. And I went and it blew my mind… absolutely blew my mind.

What did you learn from the program that made the largest impact at Atlanta Opera?

The main thing is that if a business doesn’t innovate, doesn’t think forward, it’s going to stagnate and die. The world is constantly changing. It’s incumbent upon you to figure out how to harness technology to your needs and how to create new products and prototypes of products that then you can either dismantle because they don’t work, or you identify those that work and you develop them and make them a part of your business model.

What were your main priorities in your initial years as director?

The first two years were kind of a nightmare because the company was on a downward financial spiral. There were serious deficits and people were leaving, staff was leaving and the patrons didn’t have faith. It took two years to just get some faith back. The first thing was just to put a tourniquet on spending.

The second thing was to actually expand the number of productions in an innovative way. We used to do three productions a year. And the first thing I did was to create the Discovery Series, which allowed us to add another production, a chamber piece that would cost a fraction of the mainstage production and that would create a buzz in the city and lead to more awareness of what we do. The mantra from the very beginning was “lower the financial risk while increasing the artistic risk.”

What initiatives at Atlanta Opera are you most excited about?

For me, it’s the immersive productions—the idea of doing productions in a non-traditional environment. I think the future is not in a proscenium theater, the future is not the Metropolitan Opera for me. The future is an experience that you cannot replicate anywhere else and where the audience is surrounded by the performance, where there’s no barrier between you and the performers.

The second thing is bringing technology and film into the performing arts, whether it’s by projections, LED screens, artificial intelligence and holograms on stage or by capturing the experience and transposing it into something you can experience at home, either by your TV or your computer, but also by VR and whatever else is going to be invented.

What are some challenges the opera world will have to contend with in the next few years?

Well, the costs are rising. Everything is expensive: inflation, challenges related to the pandemic when it comes to shipping. A lot of key people left the business during the pandemic, a lot of experienced people both in the technical and the musical world. Support is dwindling. If you’re not smart about the business model, because it’s relying on donors and it’s relying on ticket sales and both those have been in decrease. People don’t have faith in the business models unless you show them that there’s a different way.

How are you approaching bringing in newer and younger audiences?

The part and parcel of bringing young people is that can’t be the end all be all. You also have to make sure that the older people, or the people that have been loyal to you, get what they want. You can’t just decide, oh, I’m just going to do experimental theater in a barn. That’s where business school was so important for me because every organization that is innovating has a main product that they keep pushing while they’re exploring with other things. The smart people, at least the smart people that are still loyal to your old product, see the benefits of the innovation.

If you look at our season, we still do Magic FluteLa bohème and the Ring cycle on the highest level. But we’re also doing crazy things like Cabaret and Rent and La bohème in a warehouse. The donors and the patrons that come to our traditional productions may not come to a tango opera but even if they don’t come, they see the value in sending their granddaughter. I think that’s key… to make sure that it’s an ambidextrous effort and not just leave everything behind and go with experimental stuff.

What can you tell me about the Rent and La bohème productions?

What’s really interesting about Rent and La bohème is that it’s the same story. The original story of La bohème by Puccini is that tuberculosis was ravaging the world in the 19th Century. You have this young group of friends who are going to school, students in a university, and one of them is a painter, one of them is a musician and they’re trying to survive.

Rent is the very same story. Jonathan Larson was inspired by La bohème, but he took it to the 20th Century and the pandemic of the 20th Century was AIDS, so he tells the same story through the lens of AIDS in New York, as opposed to Paris. And then the third production that we’re doing of La bohème, because we’re doing three different productions of it this year, is going to be an immersive production that takes place in the 21st Century and is about COVID.

So three different pandemics, three different centuries, the same story. Three different musical experiments. One is a full-stage opera, one is musical theater and one is an immersive opera. In Atlanta there’s the CDC, so Atlanta is major when it comes to pandemics and we have a lot of health workers that are involved with the production. It’s an opportunity to engage the community.

What has influenced this demand for the experiential?

When you go to the theater, there is a barrier between you and the action whether we want it or not. I love theater and it changed my life, but there is a pit between me and the singers. There’s a stage, there are lights, there’s a barrier.

When you’re sitting down, and suddenly you hear somebody singing to your right—there’s something about the human voice, because the human voice has an impact on you that after 400 years is still not completely understood. That’s where opera is so powerful, in my opinion—those vibrations. And if it happens all around you in a surprising way, people will give anything for that experience.

The Ins and Outs of Commissioning a Work of Art

The commission conversation often starts with, or gets around to, a client telling the...

How Mega-Collector Ronald Perelman Offloaded Nearly $1B in Artwork

Ronald Perelman, the billionaire investor known for his vast art collection, has in recent...

Why (and How) Gallery and Museum Collections Management Went Digital

Before she opened her gallery in 1999, art dealer Debra Force worked at New York’s Hirschl...

- A word from our sponsor -



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here