“Dangerous Liaisons” is the overarching theme of The Atlanta Opera’s landmark 40th anniversary season. From Puccini’s Cio-Cio San to Rodriguez’s Frida Kahlo, most of the featured protagonists share a propensity for self-destructive relationships that threaten to bring about their downfall. The 2019-20 season also represents something of a homecoming for four world-class artists, showcasing Atlanta natives Morris Robinson and Jennifer Larmore, University of Georgia graduate Jennifer Holloway, and Atlanta Opera Studio alumnus Santiago Ballerini, besides marking the returns of local favorites Emily Fons, Michael Mayes, Gianluca Terranova, and Catalina Cuervo, and the company debut of Japan’s Yasko Sato. Four ambitious mainstage productions anchor the season, with the company premieres of acclaimed takes on La Cenerentola and Porgy and Bess, the return of Atlanta’s original staging of Madama Butterfly, and the world premiere presentation of a new production of Salome by Tomer Zvulun, the company’s Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. General & Artistic Director. The Atlanta premieres of two recent American operas – Frida (1991) and Glory Denied (2007) – round out the season in the Discoveries series, which breaks down barriers between artists and their audience by providing authentic, intimate and immersive experiences in nontraditional spaces. The winner of a “Best of Atlanta” award from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and an International Opera Award nomination, the series represents one of the many innovations behind the company’s current wave of extraordinary creative and economic resurgence.
Zvulun explains: “We are keeping our commitments to our audiences this season. First, we’re staging classic works by Puccini, Rossini, and Strauss, but in new and different ways, as part of our commitment to classic opera. Second, we have chosen to stage the Gershwin’s larger-than-life operatic musical, Porgy and Bess, as part of our commitment to bringing new & different audiences in to the world of The Atlanta Opera. Third, we’re producing our largest Discoveries season yet, with the story of the Mexican icon Frida Kahlo. Finally, we’re deepening our commitment to our veterans and active duty service members by closing our Discoveries season with Glory Denied, the story of the longest held prisoner of war in American history.”
About the mainstage 2019-20 productions
The Atlanta Opera inaugurates the 2019-20 mainstage season with the company premiere of Joan Font’s iconic treatment of La Cenerentola, Rossini’s beloved bel canto fairytale adaptation. A co-production of Houston Grand Opera, Welsh National Opera, Liceu Opera Barcelona, and Grand Théâtre de Genève, the Spanish director’s cartoonlike, faux-Rococo staging impressed Opera News as both “adorable” and “enchanting.” For its first Atlanta run, the production stars Grammy-nominated mezzo-soprano Emily Fons in a reprise of the title role in which, at Opéra De Lille, she proved “a happy revelation, combining a rich and full-bodied timbre with a projection as bold as her agility” (Diapason, France). She sings opposite the Ramiro of Argentinean tenor Santiago Ballerini, who launched his career in the Atlanta Opera Studio program before returning to star in the company’s recent hit production of The Daughter of the Regiment. They will be joined by “superb” bass-baritone Dale Travis (New York Arts) as the wicked stepfather Don Magnifico, under the baton of Dean Williamson, Music Director of the Nashville Opera (Nov 2-10).
Next up at the Cobb Energy Centre is Salome, Richard Strauss’s sublimely heady, Romantic take on Oscar Wilde’s twisted biblical tale of lust, incest, seduction, and power. This world premiere presentation of a new production by Tomer Zvulun stars Jennifer Holloway, following the soprano’s triumphs in the title role at Semperoper Dresden, Bilbao Opera, Leipzig Opera, and England’s Opera North, where she gave “an outstanding central performance.” As The Times’ review continued: “She catches all the complexities and conflicts of the Judean princess: at once a petulant spoilt child and a woman who mistakes lust and infatuation for love, weary of being leered at and objectified, and unable to interrogate her own destructive urges. … Holloway’s guttural demands for Jokanaan’s head are pure revenge, sitting as happily in her voice as the floated high notes and ecstatic outpourings.” Canadian bass-baritone Nathan Berg, the “majestic bass” (Financial Times) heard on the Houston Symphony’s 2018 Grammy-winning Wozzeck recording, undertakes the role of Jochanaan, Salome’s object of desire, with Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano and Atlanta native Jennifer Larmore as her mother, Herodias. Music Director Arthur Fagen, who launched his Atlanta Opera tenure in 2010, leads from the pit (Jan 25–Feb 2).
Continuing its new annual commitment to showcasing great operatic voices in musical theater, The Atlanta Opera presents George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in the company premiere of Francesca Zambello’s celebrated production. Originally created for Washington National Opera, this has since been seen on PBS, on DVD, and at companies including Lyric Opera of Chicago, where the Chicago Tribune not only found it “exuberant,” but also praised its success in revealing the work to be “an operatic masterpiece.” In the opening performances, bass Morris Robinson sings the male lead, the vehicle for his 2016 La Scala debut, which drew a five-star review in the Financial Times. As Italy’s Fermata Spettacolo also marveled, “Robinson’s Porgy gives the protagonist great power. His commanding, vibrant voice has imposing body and an almost dark low register that he manages to modulate in line with the expression.”
An Atlanta native, Robinson is a familiar face at the Metropolitan Opera, where he may currently be seen as Sarastro in The Magic Flute. He shares the Gershwin role with South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana, “an insightful Porgy with an impressive command of the role’s vocal and dramatic demands” (Opera Warhorses).
Panamanian-American baritone Nmon Ford, who “radiates star quality” (Hollywood Reporter), sings Crown, as for his recent English National Opera debut, and tenor Jermaine Smith plays Sportin’ Life, as at Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Hollywood Bowl, all under the leadership of David Charles Abell, Principal Guest Conductor of the Philly Pops (March 7-15).
Back in 2014, Zvulun directed Puccini’s perennially popular Madama Butterfly. Produced with the Castleton Festival, this impressed the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as “a powerful and attractive new production defined by moments of shimmery, cinematic fantasy mixed with genuine pathos that are pure Puccini all the way through.” To conclude the mainstage season, Zvulun’s staging returns to the Cobb Energy Centre, now showcasing Yasko Sato in the title role. The Japanese soprano has already headlined the opera in cities including Tokyo, Florence, and Seattle, where she showed herself to be “consistently breathtaking” (Oregon Arts-Watch), prompting the Seattle Times to note: “A lyrical singer and an affecting actress, she can convey vivid emotion in a single gesture or expression.” Joining Sato as Pinkerton is Italian tenor Gianluca Terranova, who previously triumphed in the role in Verona and the Dallas Opera. A firm Atlanta favorite, Terranova has already played the leading men in house productions of Carmen, La bohème and Turandot. Baritone Michael Chioldi reprises his portrayal of Sharpless, as seen at the Washington National Opera and in an Emmy Award-winning Live from Lincoln Center PBS broadcast, and mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner revisits the role of Suzuki, which she previously sang at Lyric Opera of Chicago and New York City Opera, with Italian Puccini expert Carlo Montanaro on the podium (May 2-10).
About the 2019-20 Discoveries series
The 2019-20 lineup also boasts a pair of new-to-Atlanta operas in the Discoveries series. First up is the Atlanta premiere of Frida (1991) by American composer Robert Xavier Rodriguez, whose honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters’ Goddard Lieberson Award. A fantastical theater piece set to a blend of tango, zarzuela, ragtime, vaudeville, and 1930s jazz, Frida – hailed as “an exciting, long overdue musical biography … [of] raw, wonderfully dangerous theater” (USA Today) – paints a vivid portrait of courageous revolutionary and magical realist Frida Kahlo in her troubled marriage to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. First seen at the Michigan Opera Theatre, where “the best elements of musical theater and opera were on spectacular display” (Opera News), the production will star Colombian-born soprano Catalina Cuervo, reprising the signature title role in which she has consistently proven herself “ideal” (Opera News); as the review continued, “Cuervo’s exuberant voice was a soaring arrow one moment, a bright and cutting knife the next. Her titanic performance encompassed Frida’s fire” (Oct 5-13). It was the soprano who headlined Atlanta’s sold-out staging of Piazzolla’s tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires, back by popular demand for an encore presentation next month.
The second event in the 2019-20 Discoveries series is the Atlanta premiere of Glory Denied (2007) by American composer Tom Cipullo, the winner of a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship, the 2013 Sylvia Goldstein Award from Copland House, and the 2013 Arts & Letters Award from the American Academy. Following America’s longest-held prisoner of war as he transitions from the jungles of Southeast Asia to his home in U.S. suburbia, Cipullo’s gut-wrenching story draws on Tom Philpott’s 2001 collection of interviews with returning veterans. Originally produced by HGOco for Houston Grand Opera, Glory Denied has since received more than 20 productions, besides being issued on a 2014 recording named “Best of the Year” by Opera News. As Opera Today put it, “Cipullo’s masterfully taut adaption … makes a cogent impression in just 75 compact minutes. … Mesmerizing.” Baritone Michael Mayes, star of Atlanta’s recent Sweeney Todd and this month’s Dead Man Walking, returns as Cipullo’s protagonist, Colonel Jim Thompson. A leading exponent of contemporary opera, Mayes has already headlined Glory Denied at Fort Worth Opera, Nashville Opera, Opera Memphis, and Des Moines Metro Opera, where he “anchored the evening with a star turn that was simply amazing.” Opera Today continued: “Mr. Mayes not only gifted us with the powerful beauty of his burnished instrument, but he also made my jaw drop with meticulously calculated, wondrously controlled sotto voce effects, including some breathtaking forays above the staff. His complete immersion into the suffering and physical disintegration of his character were as commendable as they were poignant.”
It is this Discoveries series production of Glory Denied that draws the entire Atlanta season to a gripping close (May 21-24).