Atlanta Opera: Re-Imagining Live Performances and Investing in Digital Engagement


The Atlanta Opera announced the resumption of live performances beginning Thursday, October 22, 2020. Perhaps the only opera company in America to do so this Fall.

It is a remarkable achievement given how hard COVID-19 has hit performing arts and entertainment industries. The novel coronavirus has driven countless movie theaters, music venues, and festivals close, even New York City’s famed Broadway will be dark until May 2021. The Atlanta Opera was faced with the same terminal threat. In March, it cancelled all performances for safety concerns and no shows means no revenue from ticket purchases or sponsors.

At this point of crisis, the Opera’s General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun, turned to Managing Principal Andrew Binns from Massachusetts-based consulting firm Change Logic. Zvulun wanted to re-imagine opera in a way that would keep audiences safe from the virus, while retaining its ability to emotionally inspire audiences.

“We feel like the community needs to be lifted up right now. That we all need a little bit of a pick me up,” said Zvulun. “There is no replacing a live performance and there is no substitute for the connection with the community.”

Zvulun looked to Change Logic to help him invent a new business model for the opera company that would be safe and commercially viable, and then to mobilize his team to implement it. Change Logic typically works with multi-billion-dollar technology, healthcare, and financial services companies. Here it scaled down its approach to help The Atlanta Opera get ahead during COVID-19.

“We are used to helping firms ideate, incubate, and scale new businesses. The Atlanta Opera had to do all of that in record speed,” Binns said.

Change Logic helped the company organize employees into a series of ‘Sprint Teams’ each charged with developing an aspect of the new model. They needed to find a safe location, operas that could be performed in slimmed down versions, and singers to star in the shows.

The concept that emerged became the Big Tent series on the Oglethorpe University campus, consisting of 18 performances in October and November delivered outdoors with members of the audience seated in pods to keep fans and performers safe. Performances will be conducted in a custom outdoor tent without walls, which will allow fresh air to penetrate and circulate throughout the venue while still providing audiences with protection from the weather if needed. The arrangement adheres to the strictest safety protocols and procedures and will have a capacity for up to 240 audience members.

As a special treat for opera goers, The Atlanta Opera has recruited internationally acclaimed opera stars based in the Southeast for their performances, including Mezzo Jamie Barton, Baritone Michael Mayes and Basses Kevin Burdette and Morris Robinson. These singers, unable to reach their usual homes in the theaters of New York, Vienna, and London, joined Atlanta Opera’s ‘Company Players.’ This new scheme gave the artists secure income, health insurance, and all the other perks they could take for granted in a normal season.

Zvulun though was not content with reimaging opera once, he is also reinventing it for a digital audience as well. As its live season unfolds, The Atlanta Opera is investing heavily in digital engagement beginning with its “Love Letters to Atlanta” campaign featuring iconic landmarks in Atlanta and members of the opera reminiscing about the city. More radical is the plan to make a movie from the two operas being performed – Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci and the 1940’s anti-fascist Emperor of Atlantis. When released next year, the movie will be more than just opera on film, Zvulun promises it will be a ‘360 experience’ unlike any other digital opera.

This dual approach – reinventing live opera and re-imaging digital – is what Harvard Business School professor Michael Tushman calls an ‘Ambidextrous Organization.’ Having studied with Tushman, Tomer Zvulun had learned that it is possible for organizations, even artistic companies, to do two things at once. “Professor Tushman is my inspiration. It is very ambitious, and I chalk a lot of it up to the theories that I learned from Professor Tushman,” says Zvulun.

It is too early to say how successful the new opera performance design will be. “There is so much that could still go wrong,” says Zvulun. What’s for certain is that the strategy has given hope to the thousands of opera goers across the region.

Five Steps for Re-Imagining the Atlanta Opera:

  • Recreating the Opera: First and foremost there must be a safety-first approach. The Atlanta Opera had to make every effort to prevent an outbreak. As part of this effort, the opera teamed with Emory University Epidemiologist Carlos del Rio and Risk Mitigation Coordinator Kylie Sanders to manage safety protocols during performances and rehearsals alike.

  • Performing Live Safely: The location is a critical factor to ensure safety. Indoors is not safe. In reimagining the opera, an outdoor tent with a roof brings whimsical character to a dark time. “There is something philosophical about the circus,” Zvulun said. “The grit and perseverance of the circus - it doesn’t matter if it is the 1929 Great Depression or during World War II or any other dark time. The circus comes to town.”

  • Building Community: It is important for the Atlanta Opera to engage with the community. “People need to get out of their bunkers, end their video conference calls and watch something live to inspire them. The community needs live performances,” Zvulun expressed.

  • Cost Structure: Cost of leading opera companies is to continue operations during COVID-19. Zvulun said, “If we can create a sustainable business model that is full of innovation and exciting production, we will bring interest from all over the country.”

  • Digital Engagement: There is a lot of discussion about digital content and two styles of opera film have emerged. One is streaming performances that can be frustrating in reminding us that we are not at the theater attending the live show. The other style is a complete movie. It isn’t a live performance. The Atlanta Opera is planning to deliver a movie that includes segments from the live performances along with a behind-the-scenes look at the shows.

“The Atlanta Opera uncovered a new model and a new way to continue to inspire people,” Binns said. “An ambidextrous business is being embraced where both live performance and a digital model are being recreated.”

To learn more and get a glimpse into what a re-imagined opera looks like, watch his 15-minute conversation between Harvard University Professor Michael Tushman, Change Logic’s Managing Principal Andrew Binns, and The Atlanta Opera’s Director Tomer Zvulun. https://youtu.be/N_dC769wlJA

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