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Setting the Stage

Behind the scenes at The Atlanta Opera

Growing up, Josh Jansen was the Lego kid. He could spend hours making things out of the colorful blocks. He was also the kid who could make something cool out of an empty box, a battery and two popsicle sticks – whatever stuff was handy.

Today, Jansen is the technical director at The Atlanta Opera. He oversees and coordinates all the technical aspects that go into any production, from light and sound to scenery and props. Staging an opera requires behind-the-scenes work from many others as well, with hands-on efforts from costume makers and stage managers. All of these different departments have to work together seamlessly to deliver the director’s vision of the show.   

Working alongside Jansen is Wanda Creech, the props artisan responsible for all the "things" on stage, from furniture and decorative pieces that sit quietly in the background to the rose that was central to the company’s production of "Carmen" last spring.

Having the necessary props sometimes means buying them, but sometimes Wanda creates them. For the upcoming production of "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs", for instance, she is making a replica Tiffany floor lamp with a magnolia shade like the one that famously stood in Jobs’ office. An original would cost $13,000, which is well beyond the opera company’s props budget.   

Creech, a graduate of Gwinnett County’s Parkview High School, found a replica Tiffany base for a few hundred dollars but the shade was a bigger problem. Ultimately, she found a 25-inch acrylic punch bowl. Coupled with paint and pictures from the Tiffany & Co. website, Creech is well on her way to having a realistic Tiffany lamp for that production.

Jansen, Creech and lighting supervisor Marissa Michaels – the full time technical team – usually have the luxury of working on shows months ahead of time, but the weeks before any production are very busy. The crew will balloon to as many as 45 people, including carpenters, electricians, painters and other tradespeople.

"Making," Jansen said, "is a form of self-expression. While the singers on stage and the musicians in the pit are expressing their art, makers are expressing their craft."

“I have immense respect for the artisans who are able to build complicated things so effortlessly. They always seem like superheroes to me,” says Tomer Zvulun, the Carl W. Knobloch Jr. General and Artistic Director.

Each year, The Atlanta Opera produces six operas, four at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and two more in unusual venues around the metro area. Each season has a rhythm of building up and tearing down, and of solving challenges particular to each show.

The “pandemic season” of 2020-21, however, marched to the beat of a different drummer.

When COVID hit, Zvulun challenged each of the company’s departments to find ways to perform a season safely. The production department (home to Jansen, Creech and Reynolds) was asked to find a safe place to perform.

Relying on advice from Emory University’s Carlos del Rio and the company’s Health & Safety Task Force, it was apparent to Jansen and the team that performing outside was the best choice, which kicked off a cascade of other choices.

“This completely changed the model,” Jansen says. “We learned a lot about doing shows outside. There was certainly a learning curve.”

Jansen researched different tent sizes, shapes and styles, but nothing off-the-shelf really fit the bill. Instead, he ordered a custom tent – a 160-foot by 60-foot red and blue big top with walls that could roll up for optimal ventilation.

The Big Tent, as it was soon called, became the Opera’s home theater, first at Oglethorpe University’s baseball field in the fall and then in the parking lot at Cobb Energy Centre in the spring. Enormously popular with audiences and critics alike, the company staged four operas and six concerts under the canvas, and had 40 sold out performances over the course of the season.

“During the pandemic, I was blown away by the ingenuity of our technical team as they transformed a deserted baseball field into a theatre under a giant circus tent,” Zvulun says. “How they are able to do what they do, show after show, will always be a mystery to me.”

Next up:

"The Barber of Seville"
Composer: Gioachino Rossini
Librettist: Cesare Sterbini
March 5, 8, 11, 13, 2022

"The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs"
Composer: Mason Bates
Librettist: Mark Campbell
April 30, May 3, 6, 8, 2022

AtlantaOpera.org

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