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The Atlanta Opera Presents Company Premiere of Dead Man Walking, Showcasing Jamie Barton in Role Debut as Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes’s Definitive Joseph De Rocher (Feb 2-10)

This winter, The Atlanta Opera presents the company premiere of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Dead Man Walking in an original production “of the very highest level” (Opera News) from General & Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun. Georgia native Jamie Barton – winner of the Beverly Sills Artist Award, Richard Tucker Award, and BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition – makes her eagerly anticipated role debut as Sister Helen Prejean, and Michael Mayes reprises the iconic portrayal of condemned murderer Joseph De Rocher that the composer himself has called “definitive,” anchoring an all-star cast that also features Maria Zifchak, Wayne Tigges, Kevin Burdette, and Jay Hunter Morris. Marking the second presentation in Atlanta’s mainstage season, the opera will be mounted in four performances led by Kentucky Opera principal conductor Joseph Mechavich at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre (Feb 2–10).

Dead Man Walking (2000) is the most performed American opera of the 21st century. Like the Academy Award-winning movie of the same name, Heggie and McNally’s opera is based on Sister Helen Prejean’s best-selling account of her experiences as a spiritual advisor on death row. According to The Guardian, it has made “the most concentrated impact of any piece of American music theater since West Side Story.” As Opera News put it:

“It is rare to encounter an opera that has existed for less than two decades yet has embedded itself so firmly into the worldwide repertory that it already invites strikingly different interpretive approaches.”

The Atlanta Opera’s production is the creation of Tomer Zvulun, the company’s Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. General & Artistic Director and an internationally recognized stage director whose take on Silent Night was just honored as best New Production and best Stage Direction by WQXR’s sixth annual Excellence in Opera Awards. Zvulun’s world premiere production of Heggie’s Out of Darkness: Two Remain marked “a brilliant, haunting watershed for The Atlanta Opera” (Arts ATL) last season, and when his treatment of Dead Man Walking debuted at New Orleans Opera two years ago, Opera News declared:

“[We] witnessed one of the most innovatively staged productions in our recent company history. The staging by Tomer Zvulun was of the very highest level, with an emphasis on powerful realism. The scenic designs by Keith Brumley, with the aid of Don Darnutzer’s evocative lighting, were absolute perfection.”

The Times-Picayune affirmed: “Taut as razor wire, … the current production, directed by Tomer Zvulun, proves why Heggie’s work is considered a 21st century masterpiece.” After its Atlanta run, Zvulun’s production, created in collaboration with the Israeli Opera, will travel to Tel Aviv, where – as the first staging of an American opera in Israel – it is scheduled to make history.

Zvulun explains:

“I am excited about bringing this powerfully charged opera to Atlanta for the first time. We are especially thrilled about the all-star cast we have been able to assemble, with the homecoming of superstar Jamie Barton in her role debut as Sister Helen, the absolute quintessential ‘Dead Man Walking’ Michael Mayes, and house favorites Maria Zifchak, Wayne Tigges, Kevin Burdette, and Jay Hunter Morris. Jake Heggie has established himself as an emotional juggernaut in the operatic world and his most popular opera deserves to be seen on our main stage with this powerhouse ensemble of world-class singers.”

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton has been variously described as “a fresh wonder of the opera world, possessing a voice of preternatural beauty and power” (Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise); “one of the most important young voices in opera” (New York Times); and “a great artist, no question, with an imperturbable steadiness of tone, and a nobility of utterance that invites comparison not so much with her contemporaries as with mid-20th century greats” (The Guardian). Also appearing this season at the Metropolitan Opera, Bavarian State Opera, and Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Barton makes her role debut as Sister Helen three years after collaborating with Heggie at the Pittsburgh Symphony on the world premiere of The Work at Hand, his orchestral song cycle for cello and mezzo-soprano.

Barton will be joined by baritone Michael Mayes, who headlined Atlanta’s Sweeney Todd last season. Mayes’s iconic portrayal of unrepentant murderer Joseph De Rocher has already wowed audiences in London, Madrid, Washington, and San Francisco, where he was “by far the best singer and most convincing actor in the cast” (Wall Street Journal). In Zvulun’s production at New Orleans Opera, the baritone “embodied the conflicted character of Joseph De Rocher with an almost eerie intensity” in “a consummate performance, powerfully sung and acted” (Opera News). Heggie himself observes:

“Vocally and physically, [Mayes] embodies and lives this character as nobody else has. I have learned more about my own opera because of his performance and the extraordinary drama and humanity he brings to it.”

In Atlanta, Mayes reunites with his Sweeney Todd co-star Maria Zifchak, who lends her “rich-voiced mezzo-soprano” (New York Times) to the role of De Rocher’s mother, with soprano Karen Slack, youngest winner in the history of the Rosa Ponselle International Competition, as Prejean’s friend and fellow nun Sister Rose. Rounding out Atlanta’s stellar cast are bass Kevin Burdette, who brings his “combination of ruggedness and sensitivity” (Opera News) to prison warden George Benton; bass-baritone Wayne Tigges and soprano Amy Little as parents of the murdered girl; and Grammy-winning tenor Jay Hunter Morris as Father Grenville, the role he originated 18 years ago at the San Francisco Opera.

Recent success stories

Dead Man Walking follows on the heels of the new treatment of West Side Story with which The Atlanta Opera commemorated this year’s Bernstein centennial. Building on the company’s banner 2017-18 season – a bona fide creative, critical, and economic triumph – the production inspired heartfelt praise. Arts ATL pronounced it “a ‘must see’ take on the classic,” and Schmopera agreed, writing:

“I can genuinely say that it is a production not to miss. … The Atlanta Opera proves, once again, its versatility in a changing field. West Side Story is a definitive hit in their season, with an amazing cast, a striking set and costumes, and an orchestra that I can’t remember playing so well since [2016’s] Silent Night.”

The production proved so popular with audiences that additional performances were added to meet the demand. This was also the case with Atlanta’s season-opening Southern premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird (2015). Marking the opera’s jazz-club debut in the Discoveries series, all four originally scheduled performances sold out before tickets had even been made available singly, so four more dates were added.

Past triumphs in the Discoveries series, which offers authentic, intimate and immersive experiences in nontraditional spaces, include Zvulun’s staging of Astor Piazzolla’s tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires. This was such a hit when it debuted last year that not only is The Atlanta Opera bringing it back this spring (March 28–31), but the production has since been mounted by both New Orleans Opera and New York City Opera, where “by any standard, this Maria stood out” (Broadway World).

Representing the latest jewel in the company’s crown, The Atlanta Opera’s Veterans Program has just been honored with ArtsATL’s 2019 Luminary Award for Community Engagement. Celebrating creativity, energy, generosity, diversity and innovation in the Atlanta community, the award recognizes the initiative by which The Atlanta Opera now offers free tickets to service members and their families for any performance at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. With support from Home Depot, the Veterans Program has given out 5,781 tickets to date.

About The Atlanta Opera

The Atlanta Opera is one of the finest regional opera companies in the nation. In 2013, the company recruited internationally recognized stage director Tomer Zvulun as the Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. General & Artistic Director. In the 2014–15 season, the company launched the acclaimed Discoveries series of operas staged in alternative theaters around Atlanta. The program was recognized by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as part of its “Best of 2015” awards and the company was nominated for an International Opera Award in London in 2016. The Discoveries series has grown from three to twelve performances over the past four seasons. In the 2016-17 season, the company expanded its mainstage season from three to four productions at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The company works with world-renowned singers, conductors, directors, and designers who seek to enhance the art form and make it accessible for a sophisticated, 21st-century audience. The Atlanta Opera was founded in 1979 and to this day adheres to its mission to enrich lives through opera.

High-resolution promotional photos may be downloaded here.


Atlanta Opera: upcoming productions

Feb 2, 5, 8 & 10
Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre
Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking
Conductor: Joseph Mechavich
Director: Tomer Zvulun
Sister Helen Prejean: Jamie Barton
Joseph de Rocher: Michael Mayes
Mrs. Patrick de Rocher: Maria Zifchak
Sister Rose: Karen Slack
George Benton: Kevin Burdette
Father Grenville: Jay Hunter Morris
Owen Hart: Wayne Tigges
Kitty Hart: Amy Little
Co-production of the Israeli Opera

March 2, 5, 8 & 10
Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin
Conductor: Stephen Lord
Director: Tomer Zvulun
Eugene Onegin: David Adam Moore
Lensky: William Burden
Tatyana: Raquel González
Olga: Megan Marino
A co-production of Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Hawaii Opera Theatre, Seattle Opera, and Michigan Opera Theatre

March 28, 29, 30 & 31
Lé Maison Rouge at Paris on Ponce
Piazzolla: Maria de Buenos Aires
Conductor: Jorge Parodi
Director: Tomer Zvulun
Cast: TBA
Production sponsored by the Molly Blank Fund of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation

April 27 & 30; May 3 & 5
Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre
Verdi: La traviata
Conductor: Arthur Fagen
Director: Francesca Zambello
Violetta: Zuzana Marková
Alfredo: Mario Chang
Germont: Fabián Veloz

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© 21C Media Group, December 2018

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