Artistic Talent and Business Acumen: How the Atlanta Opera is Reinventing Opera Performance during the Pandemic

atlanta opera innovation reinvention

The Atlanta Opera brings a rare success story for the entertainment industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did it resume live performances in October 2020, making it perhaps the only opera company in America to do so that early in the COVID-19 crisis, but is also pushing the boundaries of the industry by creating a digital opera of the future.

It is a remarkable achievement given how hard the pandemic has hit performing arts and entertainment enterprises. Safety concerns have forced countless movie theaters and music venues across the country to close; even New York City’s famed Broadway announced it would stay dark until at least May 2021.

Initially, The Atlanta Opera was not poised to be an exception. In March 2020, it too canceled all live performances and the grim economic consequences of this decision immediately began to loom: no shows meant no revenue from ticket purchases and sponsors.

Ambitious Leadership Steps In

The Opera’s team, led by General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun, saw it as their duty to bring hope to their local and artistic communities. They turned to Change Logic for help to reimagine the opera in a way that would keep all participants safe yet retain the ability to emotionally inspire audiences and create a commercially viable business model for pandemic and post-pandemic times. (Read a case study on The Atlanta Opera/Change Logic cooperation.)

The cooperation between The Atlanta Opera and Change Logic materialized as the Molly Blank Big Tent Series, consisting of 17 performances in October and November 2020, which were delivered outdoors with up to 240 spectators per performance seated in pods. This kept both the audiences and performers safe. The performances were conducted in a custom open-sided tent outdoors, which allowed fresh air to penetrate and circulate throughout the venue while providing the audience with weather protection when needed.

Will Digital Transformation Define Opera’s Future?

In December 2020, after receiving a half-million-dollar grant from the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation, The Atlanta Opera launched Spotlight Media, a web-based streaming platform for local opera-on-demand. Each month, a new streaming bundle will be rolled out, combining concerts, special recordings, and behind-the-scenes footage with original opera productions captured live in the company’s Big Tent series. Its dramatic production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci has just launched online.

And yet, Zvulun does not think his team’s work is done. He now wants to reinvent opera in the digital format as well. The Atlanta Opera is investing heavily in digital engagement, beginning with a campaign featuring iconic landmarks in Atlanta and members of the Opera reminiscing about the city. The next step is to make a movie from the two operas being performed by the current artistic crew. When released later this year, the movie will be more than just an opera on film. Zvulun promises it will be a “360-degree experience” unlike any other digital opera performance.

It Is All about Ambidexterity

This dual approach–reinventing live opera and creating a digital opera format–is a classic example of what Change Logic’s co-founder and Harvard Business School Professor Michael Tushman calls an Ambidextrous Organization, which refers to organizations creating a new business while preserving their core offerings. Having studied with Tushman, Zvulun knows that it is possible for organizations, even artistic companies, to do two things at once.

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. Yet, it is already certain that when artistic talent is combined with business acumen and ambitious leadership, great art that delights customers—and generates revenue—will emerge.

Watch this 15-minute conversation between Prof. Tushman, Director Zvulun, and Change Logic’s Managing Principal Andrew Binns to learn more about how the principle of Ambidextrous Organization can be applied to the entertainment industry.