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Atlanta Opera opens ‘Flute’ on Saturday; looks to future

Dennis Hanthorn decided several months ago to shorten the Atlanta Opera’s 2010-11 season, which starts this fall, from four to three productions. But the hard choices haven’t stopped there for the general director, whose company closes its current season with a production of a puppet-enhanced “The Magic Flute” starting Saturday at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

“You plan a year in advance but then work month by month, and it’s a day-in, day-out effort,” Hanthorn said. “And there’s a large host of people to make this happen and keep the Atlanta Opera alive.”

“Magic Flute” is an example of economic thinking: It’s a unique co-production between the professional opera company and a university, Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, where “Magic Flute” premiered. Indiana professor C. David Higgins designed the sets and costumes, using student talent, working with Atlanta Opera stage director Tomer Zvulun.

Q: You’re soliciting donations on the opera’s home page, making clear that ticket sales make up less than half of the income needed to sustain the company. Was it a strategic decision to try to educate while you ask?

A: Yes, it’s our goal to get the word out. It’s a tool to educate the public as to what our needs are. It’s an ongoing education. I am constantly talking to community leaders and patrons, and it seems like every day someone will have an ah-ha moment. Our ticket sales only cover 30 percent of the budget. The other 70 percent comes through donations.

Q: Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser has been touring the country, including a recent Atlanta stop, advising arts leaders to cut anything not nailed down but not their art. What’s your take on that?

A: We have choices in this business, and I could have chosen to lower the quality of the opera, and produce four very inexpensive operas. But I really believe our audience has grown to appreciate the quality of what we put on stage at the Cobb Energy Centre. And we have reduced the overall costs of our productions for next year, selecting operas that allowed us to do that.

I understand what Michael is saying, but there also reaches a point where you can put opera onstage, but if you don’t have the staff to put it on, it doesn’t matter. And at Kennedy Center, he’s bringing in touring productions, and we’re producing them. What works in presenting and producing is different. It’s not one-size-fits-all.

Q: Atlanta Opera received a $65,000 grant from the Georgia Council for the Arts. What’s your take on the move during this legislative session to dismantle the agency?

A: “I think it’d be embarrassing to be the only state in the nation without an arts council. Atlanta is a great place to live, and arts are an economic engine that attracts businesses to the city and state. When the four pillars of a community [which Hanthorn counts as education, leadership/safety and health care, along with arts] are in place, that’s an attractive place to live. So we need to make sure we provide the opportunity for those organizations to exist.

Q: Though $65,000 is not a lot in the context of a reduced Atlanta Opera budget of $5.2 million for next season, it would be difficult to replace in this economy, right?

A: The sum of the parts do add up after a while. It wouldn’t be the only area that’s gone away. I need this part. I need it all.

Q: Do you see a path to a brighter future?

A: 2008 was shock, 2009 was adjustment, and 2010 is reality. The fact we’re still here means we made it through the first two. We and other arts organizations are still trying to identify what the new norm will be. It will not be what was before. But I’ve made every effort to control our destiny, instead of destiny controlling us.

Concert preview

Atlanta Opera presents “The Magic Flute”

8 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. April 30, 3 p.m. May 2. $27.50-$133.50.  Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway. 404-881-8885, atlantaopera.org.

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