Visitors to the Atlanta Botanical Garden this weekend are likely to find more than just azaleas and hydrangeas among the springtime flowerbeds. For the first time, the Atlanta Opera will present a site-specific production outdoors at the property.
“It gives audiences and performers a different kind of insight into a piece, a different kind of experience,” says opera director Eric Einhorn, whose New York-based company On Site Opera is collaborating with the Atlanta Opera on a production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s seldom-performed early opera “The Secret Gardener” at the Atlanta Botanical Garden this Friday and Saturday. Ticketed seats for the production are currently sold out, but Atlanta Botanical Garden visitors are invited to watch and listen from anywhere in the Skyline Garden.
“The site-specific model is a bit more in line with how we’re all consuming entertainment these days,” Einhorn says. “We get our entertainment on small screens very close to our faces; our bubble has gotten smaller. The idea of sitting in a 2,000-seat auditorium is becoming less and less the norm. By presenting opera in site-specific form, we’re breaking down barriers. People become part of the experience.”
The production is part of the Atlanta Opera’s ongoing Discoveries Series, which presents chamber works in various smaller venues around Atlanta alongside the mainstage season of more familiar classics at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
“The Discoveries series provides a one-of-a-kind experience with the opera,” says Tomer Zvulun, general and artistic director of the Atlanta Opera. “‘The Secret Gardener’ marks our fifth Discoveries production and continues our spirit of collaboration and innovation.”
“The Secret Gardener” was Mozart’s first opera, written when he was just 18. Although it contains the sort of ingenious and playful music he’s known for, the original show’s four-hour running time, convoluted plot and long recitative sections have made full productions rare. The Atlanta Opera’s garden production will present the work in a trimmed-down 90-minute version in a new English translation by Kelley Rourke.
“We picked what we believe to be the true highlights of the opera to really tell this story in a moving way,” Einhorn says. “What you’re left with is some incredible music and a great story. The arias are beautiful. There’s so much great music. It kind of straddles this early classical, late Baroque feel.”
The opera, originally written for full orchestra, is being re-orchestrated for wind octet and double-bass by Boston-based chamber ensemble Grand Harmonie. The arrangement draws on 18th-century garden party orchestration, and the sound will be particularly suited to traveling outdoors, Einhorn says. Soprano Ashley Kerr will sing the role of Sandrina, baritone Jorell Williams will sing Nardo and the role of Serpetta will be sung by Alisa Jordheim.
“When I initially toured the Atlanta Botanical Garden, it was a site-specific director’s dream come true,” Einhorn says of picking a site for the show. The director says that the property allows for any number of good locations, but the company eventually settled on the newly reconstructed Skyline Garden and Robinson Gazebo, which will allow for immersion in the garden, covering of the audience and a sweeping view of the city in the background. “It’s a truly Atlanta space,” he says.
Einhorn, a member of the stage directing staff at the Metropolitan Opera since 2005, originally founded his On Site Opera Company in 2011 as one of the first companies to produce only site-specific productions.
“At the time, there were a few companies playing around with nontraditional performance spaces as kind of secondary offerings to their mainstage season,” he says. “People had been doing it for years, but nobody’s company was producing that way only. I wanted to see if site-specific opera had legs as its own model. We just set about doing it.”
The company’s first production in 2012, a 12-minute opera for children at the Bronx Zoo, was an overwhelming success, Einhorn says. Since then, the company has grown and placed opera performances in unusual places around New York such as the Cotton Club in Harlem and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Times Square. “To see the immersive model take off has been really gratifying,” he says.
“The Secret Gardener” will be the first On Site Opera show to receive productions at two different sites. Shortly before its arrival in Atlanta, the show was performed in New York at the Westside Community Garden on Manhattan’s Upper West Side from May 11-13. A critic for the Wall Street Journal called the show a “literal breath of fresh air.”
“For us, it’s about the total experience,” Einhorn says. “It’s really presenting the pieces in a new way, but also showing people their own city, which is really an unintended byproduct of all this.”
“The Secret Gardener”
$50. 3 p.m. May 19; 1:30 and 5:30 p.m. May 20. Atlanta Botanical Garden, 1345 Piedmont Ave., Atlanta. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org/performance/the-secret-gardener/.