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With Turandot, a turning point 

Will a new venue provide Atlanta Opera's springboard to success?

"I came to opera not as a person who was a lover of the art or even classical music," says lyric tenor Philip Webb. "Actually, I really dissed opera itself for quite a while. I thought being in opera was the farthest thing away from what I was supposed to do."

Nevertheless, through a turn of events, Webb became a professional opera singer, and this month is one of the stars in the Atlanta Opera's season-opening production of Giacomo Puccini's Turandot, playing the role of Calàf across from soprano Lori Phillips in the title role.

The production marks the 28-year-old opera company's much-anticipated debut at the new Cobb Energy Centre for the Performing Arts.

Webb doesn't convey the stereotypical image of a temperamental "primo uomo." He is thoughtfully deliberate, an articulate man whose art seems anchored somewhere far beyond his own ego.

"I'm just an average guy," insists Webb, "in that I sort of worked my way up through the regional opera houses in America." But beneath this unassuming surface lies an intense artistic passion.

Webb studied voice in college, but was unhappy about the music he was given to sing. Something about it just didn't fit him. Then one day, he bought a CD by the recently departed Luciano Pavarotti.

"I listened and thought, 'Whoa! This is a lot different from my voice lessons,'" Webb says. "These pieces of music grabbed my ear, grabbed my soul."

He began studying this type of repertoire in earnest. Then in 1993, Webb entered a vocal competition in Chicago. "Up until that point, I'd never seen an opera in my life," he says. He won the competition, singing Pavarotti's signature piece, Calàf's aria "Nessun dorma" ("No one will sleep"), from Turandot.

It was a turning point in his career. Webb won six weeks of study with renowned bass Giorgio Tozzi, who urged Webb to pursue a career in opera.

Just as "Nessun dorma" was pivotal to Philip Webb's career, the upcoming production of Turandot is a critical turning point for the Atlanta Opera, with its dramatically designed new home also hoping to provide new hope for opera in Atlanta. Everyone from Webb to the principal forces behind the venue and the company looks to the new facility to make a difference.

Driving north on the curving, uphill road that is Cobb Galleria Parkway, the new building sweeps into view on the right. Bold, asymmetrical arcs and a massive glass façade draw attention to its main structure, the 2,750-seat John A. Williams Theatre.

"I call it 'The Torch' by night, 'The Mohawk' by day," says Michael Taormina, the Cobb's managing director, beaming with pride. "It's not an opera house. It's a performing-arts center; it's designed to accommodate opera, ballet, dance, Broadway and concerts. [But] it gives the Opera, in particular, a venue in which they can create and do many different things they were unable to do in the past."

Webb is the only Turandot cast member who has performed in the new Williams Theatre, in a pair of "preview" concerts. Given his atypical entry into opera, Webb can relate his firsthand professional experience from an everyman's perspective.

"The compromise in America is that you have to share the space with other types of performers," Webb notes. "They all have different acoustical needs. To really present opera in a way that is accessible to people who haven't seen it before, you need a venue that showcases it appropriately.

"That's what this theater will do."

Atlanta Opera's general director, Dennis Hanthorn, agrees that this is a fortuitous move. "The company has not had an ideal performance space in its history," he says. The Fox Theatre, with more than 4,500 seats, was the sentimental favorite of older opera patrons. But in 2003 the company was obliged to move to the equally large but acoustically dubious Atlanta Civic Center, which ultimately proved a disaster.

"We fell on hard times," Hanthorn says. "Now we have to rebuild to the number of ticket buyers we had at the Fox Theatre, [where] we had up to 11,000 patrons for each of our productions. That dropped to around 7,000 at the Civic Center."

While rebuilding will take time, Hanthorn is clear that the move to the Cobb has generated fresh enthusiasm, with new subscriptions currently outpacing renewals. "It is not only a turning point for us, but for opera in Atlanta, for Cobb County and all metro Atlanta." Taormina goes one step further: "This theater is the financial savior of the Atlanta Opera." He also notes that with huge halls like the Civic Center, "What you're missing is that intimate acoustical relationship between the performer and the audience."

For Webb, spatial and acoustic intimacy is essential for allowing singers to communicate musically. "If we feel like we have to fight the hall, then we tend to compensate and oversing," he says. "But if we can sing easily and softly, relax and let the sound flow, that's a hall in which you're going to hear great performances."

Turandot, Webb suggests, is an ideal choice if you've never seen an opera. "It's a fairy tale, like Cinderella or Shrek. For your first experience, you want to be entertained, to hear beautiful melodies and grand sounds. Go and see Turandot; you'll come away hearing 'Nessun dorma,' and you'll remember it the next day."

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