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The show must go on

Julia Noulin-Mérat reimagines a full-scale opera during the pandemic
March 2, 2021
By Maya Jarjour, BA 08

Julia Noulin-Mérat, BFA 04, backstage in a theatre The COVID-19 pandemic challenged Julia Noulin-Mérat, BFA 04, to bring theatre to life in new, socially-distanced ways. | Photo: Tim Gurzak

With indoor venues shut down and the need to maintain social distance, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the performing arts hard. Yet, thanks to Julia Noulin-Mérat, BFA (theatre) 04, a live outdoor opera came to life last fall.

“I feel extremely lucky that I still get to design during this pandemic because a lot of artists don’t have that luxury right now,” says Noulin-Mérat, the opera designer who was recently named general director and CEO of Opera Columbus in Ohio.

A graduate of Concordia’s Design for the Theatre program, Noulin-Mérat designed the outdoor venue for the Atlanta Opera’s fall festival. It was the company’s first full-scale production with a live audience and orchestra since the pandemic began.

She also conceived the sets for the two operas featured at the festival, Pagliacci and The Kaiser of Atlantis. The festival comprised 18 performances from October 22 to November 14, 2020.

The big circus tent Noulin-Mérat designed would normally accommodate 650 people, however, because of pandemic safety protocols, the maximum capacity allowed was 240. Nonetheless, it was a huge success with sold-out shows.

It wasn’t Noulin-Mérat’s first time designing an outdoor show, yet the pandemic brought new challenges — like having to design around a 36-page safety protocol. It outlined everything from how to safely fit a costume to how to maintain a safe distance between the set and the audience.

The orchestra was housed in a separate tent, with each musician separated by plexiglass. Audience members were divided into pods of four to maintain a social distance.

The road to success

Following her studies at Concordia, Noulin-Mérat went on to Boston University, where she completed a graduate degree in arts administration and an MFA in set design.

Now based in New York City, she is a producer and designer whose resume includes Broadway productions.

“My passion has always been opera, so I carved myself a niche in doing both site-specific and immersive productions,” she says. “I still very much do shows in theatres but my specialty is really transforming a space and morphing it into an operatic space,” she says.

Noulin-Mérat has designed about 400 shows, including 25 new operas that had never been performed before. Her fascination lies not only in designing and producing but also in realizing a project from beginning to end.

“Something I definitely learned from Concordia that has helped me through my career has been taking care of the audience from start to finish. I always ask myself ‘What is the experience of walking into this space? How are we hosting them?’ and I build on all of that,” she explains.

Noulin-Mérat says she owes much of her success to her alma mater. “I’m so grateful to Concordia because I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t studied there,” she says. “It gave me the tools to be who I am and helped me build a network. What was so special was they didn’t just teach us the art but also how to be an artist.”

She adds that Concordia equally taught her the business and creative sides of being an artist. Through her courses, Noulin-Mérat learned how to market herself as an artist, how to make contacts, how to craft an appealing resume and portfolio, how to negotiate contracts and more.

Her advice to graduating students: “It’s okay not to know everything, you just have to ask questions. Don’t be shy — look up the people you’d be excited to work with.” She adds that now is a great time to reach out since, with the pandemic, so many are home and have time to talk.

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