The Canadian Opera Company’s general manager isn’t a standard Toronto arts CEO. Alexander Neef does not talk in managerese, that company and bureaucracy-speak that’s getting the vernacular of the North American executive courses. His degrees are from the humanities, not law or business. He takes public transit to work.

In the era of international fly-by appointments to big arts associations, this European of German extraction came to Canada to stay and embraced its own culture, and only this fall, 10 years into his tenure, had his contract renewed for five more. The COC has become a standout in North America, a medium-size firm that punches well above its weight while budgeting within its means, under conditions which are neither locally nor globally favourable to the crazy venture that’s live opera.

But young, growing cities change quickly, and so can their opera-going customs. Not everything has gone smoothly because Neef took over. The 2010 Aida caused consternation because director Tim Albery dared eliminate this opera’s customary sphinx and pyramids and place it in an unnamed Middle Eastern dictatorship from the mid-20th century. There was grumpiness about Christopher Alden’s Rigoletto place in the Victorian age and Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni at a nouveau-riche household, but grumpiness was reasoned, less mad.

North American opera houses are a lot more careful than European ones seeing productions that are creative, yet like in a virtuous circle, Toronto’s expectations have been growing together with the development of its residence. No other North American firm, excluding perhaps New York’s Metropolitan Opera, has programmed productions by Robert Carsen, Robert Lepage, Claus Guth, Christopher and David Alden, Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, Tcherniakov, Tim Albery, Fran├žois Girard, Peter Sellars, Atom Egoyan and Calixto Bieito, all from the past eight years. At the same time, the eight-year all-male spell on the COC podium was broken earlier this season, with Keri-Lynn Wilson running Tosca.

Criticism over the absence of Canadian opera dogged Neef from the first years, but he listened. COC is midway through a four-year stretch that will see a Canadian opera every season. Never mind that modern opera, compared with the repertoire warhorses, sells fewer tickets.

“Provided our finances do not dry out completely, we’ll continue to make one Canadian opera annually,” Neef says when we meet to go over the COC’s future and past. The Canadian operas produced during his tenure are wildly different: The shimmering soundscape of Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe (2015), Harry Somers’s political, unabashedly modernist 1967 work Louis Riel (2017), Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian (next year) and a new work by Ana Sokolovic (2020). This diversity is just the point: “We wanted to challenge the preconceptions about what Canadian opera is and could be,” Neef states. Is Canadian opera a permanent tough market? “I look at it this way: Maybe we have not helped our audience enough to get in the habit of visiting new Canadian opera. I see this as a long-term success story, not a”

Much juggling goes into year preparation every year. From those six operas, two should be reliable ticket vendors, and help attract new, non-specialist audiences. At exactly the exact same time, the COC’s subscription base does not wish to see recognizable works too often. Then there’s casting. “We’re lucky because today we could attract interesting people,” Neef states. “When it comes to the singers who get more work than they could accept, I have never heard them ask about the fee. The first question they ask is, who are my colleagues, who’s directing the creation?”

Your best-laid season programs then visit the advertising department, which computes what it can realize in ticket revenue. Following that, the fundraising department estimates what it could increase for the season. All things taken into account, the desirable and the fiscally achievable need to balance out. Unlike European homes, which have stable government financing, the COC’s funding is mostly self-generated, with less than 20 percent from authorities. There’s modest revenue from the endowment, but ticket sales and fundraising must cover the remainder.

This type of sales structure keeps ticket prices comparatively high, which in turn is most likely the major reason why our operatic audience tilts middle-class and up, and middle-aged and elderly. Neef’s past job as casting director in the Paris Opera was distinct: spending a huge budget on the top singers and conductors. Opera in Canada is a larger challenge. “European countries enjoy their companies’ artistic accomplishments. Something that perhaps we do not do this well,” he says.

How much are Canadians willing to nurture opera as their own art form, particularly in the age of the stay-at-home, screen-addicted, Americanized art customer? Like jazz or tango, European opera has a particular geographical origin, but such as blues or tango or tennis, it belongs to the broader humanity. Europeans see no qualms safeguarding opera as their own cultural heritage, but will Canadians continue to do this within the next 200 years?

“Well, when you consider the U.S. — the wealthy founders of the Met desired the very best opera money can purchase, and they had money to get it,” Neef states. “Wealthy donors are still what funds the U.S. opera. That is not how the COC started. We had small beginnings at University of Toronto thanks to a handful of intellectuals and musicians that were European refugees before and after the Second World War, who got together and said, ‘Let’s see if it can take root’ And our job is still growing those origins.”

An opera producer in Canada will always need to make the case for the art form, and in the event that you can not, “the audience could not care less if you are the Canadian Opera Company or whoever. The institution alone does not carry enough weight,” Neef acknowledges. What’s the best way then to make the case for opera versus, say, Netflix, video games or a football match? “Getting people into chairs … direct experience. When you have the thrill of the orchestral sound, it’s easy to understand how it doesn’t compare to anything else.”

Has the audience changed through the years? It is still true that the higher you go in the home, Neef states, the younger and more diverse the audience. “The challenge is to move down them the home, to better chairs and further engagement. This will take some time.”

Midlife is when overworked Canadians begin taking stock and realizing that there’s more to life than the office. “People look around and say to themselves: I have some disposable income, I’m curious, I would like to experience more artwork.”

One more thing which Neef noticed is the greater involvement of the Toronto audience. COC stage managers write in their nightly reports the amount of the last applause, among other things, and it’s doubled to about five minutes through the years. You will find the aria applauses, the bravos and at times the boos (usually reserved for stage directors for perceived libretto infractions), and it is all fair game: “It is important to enable the viewer to have an opinion,” Neef states.

He still recalls the opening night of the now legendary 2010 Aida. “When Sondra Radvanovsky completed Ritorna vincitor, the home just … exploded. As if the crowd at the very moment knew what was possible in the home — acoustically, artistically — and responded in an atypically emotional way.” Torontonians are open and curious in the opera, they do not judge until they see, but this was quite out of character.

“We as people respond to opera emotionally. This happens to all of us — even to me, and I have been doing this for nearly 20 years. When I see something new, I have an emotional response — that afterward I can rationalize if I would like to. I could be enthusiastic or critical etc.. However, what music asks people isn’t an intellectual exercise. You just let it hit you, and see where it takes you. I believe that now, more than previously, our audiences are more receptive to losing control.”

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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