Alexander Neef learned something very important about his relationship with the Canadian Opera Company the day a headhunter called and asked the COC general director if he might be interested in running a larger company in Germany.
“It had a much bigger budget than we have, and much more activity,” the German-born opera manager recalls. “But it’s not seen as a first-level company in Germany. I thought about it for five minutes, and realized that none of the [marquee] artists I would work with here would go there.” The COC already had a position internationally that couldn’t be matched, he figured, by a bigger, better-funded suitor in Europe.
It wasn’t a big conceptual leap from that realization to the eight-year contract extension he signed this week with the COC. Neef, whose current five-year contract runs to the fall of 2013, is now committed to the company until 2021. That would put him one year ahead of Lotfi Mansouri (who ran the company from 1976 to 1988) in terms of longevity at the top.
Neef’s goal is to win the COC a permanent berth in the small club of major North American opera companies that now includes houses in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington – “the Big Five.” His method is to build shows as carefully as possible, let no detail slip by unconsidered, and miss no opportunity for what he calls “the transformational project,” the endeavour that changes the company, ratchets up its level of achievement and – very importantly – alters people’s perceptions about what it can do. If it takes years to pull that off, he and his company are willing to work and wait.
“We chose him with the very clear mandate to improve the product on the stage,” says COC president Phil Deck. “That can’t be done quickly, it has to be done steadily and relentlessly. Alexander is a connoisseur of voices, and has become a first-rate leader of the company. And where it shows the most is on the stage, with the singers.”
Neef has embraced the long view ever since he entered the public eye as the reserved, well-tailored and virtually unknown successor to the exuberant and popular Richard Bradshaw, who died suddenly in the job in 2007. Even before his first full day on the job four years ago, the former Paris Opera casting director talked up the need to extend the company’s planning horizon in order to compete for operatic talent.
It has been tougher sledding than he might have imagined, due mainly to the major recession that began to bite almost the day he arrived. But unlike 70 per cent of North American opera companies, the COC has stayed in the black, while boosting its standards and ambitions.
“The ‘hardware’ was pretty much in place,” says Neef, referring to the orchestra and chorus – which had already reached high proficiency under Bradshaw and chorus master Sandra Horst – and a sparkling new hall. “One of the big things we embarked upon in those first four years was to make the COC a destination of choice for that group of very established opera singers who haven’t sung here before. We needed to break into that market, to make the case why [soprano] Sondra Radvanovsky should come here to debut in Aida, which she could have done in many other places. Where the COC has a bit of a disadvantage is that the Big Five have been in that market for a long time.”
Hardware, product, market competition – these words come up often with Neef, who is neither a musician nor a director and can seem rather bureaucratic on first exposure. The charismatic glad-handing that Bradshaw did so well isn’t Neef’s style – he never had to approach donors at the Paris Opera, where state subsidies were high and his mentor Gérard Mortier was the public face of the company. But by all accounts, Neef has plunged into the networking side of the job.
“He says what he thinks and is very involved in building a younger audience for opera,” says Trinity Jackman, a COC board member who chairs the Ensemble Circle, a group of mostly young patrons whose Operanation event two years ago included COC Ensemble members singing with Broken Social Scene.
Dory Vanderhoof, a Toronto-based arts consultant who managed the COC’s leadership search in 2008, says that Neef’s people skills are still developing, but that “it’s a great vintage that will age well. He has such intelligence about how things work, and is willing to embrace the North American system.”