Wanted: an opera lover with a keen interest in new music, deep pockets and a big Canadian heart.
Assignment: donate $1-million to help the Canadian Opera Company live up to its name by producing a new Canadian opera.
The COC is an international-calibre opera company that routinely sells out houses with powerful productions of European classics. Tuesday, it launches the final performances of its current season with Tales of Hoffman by the 19th-century French composer Jacques Offenbach, but it has been 13 years since the company programmed a piece of music written by a Canadian in its main venue. Subscribers seldom demand new opera, let alone opera specifically composed by a Canadian, but in the music community, the lack of Canadian work at the COC is a subject of heated debate. Many see the issue not as one of nationalism but as one of vitality: The company needs to be working with living composers and librettists, and adding to contemporary repertoire.
“You have to develop with people from around you, ideas around you. It has got to be a living, breathing art form,” observes Randolph Peters, the composer who created The Golden Ass, the COC’s last full-scale Canadian opera, a 1999 composition with a libretto by Robertson Davies.
The first barrier to new opera is financial. An average mainstage opera can cost $1-million to produce plus another $500,000 to pay the performers. More lavish productions can run into the millions, and a new work has extra costs: the commissioning fees for the composer and librettist, and workshops to prepare the work for the stage. Meanwhile, both subscribers and occasional tickets buyers are more likely to pay to hear music by composers they already know.
“Short term, you can’t make an economic argument for doing new work,” says James Wright, general director of Vancouver Opera which mounted Lillian Alling, a new Canadian work, in 2010. “With new work, it’s a double whammy: The [ticket buyers]don’t know the name of the piece and they know it’s new. That scares a segment. They worry they won’t like it. If they don’t know a Mozart opera by name, at least it’s Mozart.”
When the COC programs Puccini, for example, the company can add seven extra performances in the 2,000-seat Four Seasons Centre, beyond the usual seven offered to season subscribers: There are more than 14,000 people in the Toronto area who will buy a ticket to hear Puccini. On the other hand, when the company performed the 2000 Finnish opera Love from Afar earlier this year, it only offered eight performances, assuming there would not be more than 2,000 extra takers for the work of contemporary composer Kaija Saariaho. With no established repertoire of Canadian opera and no works dating back beyond the 1960s, all Canadian offerings would fall into the new and risky category.
“In an environment of very high public subsidy [such as Europe] where you don’t depend on revenue from tickets, you can take risks,” notes Alexander Neef, general director of the COC, which receives less than 20 per cent of its annual budget from government and only programs a contemporary opera every other year. “That’s the problem with the North American landscape: You can’t take risks because you put your company in danger, and no one will help you.” Although European arts groups are facing a new reality of government cuts themselves, Neef argues that it takes the traditional European model of heavy government subsidies to maintain companies with mandates to replenish the operatic repertoire.
Furthermore, the expense of building a new production is usually covered by several companies – Love from Afar was a co-production with the English National Opera and Belgium’s Vlaamse Opera – and finding a co-producer for a Canadian work is that much harder. For example, when Vancouver commissioned Lillian Alling, the story of the legendary homesick Russian who crossed the continent on foot in the 1920s, Wright could not drum up any interest from U.S. regional companies despite a powerful North American immigrant story.
“If they are going to do new work, they are going to do an American composer,” he said. “They don’t look up here, they don’t need to.”
In Vancouver’s case, the Banff Centre signed on as production partner for Lillian Alling, but as the largest company in the country, the COC tends to be working on a scale that makes it look abroad for its peers. Some observers say that is not merely a financial reality but a choice.