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Canadian Opera Company director Alexander Neef is photographed at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts July 19, 2012 in Toronto.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

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."

Neef's time in Paris and at the Salzburg Festival made him a practised hand at building relationships with singers and other companies. A new benchmark, in that respect, is a three-company co-production of Wagner's Parsifal – a massive opera never yet done by the COC – that opened last March in Lyon, and will play New York's cavernous Metropolitan Opera next winter before arriving in Toronto a few seasons down the line. The creative team includes Canadians François Girard (director) and Michael Levine (designer).

The COC is still looking for confirmed Canadian partners for a production of Harry Somers' Louis Riel, though Neef says he is committed to doing the piece in 2017. Vancouver Opera head James Wright says that he finds Neef more open than his predecessor to collaborations within Canada, in spite of big differences in scale between companies. The COC has an annual budget of about $36-million, while Wright's company, the next largest in Canada, tops out at around $9-million.

Neef hasn't been shy about exerting his artistic judgment, while gauging what will work in Toronto. He followed his own taste in programming Kaija Saariaho's 2000 opera L'Amour de loin last season, but he also picked the busier and more colourful of the two available productions. A more subdued show, he says, might not have carried his public through unfamiliar waters for almost three hours.

He chose unconventional stagings of familiar operas like Rigoletto and Aida, reasoning perhaps that even if they weren't universally loved, they'd get people talking. So far, he has found his public willing to take on unusual approaches and little-known works.

"I feel that this is a very open-minded community, and that we are not judged until people see what we are doing," he says. The success of John Adams's Nixon in China two years ago, and of Saariaho's opera (which topped 90 per cent in paid attendance) told him that "there's a predisposition to let us do contemporary work."

Even after four years, we still have a lot to discover about Neef as an artistic producer. The 2011-2012 season was the first he was able to plan from start to finish, with nothing left over from the Bradshaw years. Next season is mostly rentals, after a binge of three new productions and four company premieres. Neef says that the focus has merely shifted temporarily, from new shows to big performances. Tristan und Isolde, Salome and Dialogues of the Carmelites are all large pieces that will stretch the company.

In the end, for all his talk about making the COC an international player, and his pride in getting its performances back on the CBC's national radio network, Neef knows that his principal public is local. And he likes what he sees in Toronto.

"It's very welcoming, perhaps because so many people are new immigrants," he says. "There's a very entrepreneurial spirit in the arts scene. People know that if they want a better city, they have to do it for themselves. And the cultural community is a mirror image of the community at large."

Neef has another nine years to polish his part of that mirror. For him, the show is still in its first act, with the best scenes, perhaps, yet to come.

Neef's hits and misses


The conductor: Neef's speedy appointment of the versatile Johannes Debus as music director in 2009 was a hit with the orchestra, and has helped keep the COC musical standards high and improving.

The homecomers: After years of reading about Canadians triumphant abroad, COC audiences got repeat encounters with the likes of Jane Archibald, Adrianne Pieczonka and Robert Carsen, as well as an important role debut by Sondra Radvanovsky, an American Verdi specialist living local with her Canadian husband.

The boffo shows: We've only had one season that was all Neef's to plan, but that one featured a smart double-bill of one-acts (Puccini's Gianni Schicchi and Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy); a risky if sometimes distracted presentation of a widely-praised contemporary opera (Saariaho's L'Amour de loin); and the second of two highly distilled Robert Carsen productions of Gluck operas (Iphigénie en Tauride, with Susan Graham in her COC debut).


The donkey ding-dong: An outsized costume appendage symbolized the superficiality of some of Neef's supposedly daring production choices, in a production of Handel's Semele (by Chinese artist Zhang Huan) that trumpeted the director's scant understanding of the work and the artform.

The cultural politics: Neef's careful early navigation of a new environment was marred by clumsy comments about the value of Canadian work, though he has since put a major Canadian opera (Harry Somer's Louis Riel) on his calendar for 2017.

The favourites: Christopher Alden's harshly reductive, 11-year-old version of Rigoletto seemed an odd choice for revival last season, but even if I had loved it, I would wonder about the wisdom of assigning three of the next five productions to Alden and his twin brother David.