Even for the new normal in performing-arts circles, where mainstage seasons have gone digital – or gone dark – this week feels like a particularly grim one for the Canadian Opera Company.
In an announcement that surprised few but depressed many, the COC said that it would cancel the remainder of its 2020-21 season. Affected are its mainstage productions of Carmen, Katya Kabanova, La traviata and Orfeo ed Euridice, special events such as Operanation, and the world premiere of Ian Cusson’s new opera for young audiences, Fantasma. This comes after the COC’s June announcement cancelling its fall productions of The Marriage of Figaro and its much-anticipated Parsifal.
These are the pandemic problems that the COC shares with its fellow performing-arts organizations, particularly the ones rooted in opera and classical music, where money is always tight and fundraising is an ongoing task in the best of times. But for the COC in particular, COVID-19 is like a very large, very cruel straw that broke the camel’s back; while its stage is shuttered and its revenue slashed, the company also finds itself without a full-time leader.
Alexander Neef, the company’s current general director, has left the building. He’s left Canada, even. Neef, who took over the company in 2008, was due to see the COC through the end of its 2020-21 season before starting his new post at the helm of the prestigious Opéra national de Paris. But Paris boss Stéphane Lissner announced in June that he would step down at the end of December – more than six months earlier than expected. And when France’s Minister of Culture asked Neef to take over earlier than planned, he obliged. With a few days' notice – and with the baffling blessing of the COC board of directors – he announced his new plan to begin at the Paris Opera on Sept. 1, 2020. From Paris, Neef ostensibly leads two opera houses until the COC completes its search for his replacement.
In a conversation with me last week, COC board of directors chair Jonathan Morgan said that Neef’s absence has not made a big difference. “Alexander has been just as present and available as he was before,” he said. “One of the really great things he has done in his tenure is to really develop a strong and competent staff, so that a lot of his authorities or duties have been delegated over the years, anyway. The board felt reassured that he would continue with his duties as he had been.”
It’s not reassuring, though, that the board finds Neef’s presence and availability about the same, whether he’s running one major opera company or two. And even if the board is comforted by the logistics, they’re missing the point. Neef may have managed this sort of thing before, as he did in 2018 when he took on the artistic directorship of the Santa Fe Opera in addition to his post at the COC. But now, in the middle of a pandemic, it’s alarming that the board agreed to the time-sharing arrangement – just when the COC staff needed leadership most.
I suppose if there ever was a good year in which to run two major opera houses – hold two incredibly full-time positions, to be sure – it’s the year in which a pandemic has cancelled the lion’s share of live opera. But the COC is not left in utter silence; their recently announced online programming, Opera Everywhere, is a mélange of virtual recitals, podcasts, online panel discussions and even a whiff of in-person concerts. The latter is still light on the details, and, I imagine, is dependent on Ontario’s COVID-19 safety restrictions du jour.
It may be true that there’s not much Neef can do for the COC that he can’t do over a good Zoom chat, but inevitably, there’s a cost to an imperiled arts organization when its leader diverts his attention elsewhere.
Particularly in Canada, where a company’s lifeblood comes from equal parts ticket revenue, government funding, and private and corporate donations, the arts scene survives and thrives only under leadership that has its heart in the creative output. A quaint thought, sure, but one that’s rooted in reality when we consider the inspired work of general directors and their companies such as Michael Mori’s Tapestry Opera, Marshall Pynkoski’s Opera Atelier or, in a more apples-to-apples comparison, Richard Bradshaw’s COC.
It’s all as emotionally charged as a great night at the opera. And what’s missing is a leader who’s here, who’s in it and who can acknowledge to his staff and artists that things feel bleak. Instead, Neef has signalled, loudly and clearly, that he is not focusing more of his time and energy on the COC and the hurdles it must overcome, but absolutely less – by at least half.
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