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Canadian Opera Company unveils strong if familiar season lineup

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s 2009 production of Madama Butterfly, to be remounted in Toronto as part of the 2014-15 season.

Michael Cooper

A 2014-15 season full of Canadian content was unveiled Wednesday afternoon to several hundred people at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre by the Canadian Opera Company. Each of the COC's six announced shows will be anchored by a Canadian production, a Canadian director or a Canadian star, often all three. In sort of a "greatest hits" spirit, three of the company's 2014-15 operas will be revivals of famed COC productions from the past.

In October, the company will remount director Brian Macdonald's production of Madama Butterfly, last presented in 2009. In February, Atom Egoyan's Die Walkure will return to the Four Seasons stage, with famed American soprano Christine Goerke singing Brunhilde. And to close out the season, the COC is revisiting famed director Robert Lepage's double bill of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Schoenberg's Erwartung, the production that set a new direction for the COC as a major world company when it was first presented almost 20 years ago.

To fill out the season, the COC is presenting three new productions, all of which it has co-produced with other international companies. The season will debut in October with a new Verdi's Falstaff, directed by Canadian Robert Carsen, and starring internationally acclaimed Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, making his first COC appearance in many years, along with Canadians Russell Braun and Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Braun will return to the Four Seasons stage again in January as the lead in a new production of Don Giovanni, directed by Russian Dmitri Tcherniakov and also featuring Michael Schade and Jane Archibald. And Rossini's The Barber of Seville will be presented by Spanish theatre troupe Els Comediants in April, 2015, with Canadian Joshua Hopkins as Figaro, the barber of the opera's title.

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It is a strong season, but one that is weighted toward the familiar, both in its choice of operas (reduced to six per season from the current seven), and in its reliance on productions that have proven their popularity and worth in the past. Less prominent are the excursions into the controversial that have provided the COC with much attention, both pro and con, in the past few years.

I suggested to COC general director Alexander Neef that it was a season in which the COC seemed to be pulling back a bit, consolidating its successes, and he suggested another interpretation. " I see it more of an opening up to the public, us saying 'We're here for you' with proven vehicles, but always with new content."

And the programming for next season represents the company's response to the tricky economic conditions in which arts institutions constantly find themselves in these maybe post-recession, maybe permanent-recession days.

"This is an important season for this company," Neef says. "We're trying to increase our base audience. We haven't seen a falling off in recent years, but we need to get some new momentum. We need to create a renewed interest in the company."

This reaching out is behind the COC's new pricing scheme for its subscription series, which allows patrons to purchase tickets for the operas for as little as $169 for all six together. "We need to break down the psychological barriers that have always surrounded opera as a high-priced product. We need to convince people that opera is affordable to them."

And creating a subscriber base is essential to the economic health of the company. Sixty per cent of the institution's current ticket sales come from its subscribers, and a good portion of its fundraising efforts originate from this group as well. And interestingly, the COC has discovered that if it can get someone to buy a subscription for two seasons, they tend to stay with the company in the long term.

Neef feels that his core community appreciates what the institution has accomplished over the past five years, and he hopes the 2014-15 season continues that trend.

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"I continue to be astonished by the loyalty of our core public," he says. "It is far different from the situation I encountered in Paris, for example. People take ownership here. It's a wonderful place of city builders. It's dynamic. People are committed to doing something here. And if we're not rooted in this community, we have no point being here."

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