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Theatre & Performance Alexander Neef leaving Canadian Opera Company after being named general director of Paris Opéra

Alexander Neef, general director of the Canadian Opera Company, will leave his post in Toronto to become general director of the Opéra national de Paris.

The news of his return to the Opéra national, where he worked more than a decade ago, comes after the months of speculation in opera circles about Neef’s future, peaking with last month’s reporting from Le Figaro that Neef’s place at the helm of the Paris opera was a sure thing.

According to the website France 24, President Emmanuel Macron, a keen classical music lover, was personally involved in the selection process.

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On Wednesday, the COC confirmed the news.

By the end of his tenure, Neef will have spent two more full seasons at the COC, totalling 13 as the company’s general director and successor to the late Richard Bradshaw. It was Neef’s first go at running an opera company.

“We’re not surprised that he was on the short list,” says COC board of directors chair Justin Linden. “We’re sad to lose him, but it’s an honour for him, and a tremendous honour for us.”

Neef’s new post also means he will relinquish his role as Santa Fe Opera’s artistic director, a job that he accepted just last year. “I will not be able to keep doing Santa Fe once I’m in Paris,” Neef confirmed in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

A native of Rosswalden, a village near Stuttgart, Germany, Neef is fluent in German, French and English, and holds a masters in modern history and Latin philology. His connection to opera is rooted in a simple fandom. In his early teens, he listened to opera on the radio, even taping performances so he could listen again and again. He is the kind of opera lover who owns copies of libretti, who is a human encyclopedia of opera singers and what they sang, live and on record.

Neef is known as one of the industry’s most refined ears. He listens to singers with a strong ability to detect detail, a skill no doubt honed during his years as head of casting at the Paris Opéra, as a colleague and mentee of Belgian opera director and past general director in Paris, Gérard Mortier (2004-2008). And to the COC, his excellent ear for voices, and the impressive company of artists were enough to give Neef what he calls “a huge vote of confidence at a time when I had never run anything.”

Neef began at the COC one year after Bradshaw’s sudden death, and one year after the opening of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

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Completing the new opera house was Bradshaw’s ultimate contribution to Canada’s opera scene, and Neef’s legacy may very well be in filling the house with the world’s best voices. Without the Four Seasons Centre, he would likely have had a harder time attracting the likes of Sondra Radvanovsky, Patricia Racette and Christine Goerke – the echelon of singer who frequents the major opera houses of London, Milan, Vienna and New York. “I couldn’t have done what I did at the COC without the opera house,” Neef said.

Neef may be just as hard to replace as Bradshaw was, for very different reasons. Rather than continue Bradshaw’s aim to connect the COC with its community, Neef has spent his tenure getting the international opera world to look in Toronto’s direction.

“They’re tough shoes to fill,” says Linden, who now must find a new general director. Neef’s growing network of artists, and his attention to developing young talent, has made him pivotal to the larger operatic industry.

“Not only does he have a large Rolodex, he’s also building his Rolodex at the entry level,” Linden says. “We need someone who has that two-handed approach.”

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