Perryn Leech, a Briton who oversees the Houston Grand Opera, will be the Canadian Opera Company’s next leader.
A native of Brighton, England, Mr. Leech will take over the helm of the COC next March on a five-year contract. He will succeed Alexander Neef, who will be stepping down after 13 years as its general director and began responsibilities as the new head of the Paris Opera in September.
“Perryn’s values closely mirror our own, particularly when it comes to breaking down barriers,” says Colleen Sexsmith, chair of the COC Succession Committee. “The committee was struck by his passion for sharing the art form with others and his enthusiasm for bringing more opera out of the Four Seasons Centre and into our neighbourhoods.”
Out of more than 100 candidates, she said, Mr. Leech stood apart for his vision of a more accessible COC. If his work as managing director at HGO is any indicator, that vision means bringing performances to new venues, and establishing new creative partnerships that add value to the communities surrounding the COC and its opera house.
The COC and HGO have established a working relationship in the past decade. Recent COC stagings of Turandot, La bohème, and The Barber of Seville were co-productions with HGO, which the International Opera Awards named the only American finalist for Best Opera Company in 2017. London’s Royal Opera House and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala were in the same category.
Mr. Leech’s appointment signals the COC’s prioritization of experienced fundraising, and a search for cultural relevance within Canada. The former is more urgent, particularly in the middle of the COC’s cancelled 2020-21 season. The COC and HGO are similar in size, both putting up six annual productions and claiming about 25 per cent of their annual revenue from box office sales. Yet under the American funding model, which offers a smaller proportion of government grants than Canada’s, HGO must make up the difference with donations.
“What that’s given me is a background of knowing how to put shows on an extremely low budget,” Mr. Leech says. “When money is so hard to raise, you should absolutely make sure you get full value for every penny.”
The COC also expects that Mr. Leech will bring with him some of the artistic vision that has given HGO a strong reputation for new opera commissions and community outreach.
Mr. Leech has an essential background in opera, rooted in technical theatre. His U.K. career began as a lighting director and production manager; his first years at HGO were as technical and production director, before becoming the company’s COO in 2010, and managing director in 2011. In a bit of coincidence, Mr. Leech was head of lighting at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1993, when the COC’s then-general director Brian Dickie brought in Robert Lepage’s double-bill of Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung – arguably one of the COC’s most acclaimed productions.
Mr. Leech will inherit Alexander Neef’s COC, a company that in the past decade has been transformed into an ambitious player in the global opera scene. Now Mr. Leech is curious about the kind of relationship that the COC can establish on a local level. “Alexander’s given you an artistic identity,” Mr. Leech observes. “What I don’t know is what the audience feels about that.”
Opera, Mr. Leech says, “is a world stage”; yet Canadian opera lovers will no doubt notice that in its 70-year history, the COC has yet to appoint a Canadian-born general director. “Yeah, another non-Canadian, and candidly, another white guy,” he admits. “I completely understand that it is disappointing. We can’t change that overnight, I don’t think.”
Mr. Leech concedes that the opera industry is not a diverse one, particularly when it comes to leadership positions. “What we need to do a much better job of, in the industry, is developing talent on a local level of people who want to go on and do these jobs.” His hope, he says, is that when the time comes for his own succession committee, “they have a pool of candidates who look like the city of Toronto, which is a diverse city.”
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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Alexander Neef had stepped down rather than will be stepping down.