After years of treating audiences to a steady diet of Mozart, Verdi and Bizet, the Canadian Opera Company is cooking up some Canadian content for upcoming seasons.
The 2015-2016 season that the company unveiled Wednesday features a momentous premiere: The short opera Pyramus and Thisbe by Toronto-area composer Barbara Monk Feldman will mark the first time the COC has performed Canadian music on its main stage since it moved into Toronto's Four Seasons Centre in 2006.
Then, in 2017, to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the company will join forces with the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to revive Louis Riel, the Harry Somers opera that has been very sporadically performed since its world premiere in 1967.
And finally, the company is also announcing a major commission, a full-length Canadian opera that it has pencilled in for 2019-2020: Montreal composer Ana Sokolovic and Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard will create La Reine-Garçon, an operatic version of his play about the 17th-century Swedish queen, Christina.
The COC has sometimes been criticized in the music community for failing to program Canadian work, but German-born general-director Alexander Neef, who joined the company seven years ago, argues he's playing a long game: "It's not a technical process; it's about inspiration," he said. "It's about matches; you are searching all the time but sometimes you find best when you are not looking."
That might describe how Neef found Pyramus and Thisbe: COC Orchestra trombone player Ian Cowie was chatting with Monk Feldman backstage at a musical event when she told him about the piece she had sitting in a drawer, a short opera inspired by the love story of Greek myth (on which Romeo and Juliet is based). Monk Feldman, whose work is more often performed in Germany and the United States, had completed the work in 2008 but not shown it around. Cowie suggested Neef take a look and the director was immediately interested.
"What got me interested when I opened the score was the stillness and purity of the music … It's like one long breath," he said, comparing the great spaces of Monk Feldman's composition to the vastness of the Canadian landscape.
On the other hand, the pairing of Bouchard, one of Quebec's most prominent playwrights, with Sokolovic was a more methodical marriage of composer and librettist.
Sokolovic has created several chamber operas for the Toronto company Queen of Puddings; Neef was particularly taken by her Svadba-Wedding, an a cappella opera for six female voices that has been performed internationally, but he judged it was not large enough to mount in the 2,000-seat Four Seasons Centre.
He also knew Bouchard's plays and had read Christine, la reine-garçon (which was performed in English translation at the Stratford Festival in 2014, as Christina, the Girl King). He asked Sokolovic if she was interested in collaborating with an unnamed playwright on a full-length opera for the COC before approaching Bouchard about writing the libretto; the playwright's only stipulation was that he would write the opera in French. When told who her collaborator would be, Sokolovic read the play and was immediately intrigued by Bouchard's feminist heroine.
"I was seduced by the contemporaneity of this subject; I didn't have any impression the story wasn't happening today," Sokolovic said, noting Christina's remarkable insistence on peace despite the opposition of her military advisers, and her refusal to marry. "She didn't behave; she was original in all her activities."
Sokolovic welcomes the big commission: "What I did at Queen of Puddings was to build my craft; I am really ready to go to something longer and bigger, with a huge orchestra, a chorus and soloists."
Monk Feldman, meanwhile, greets her world premiere as a natural homecoming. "I wanted to be really sure where it should go. This is home for me, so it makes sense." She explains that Pyramus and Thisbe arises partly from her interest in landscape – it was originally inspired by a landscape by the 17th-century French painter Nicolas Poussin that she first saw back in 1983 – and explains that its archetypal love story is set in a range of historical periods, taking place across time.
As women, as Canadians and as contemporary composers, Monk Feldman and Sokolovic are highly unusual choices for a company largely dedicated to the classic European repertoire. The National Ballet of Canada has twice featured world premieres of Canadian scores for short ballets on the main stage at the Four Seasons: Alexina Louie wrote the music for Wolf's Court in 2007 and Owen Pallett wrote the music for Unearth in 2013. But Monk Feldman's Pyramus and Thisbe will be the first time the COC plays Canadian music on that stage. (The piece will be paired with two short operas by Monteverdi, Lamento d'Arianna and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.)
And, the Bouchard-Sokolovic project is only the second full-scale Canadian opera at the COC since 1999, when Randolph Peters composed the score for The Golden Ass. The first, a commission from Rufus Wainwright and Daniel MacIvor entitled Hadrian that was announced in 2013, will be performed in 2018-2019. The company regularly programs new Canadian work in the free concerts performed in its lobby; it also premiered Love from Afar, by the contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, in 2012.
The rest of the 2015-2016 season features a mixture of favourite chestnuts and less well-known works. The season includes new productions of both La Traviata and The Marriage of Figaro, while Toronto stage director Joel Ivany has been given the job of freshening up the existing production of Carmen. The company will continue with its revival of Wagner's Ring cycle, performing Siegfried. And it will mount its first production to date of Rossini's Maometto II, using a newly restored version of the original score for an 1820 opera that has been seldom performed because it was handed down in versions heavily modified by the composer. Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni will make his COC debut in the title role of a Turkish sultan at war with the Venetians.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story failed to mention the new Canadian opera Hadrian, which the COC plans to perform in 2018-2019.