We're just around the corner from the Canadian Opera Company's offices on Front Street in Toronto, so you might not be surprised to hear the arts administrator I'm talking with is waxing poetic about Philippe Boesmans, one of Europe's leading opera composers. "Philippe's work is a masterpiece. If you spend a moment with the score, you'll see layer upon layer of thematic material – things that you wouldn't even think possible that co-habit within the orchestra. He's a great orchestrator like Ravel is a great orchestrator."
Powerful praise. But the arts administrator I'm talking to this cool November afternoon is not Alexander Neef or Johannes Debus of the COC. It's Matthew Jocelyn, artistic and general director of Canadian Stage, a theatre company. That's because it's CanStage – not the COC, or Tapestry Opera, or Against the Grain, or Queen of Puddings – that, in collaboration with Toronto's Soundstreams, will be presenting the North American premiere next week of Boesmans's chamber opera, Julie, based on Strindberg's searing Miss Julie. It's the first opera in CanStage's history.
Opera in a theatre company's season? Not as surprising as it may seem, given Jocelyn's philosophy as leader of his company.
"What I've been trying to do since I got here [he was appointed in 2009] is to expand in every way possible what we consider to be contemporary performance practice – or at least to expand the theatre to welcome in what artists are already doing in contemporary performance practice," he says. "I think that what's happened at Canadian Stage is that the audiences are expanding laterally, so that people of very different interest zones are beginning to realize that Canadian Stage can be a place of curiosity for them, a place of interest for them."
Where once, this philosophy led enraged CanStage subscribers to huff their way out of performances of modern dance or circus performers, the controversy seems to have receded lately. And one of the last audiences Jocelyn has yet to conquer? The classical music crowd, notoriously uninterested, by and large, in theatre. That's part of the reason Julie is exciting for him, as is the collaboration with Soundstreams, a 30-year-old new music organization.
But presenting Julie, and the work of its composer Boesmans, is also intensely personal for Jocelyn. He's had a professional relationship with the composer since they first met in 1988, when Jocelyn was acting as an assistant to the famous French director, Patrice Chéreau.
Since then, Boesmans's and Jocelyn's paths have productively crossed several times. In fact, Jocelyn is indirectly responsible for Julie's creation. He had asked Boesmans to reduce one of his previous operas, Reigen, to chamber proportions, from 90 musicians to 24, so it could be performed by Jocelyn's opera studio in Alsace. Boesmans did so, and fell in love with the smaller, more intense musical world he had created.
Julie, a work for three singers and 19 musicians, written in 2005, was one of the results. Jocelyn directed a highly successful European tour of the work in 2009. His praise for Boesmans, approaching 80, is unstinting. "I'd say that as an artistic collaborator and as a Renaissance man and as a humanist with a wickedly perverse sense of humour and as a friend, he's one of the greatest influences for me, one of the greatest artistic companions I've ever had," he says.
Jocelyn is excited to be able to present his famous friend's North American debut and is delighted that opera companies across the continent are sending representatives to Toronto to see and hear Julie. But interest in the operatic community doesn't necessarily sell seats at the Bluma Appel Theatre – all 800-plus of them. And CanStage is presenting eight performances of Julie – that's almost 7,000 tickets to move for a contemporary opera by a composer most people have never heard of. Why not go the safe route and just present it twice or three times? Hedge your bets.
Jocelyn is having none of this line of thinking. "This is one of the chief operas written in the last 30 years. It's a masterpiece – it would be like saying in 1904, well let's just do La Bohème twice – no, you don't do that. You allow a city to discover and to celebrate a major work of art that belongs to our culture at this time. So that's what I'm trying to do with Julie. There's a huge amount of potential excitement in discovering Philippe's work," he says.
"It's going to be a seminal musical experience, hearing his music on that stage, hearing that orchestra. It may be a stretch for some CanStage audience members, but I hope we've got to a place where they say, 'If you think this is important for us to experience, we're interested in discovering it.'"