The Canadian Opera Company's general director is not a typical Toronto arts CEO. Alexander Neef does not speak in managerese, that business and bureaucracy-speak that is becoming the vernacular of the North American executive classes. His degrees are in the humanities, not business or law. He takes public transit to work.
In the era of global fly-by appointments to large arts institutions, this European of German extraction came to Canada to stay and embraced its culture, and just this fall, 10 years into his tenure, had his contract renewed for five more. The COC has meanwhile become a standout in North America, a medium-size company that punches well above its weight while budgeting within its means, under conditions that are neither locally nor globally favourable to the mad venture that is live opera.
But young, growing cities change fast, and so can their opera-going habits. Not everything has gone smoothly since Neef took over. The 2010 Aida caused consternation because director Tim Albery dared get rid of the opera's customary sphinx and pyramids and set it in an unnamed Middle Eastern dictatorship in the mid-20th century. There was grumpiness around Christopher Alden's Rigoletto set in the Victorian era and Dmitri Tcherniakov's Don Giovanni in a nouveau-riche family, but grumpiness was more reasoned, less angry.
North American opera houses are far more cautious than European ones regarding inventive productions, yet as if in a virtuous circle, Toronto's expectations have been growing alongside the evolution of its house. No other North American company, excluding perhaps New York's Metropolitan Opera, has programmed productions by Robert Carsen, Robert Lepage, Claus Guth, Christopher and David Alden, Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, Tcherniakov, Tim Albery, François Girard, Peter Sellars, Atom Egoyan and Calixto Bieito, all in the past eight years. As well, the eight-year all-male spell on the COC podium was broken earlier this year, with Keri-Lynn Wilson conducting Tosca.
Criticism over the lack of Canadian opera dogged Neef in the early years, but he listened. COC is midway through a four-year stretch which will see a Canadian opera every season. Never mind that contemporary opera, compared with the repertoire warhorses, sells fewer tickets.
"Provided our finances don't dry out completely, we will continue to produce one Canadian opera per year," Neef says when we meet to discuss the COC's past and future. The Canadian operas produced during his tenure are wildly different: The shimmering soundscape of Barbara Monk Feldman's Pyramus and Thisbe (2015), Harry Somers's political, unabashedly modernist 1967 work Louis Riel (2017), Rufus Wainwright's Hadrian (next season) and a new work by Ana Sokolovic (2020). This diversity is precisely the point: "We wanted to challenge the preconceptions about what Canadian opera is and can be," Neef says. Is Canadian opera a permanent hard sell? "I look at it this way: Perhaps we haven't helped our audience enough to get in the habit of going to see new Canadian opera. I see this as a long-term success story, not a short-term one."
Much juggling goes into season planning each year. Out of the six operas, two need to be reliable ticket sellers, and help attract new, non-specialist audiences. At the same time, the COC's subscription base doesn't want to see familiar works too frequently. Then there is casting. "We are lucky because now we can attract interesting people," Neef says. "When it comes to the singers who get more work than they can accept, I've never heard them ask about the fee first. The first question they ask is, who are my colleagues, who is directing the production?"
Your best-laid season plans then go to the marketing department, which calculates what it can realize in ticket revenue. Following that, the fundraising department estimates what it can raise for the season. All things taken into consideration, the desired and the financially achievable need to balance out. Unlike European houses, which have stable government funding, the COC's budget is largely self-generated, with less than 20 per cent from government. There is modest revenue from the endowment, but ticket sales and fundraising must cover the rest.
Such a revenue structure keeps ticket prices relatively high, which in turn is probably the main reason our operatic audience tilts middle-class and up, and middle-aged and older. Neef's previous job as casting director at the Paris Opera was different: spending a large budget on the best singers and conductors. Opera in Canada is a greater challenge. "European countries take pride in their companies' artistic achievements. Something that perhaps we don't do so well," he says.
How much are Canadians willing to nurture opera as their own art form, especially in the era of the stay-at-home, screen-addicted, Americanized art consumer? Like jazz or tango, European opera has a specific geographical origin, but like blues or tango or tennis, it belongs to the wider humanity. Europeans see no qualms safeguarding opera as their own cultural heritage, but will Canadians continue to do that over the next 200 years?
"Well, if you look at the U.S. – the rich founders of the Met wanted the best opera money can buy, and they had money to buy it," Neef says. "Wealthy donors are still what funds the U.S. opera. That's not how the COC started. We had modest beginnings at University of Toronto thanks to a handful of intellectuals and musicians who were European refugees before and after the Second World War, who got together and said, 'Let's see if it can take root here.' And our job is still growing those roots."
An opera producer in Canada will always have to make the case for the art form, and if you can't, "the audience couldn't care less if you're the Canadian Opera Company or whoever. The institution alone doesn't carry enough weight," Neef acknowledges. What is the best way then to make the case for opera versus, say, Netflix, video games or a soccer match? "Getting people into seats … direct experience. When you experience the thrill of voice and the orchestral sound, it's easy to see how it doesn't compare to anything else."
Has the audience changed over the years? It's still the case that the higher you go in the house, Neef says, the younger and more diverse the audience. "The challenge is to move them gradually down the house, to better seats and further engagement. This will take time."
Midlife is when overworked Canadians start taking stock and realizing that there is more to life than the office. "People look around and say to themselves: I have some disposable income, I am curious, I want to experience more art."
Another thing that Neef noticed is the increased engagement of the Toronto audience. COC stage managers write in their nightly reports the length of the final applause, among other things, and it has doubled to about five minutes over the years. There are the aria applauses, the bravos and sometimes the boos (usually reserved for stage directors for perceived libretto infractions), and it's all fair game: "It's important to empower the audience to have an opinion," Neef says.
He still remembers the opening night of that now legendary 2010 Aida. "When Sondra Radvanovsky finished Ritorna vincitor, the house just … exploded. As if the audience at that very moment understood what was possible in the house – acoustically, artistically – and reacted in an atypically emotional way." Torontonians are curious and open at the opera, they don't judge before they see, but this was quite out of character.
"We as humans respond to opera emotionally. This happens to all of us – even to me, and I've been doing this for almost 20 years. When I see something new, I have an emotional reaction – which later I can rationalize if I want to. I can be enthusiastic or critical etc. But what music asks of us is not an intellectual exercise. You just allow it to hit you, and see where it takes you. I think that today, more than in the past, our audiences are more open to losing control."