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article imageThe Canadian Opera Company balances old and new Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Jan 15, 2015 in Entertainment
Toronto - The Canadian Opera Company moves into daring territory with its 2015-2016 season, announced this past week. A mix of old favorites and new works dominates a season characterized by bold new choices and old favorites.
The 65th season of the COC will feature four productions new to Toronto audiences, as well as the company’s first mainstage world premiere since 1999. Verdi’s popular La Traviata kicks off the season in October 2015, and will run in tandem with a more unusual, if very bold offering. Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi’s rarely performed Lamento d’Arianna and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda is being twinned with contemporary opera Pryamus and Thisbe, by Canadian composer Barbara Monk Feldman.
The Ring Cycle continues from the 2014-2015 season (with an upcoming production of Wagner's Die Walküre) into the 2015-2016 season, with a remount of Francois Girard's monumental 2006 production of Siegfried opening in January 2016, and a cinematically-inspired Salzburg Festival production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, opening in February. Bizet’s popular Carmen and Rossini’s rarely-performed Maometto II close out the spring season, with openings in mid and late-April, respectively.
Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II. Photo from  Maometto II  (Sante Fe Opera  2012).
Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II. Photo from 'Maometto II' (Sante Fe Opera, 2012).
Ken Howard
Alexander Neef, General Director of the Canadian Opera Company (or COC), is polite, articulate, and perennially well-dressed. He pauses when asked if the 2015-2016 season is a good example of pushing Toronto audiences into new territory.
“Well,” he pauses thoughtfully, “I don’t know if “pushing” is too aggressive a term… um, I guess… it’s somewhere between pushing and seducing really. I don’t know, I think it’s exactly in the middle of those two.”
Perhaps “persuading” a better term?
“It’s too technical,” he says playfully, “it’s missing the sensual, and that’s an essential component since we’re talking about music.”
A deep sense of musicality pervades the 2015-2016 season, with various colors and palettes on offer, from the bold strokes of Bizet’s much-loved score to the delicate, impressionist watercolors of Barbara Monk Feldman’s 2010 piece. It’s a season that liberally, boldly mixed the sensual and the angular, the expressive, and the experimental.
“I see it in a line too,” Neef says of the season. “We’ve done a little bit of groundwork.”
Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef.
Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef.
Veronika Roux-Vlachova
The Canadian Opera Company is at an fascinating point in its history, having seen a rise in attendance and a glut of homegrown productions. According to numbers provided at the company’s annual general meeting this past October, average audience capacity was at 94 per cent for the 2013-2014 season, up 4 per cent from the year before, with the majority of financial support coming from subscribers. As with recent seasons, there will be six (not seven) productions throughout the year, as well as a stellar lineup of star vocalists, many of whom will be making their role debuts in Toronto.
The reverse of this, however, also applies, with star vocalists performing signature roles in the 2015-2016 season, among them Georgian mezzo soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, who will be performing her famous Carmen, and Venezuelan bass baritone Luca Pisaroni reprising his much-praised title role in Rossini’s tragic opera Maometto II. This wide array of international and Canadian singing stars (including Canadians Joyce El-Khoury, David Pomeroy and COC Ensemble Member Andrew Haji) is notable because not only does it make for a capital-E arts event (and attract big audiences), but it also lends lesser-known works a certain legitimacy within the mainstream that they might not otherwise attain.
As The Globe and Mail’s Robert Harris characterized the 2013-2014 season announcement in January 2013, “Balance, above all, balance.” So it is that in 2015-2016, one sees the oldest examples of opera paired with new ones; two Monteverdi works from the early 17th century have been paired with Barbara Monk Feldman 2010 work, Pyramus and Thisbe. The work, which will receive its world premiere in October 2015, marks the company’s first time performing Canadian music on the Four Seasons’ mainstage.
“For me,” Neef says, “Barbara’s opera… I don’t know if she would like it herself, but it’s very much in a tradition of Tristan (und Isolde, by Richard Wagner) and Pelléas (et Mélisande, by Claude Debussy). I think, for me, the fascination of that evening will be those old pieces coupled with the new; it spans the whole history of the artform.”
Composer Barbara Monk Feldman  whose  Pyramus and Thisbe  will be premiering as part of the Canadian...
Composer Barbara Monk Feldman, whose 'Pyramus and Thisbe' will be premiering as part of the Canadian Opera Company's 2015-2016 season.
Jeff Higgins
The work, based on a romantic tragedy in Greek mythology and inspired by a painting by 17th century painter Nicolas Poussin, explores the Greek myth that inspired Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But beyond the mythological references, there’s also the music, which, Neef says, has a kind of purity that bridges the four-century gap between the works.
“We started planning the evening from Barbara’s piece,” Neef explains. “The music has a certain purity to it — that brought us rather quickly to Monteverdi, not another 20th or 21st century score. When you put a couple of pieces together that have a 400-year gap between them and you hear connections, it says something about the artform.”
That artform liberally embraces both the new and the old in the 2015-2016 COC season, with the Verdi’s popular La Traviata, opening in October. The work revolves around an ill courtesan’s doomed love affair with a nobleman and provoked scandal at its 1853 Venice premiere. Co-produced with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Houston Grand Opera, the staging leans at what some might term “traditional.”
“You know that I am not adverse to what people call —I don’t like the term, but “updated” interpretations — and I think that's something you can’t do with Traviata [...] It’s a social piece, it’s very deeply rooted in the 19th century.”
Neef brings up a famous scene in the opera in which the main character, Violetta, is asked by the father of her lover to abandon the affair out of respect to his family.
“In the 20th or 21st century, the opera would end there,” he notes. “She'd just throw him out, she wouldn't say “Oh, it’s so terrible your daughter can’t marry because i’m a courtesan!” It sounds strange to me.”
Neef mentions the historical context of the work, that “even though the censors had forced (Verdi) to move (the setting) back a few 150 years or 200 years and not make it a contemporary story, people were still offended by it, and it took Verdi almost 30 years to get Traviata performed as a period piece. It’s also interesting that he’d keep pushing for it to be a contemporary piece in his time, but that doesn’t mean it should be contemporary to us.”
Marina Rebeka as Violetta. Photo from  La Traviata  (Lyric Opera of Chicago  2013)
Marina Rebeka as Violetta. Photo from 'La Traviata' (Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2013)
Todd Rosenberg
Well, there’s something to be said for audiences who love opera for the wigs and big dresses — for the grandeur of the spectacle itself.
“I like seeing the big dresses too, if they have a purpose,” he says simply.
A spring presentation of Rossini’s 1820 opera Maometto II continues the case for balance. Rarely performed, and having weathered many changes since its debut, the work, hailed as "ahead of its time" by The New York Times, was revived by the Santa Fe Opera in 2012; that same production will grace the mainstage of the Four Seasons Centre in April 2016, and, says Neef, it’ll be a treat for those who love grand, Verdi-style opera. The story revolves around a Venetian woman who falls for the titular Turkish character besieging her city, not unlike the storyline for Aida. Neef says the connection between the two Italian composers is hardly incidental.
“I think for Verdi — and generational Italian composers who would be around Verdi’s age — Rossini was the guy for him to look to, not Bellini or Donizetti.”
It’s slightly galling to admit I’m not that familiar with tragic Rossini works.
“You're in very good company!” Neef says. “Before I saw the piece in Santa Fe, I was not familiar with the serious Rossini either, except for (William) Tell maybe, but what’s so fascinating about Rossini, the serious Rossini, is how, in a way, he invented grand opera. With an opera like Maometto, the big choruses, the big dramatic scenes, big ensembles… when you hear that music, you will immediately understand that (Verdi's) Nabucco doesn’t come from Bellini or Donizetti — it comes from Rossini.”
A scene from the 2011 Salzburg Festival production of Mozart s  The Marriage of Figaro   which will ...
A scene from the 2011 Salzburg Festival production of Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro', which will be part of the COC's 2015-2016 season. "Mozart is key, like the core of the core," Neef says. "(His work is) the most human and he never judges his characters." ( L-R, Genia Kühmeier as the Countess, Katija Dragojevic as Cherubino and Marlis Petersen as Susanna)
Monika Rittershaus
With all the new offerings, as well as the well-loved classics, along with the commissioning of a new work by Canadian composer Anna Sokolović (based on a play by Quebecois playwright Michel Marc Bouchard), the COC seems like it’s taking more risks — financial and creative — than ever.
“Let’s call them calculated risks!” Neef says.
Judging by the enthusiastic response of the near-house capacity crowd at the Four Seasons Centre for the new season announcement, they’re risks audiences in Toronto are ready and willing to take.
More about Opera, Canadian opera company, alexander neef, Seduction, Barbara Monk Feldman
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