Alexander Neef, General Director of the Canadian Opera Company, recently announced the company’s 2013-2014 season. It expresses not only a vision for the COC, but of opera's role in the cultural fabric of Canada's largest city.
Along with favorites like Puccini’s La Boheme (which opens the season) and Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, the COC’s Music Director Johannes Debus will be making his Benjamin Britten debut when he conducts Peter Grimes; helmed by Award-winning Australian director Neil Armfield, the rented work (originally a co- production between Opera Australia and Houston Grand Opera) will feature acclaimed Canadian tenor Ben Heppner in the title role. Debus will also be on the podium to conduct Massenet’s Don Quichotte. Director Peter Sellars is set to return to the COC following his success with this season’s Tristan und Isolde, directing an all-star cast in Handel’s Hercules, and acclaimed soprano Sondra Radvanovsky is set to sing Queen Elizabeth I in Donizetti’s Robert Devereux.
Chatting one recent grey morning in his office, Neef confesses that his life is “90%” taken up with the business of opera. I’m perched on a long black leather sofa in Neef’s office; the walls are almost bare, but Neef’s desk is piled high with CDs. The stacks bring to mind Opera News’ observation in August 2012 that “few opera administrators of Neef's age can listen to singers with his level of accuracy and understanding.” But Neef is just as keen to talk about productions near and far, and explore the challenges he’s faced since landing the job.
Neef came to the COC in 2008, when he was chosen by the company’s board to be successor to the deceased Richard Bradshaw. He comes by his artist-meets-administrator credentials honestly, having worked as administrator at the Salzburg Festival as well as the Ruhrtriennale, an annual two-month-long music and arts festival in northwest Germany. The Opéra National de Paris came calling in 2004, and it was there Neef worked with the influential Gerard Mortier, who is currently the General Director of Teatro Real à Madrid; Mortier founded the Ruhrtriennale and was General Director of the Paris Opéra from 2004 to 2009. Neef oversaw more than 80 productions under Mortier's tenure, many with a contemporary twist. It’s this ethos he’s brought with him to Canada, and it’s one that’s infuriated as often as it’s inspired.
Much has been made of the General Director's "reserved German exterior," his quiet, thoughtful demeanor, the fastidiousness of his manners and the calculated nature of his approach. But all these observations mask a deeper truth: Neef is a passionate one-on-one conversationalist. Though indeed polite, he's also fast, funny, and when he’s on a tear, speaks in whole paragraphs, his blue eyes widening goldfish-style behind his tortoiseshell frames. For sixty solid minutes, we chat, non-stop, about opera, art, media, and his six-year-old daughter’s determination to learn the violin. There is, refreshingly, no sign of a cellphone.
Neef tweets occasionally about arts events (or more lately, rehearsals) he’s attended, though he says he no longer has time to maintain his blog. “It’s so hard,” he admits. “I promised everybody to go back to writing, but if you don’t have a solid hour to write something... that’s the great thing about tweeting, it takes you seconds! But I really want to go back to blogging. I’m going to try to carve out the time.“
Having carved out an hour to chat with me, we get down to the business of talking good productions, bad productions, the difference between European and North American funding structures, differences in critical receptions, and a bit of media controversy. One Canadian newspaper has, notably, been giving Neef a rough ride. “People who read the National Post would think we do terrible work only,” he says, his even voice betraying a notable hint of frustration. He says he nearly responded to their latest criticism online. “I was tempted to tweet the other day -when they published this really vitriolic review of Lucia -“unfortunately the Post review forgot to talk about the standing ovation for it.” You get fed up with those things at some point.”
If Neef’s relative youth to the position -he’s in his late thirties -renders him precocious (and, paired with a decidedly continental-European approach, perhaps even arrogant) to some critics, it also affords him varying degrees of confidence, curiosity, and casualness. He’s good at what he does, he’s ready to try new things, and he doesn’t mind pushing audiences into new, unfamiliar territory.
Neef’s intense speaking style is dramatically punctuated by considered silences and small smiles, as if he’s secretly savoring a delicious bonbon or remembering the punchline to a naughty joke. He doesn’t get red-faced at certain media coverage so much as quietly smirk and offer a shrug or two (“You know what to expect after a while.”). It’s this fascinating mix of quiet confidence, fierce intelligence, and controlled passion that has made him a notable leader in the Canadian opera world.
Last July it was announced that his contract with the Canadian Opera Company was extended, to the 2020-2021 season. Some questioned the wisdom of such a move, hinting the extension smacked of self-interest and the desperation of the COC Board to attract a younger opera-going audience, but such criticism turns a blind eye to the cultural broadening Neef is attempting in terms of moving the art form forwards in not only the city, but the entire country. COC Board President Philip C. Deck noted that “(Neef) has harnessed all the assets that the COC has built over time [...]and woven them into a package that attracts the finest artists in the world.” It's this palpable sense of cultural worldliness that makes the Canadian Opera Company a destination point for arts lovers of all ages, and indeed, locales. Much like The Met in New York City, the COC attracts a wide swath of music lovers from across the province -and even sometimes south of the border. Many of the "fine artists" Deck referenced in his statement have been (and will be, notably) Canadian. Ben Heppner, Richard Margison, Russell Braun, Michael Schade, Tracy Dahl, Isabel Bayrakdarian; just a few of the names who have sung (or will be singing) on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre. The internationally-acclaimed directors and artists Neef has chosen to be part of COC seasons past, present, and future -David Alden, Christopher Alden, Peter Sellars, Bill Viola, Edward Burtynsky, Atom Egoyan, Robert LePage -have all helped to bust opera out of its starchy, stiff garb and made it far more challenging, timely, and ultimately rewarding.
“If you want to get people moving, it has to be good -what that means is, if, in the end, everyone agrees on musical excellence, that’s a good thing, because we will never build a consensus on production; it’s just not going to happen.”
Ben Heppner as Tristan in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" from earlier this year.
Still, opinions have been decidedly mixed for many of the productions done under Neef’s tenure: a one-roomed Rigoletto, a water-themed Nightingale (directed by Robert LePage, critical opinion was almost unanimously positive, while patron response -at least the people I spoke with -was mixed), a grey Clemenza di Tito, a very-sparse Tristan und Isolde (featuring video work of internationally-lauded artist Bill Viola), a corporate version of Aida set in a futuristic world. A current production of Salome (directed by Atom Egoyan) features an abstract film-version of Salome’s childhood memories during the Dance of the Seven Veils. While Neef respects some people like the traditional stagings (“If there’s a tree, people want the actual tree; if there’s a river, people want the actual river,” he says, with a hint of exasperation), it’s vital for a company of the status of the COC’s to be pushing audiences in new directions, and to be continually reviving what some may see as a dying (or even dead) art form.
“People have different tastes,” he explains, his even voice suddenly rising in the most subtle of crescendos. “They come with a different set of expectations. It’s easier to fulfill that musically; you can follow musical references. That’s the easy part. But ...every single member of the public comes with a set of (visual) references... how do we answer to that, other than through a statement? Either you relate or you don’t.”
Those ideas the public may hold aren’t always necessarily rooted in other, older productions. Neef relates the story of receiving a letter from an angry patron when he was with the Opéra National de Paris “We did a new production of Don Giovanni set in an office tower,” he recalls. “(The patron) wrote, “How dare you not set Giovanni in Venice?!” -it’s not set in Venice in the original libretto, but then you remember the movie version is set in Venice, and that was her reference, so... there was nothing I could do about it. She couldn’t be convinced she was wrong; it was, “You didn’t meet my expectations! That’s terrible!””
His blue eyes gleam and he smiles. “It’s the same thing here: “You don’t do Aida in gold and miniskirts and why not?!” Indeed, the 2010 Albery-directed work wasn’t the most popular production in Toronto opera circles (personally, I wasn’t a big fan of the interpretation, though the staging of the Triumphal March was extremely moving), but Neef maintains it was important to do. Amidst a flurry of negative reviews, the Huffington Post asked, “If forward-thinking opera companies like the COC don't reinterpret and reinvent the classics to make them relevant and thought-provoking, than what on earth is the point of going to the opera?”
It's a perfect echo of Neef’s ethos, and while he’s angered some long-time opera-goers, he’s not afraid to keep pushing. “You need to be ready to go down that road,” he says, a soft smile spreading across his face. “If you’re not ready I won’t force you, but I think it’s a very valid proposal.”
Neef has made some strong choices -music and directing-wise -for the COC’s 2013-2014 season, including signing on Atom Egoyan to direct Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. How could the brainy (some might say obtuse) cinema director illuminate Mozart’s piece about the challenges of male/female relationships?
“What Atom and I have been talking a lot about is Mozart’s contemporary, (the playwright) Marivaux, of people being set up in an experimental way, of having to interact, finding love for someone that seems unlikely, all the problems that ensue,” he explains. “That’s really what Cosi is, ...you’re matched with this person and you’re going down the road with that person, and you see what it does emotionally. That’s something that suits Atom’s sensitivity a lot.”
Alice Coote as Dejanira and Eric Owens as Hercules in the Canadian Opera Company/Lyric Opera of Chicago (LOC) co-production of George Frideric Handel's "Hercules" from 2011 (LOC); the production will open in Toronto in April 2014.
Another notable production next season is Handel’s Hercules, which will feature the popular American baritone Eric Owens. With The Met producing Giulio Cesare this season, and the COC having done Semele, as well as both the English National Opera and the Royal Opera’s busy recent histories producing the composer’s works, it would seem Handel is the opera guy de jour. Why?
“I think he was a really great psychologist,” Neef says casually. “And, there are a lot of good singers for this repertoire. We can do Handel better today than fifty years ago. We have more knowledge about how it’s supposed to be done. More people are able to sing Baroque. Conductors now know how to handle it too. That’s why this repertoire is making a comeback now, especially in North America.”
Ambur Braid as Adele and Peter Barrett as Dr. Falke in the Canadian Opera Company's new production of Johann Strauss II's "Die Fledermaus" from 2012.
The COC’s place in the international opera scene is being cemented, in large part thanks to Neef’s efforts in attracting top-tier talent (singing as well as directing) to the Four Seasons Centre, as well as forging alliances with other top houses. COC productions of Rigoletto (part of the 2011-2012 season) and Die Fledermaus (premiered in October 2012), both directed by the internationally-acclaimed Christopher Alden, are set to be part of the English National Opera’s 2013-2014 season. Currently, the Canadian Opera Company is presenting Alden’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, premiered by the English National Opera in 2008, and they’ll be opening Robert Carsen’s much-lauded production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (originally produced Netherland Opera in 1997 and since toured to La Scala Milan and Lyric Opera of Chicago) this week. Both offer modern visions, something that, again, has attracted criticism in some circles.
“That’s one of the principal problems with updated stagings: people can’t handle the fact that the it says more about them,” Neef explains, “it’s not just a distant thing (whereby) they can sit there and not relate; it’s beautiful, you don’t have to engage, you go home and feel good about it. But we’re not a betterment institution. We’re not here to make you feel better about everything in your life. If we can, I’m happy to do that, like with The Barber Of Seville or something, but there’s other pieces where that just doesn’t work.”
Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche de la Force in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Francis Poulenc's "Dialogues des Carmélites" from 2007. The production opens in Toronto on May 8th.
Opera-watchers will have also noted that the company, together with Opéra National de Lyon and The Metropolitan Opera, helped to make Richard Wagner’s Parsifal a rousing success when it played to enthusiastic crowds in New York this past winter. The production, which offered a very contemporary take on the Knights of the Round Table, was helmed by Quebecois director Francois Girard, designed by Canadian Michael Levine (whose Spadina Avenue studio Neef has visited), and featured powerhouse German tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. Will Toronto audiences get to experience Parsifal at some point in the future?
“The whole thing is very big, with a very big orchestra, very big chorus, and it’s expensive to run,” Neef says carefully. “It’s big. We’re working on it. Francois is a very good director at opera and Michael is a very good designer. It’s very good and it should be seen here.”
No doubt Girard’s modern vision will unsettle a few opera-goers and media types more attached to traditional stagings. But it isn’t for mere provocation a company produces new versions of old favorites.
“It can’t be your intention to enrage your audience,” the General Director says thoughtfully, “you have engage them, to make them think. You have to give things meaning by performing them, that’s what it’s really about, and in doing so, you have to make choices; some people might like your choices, some night not, but if you make no choices at all, opera won’t exist. It won’t happen.”