Whither Canadian Opera Company: after Neef

Did you know? The first ever Monty Python episode was titled Whither Canada.

I suspect it’s a title meant to invoke the sort of bland but innocent British documentary we see here in Canada as “Hinterland Who’s Who” or “Heritage Minutes”.

Of course that’s not what the viewer got for this, the first Monty Python episode, nor the next 44, plus assorted films, concerts and more.

whither canadaMONTY_PYTHON

whither canadaMONTY_PYTHON2

whither canadaMONTY_PYTHON3

But it’s a question we might ask of the Canadian Opera Company, although I apologize, I’m not as funny as Monty Python.

“Whither COC”, although I’m tempted to put that first “h” between parentheses to suggest a second meaning for the word.

I wonder what’s ahead as we say goodbye to Alexander Neef the COC general director. If this was a year like the earlier ones in Neef’s tenure, one might wonder: does the company want to find a comparable successor, someone to lead the company along a similar path?

But this is not a year like any other.

  • The last two operas of the season could not be staged due to the pandemic.
  • Cancellations? Toronto Symphony concerts from April onwards, Stratford & beyond…
  • The Metropolitan Opera are closed until the end of December
  • Singers, musicians, artists & technicians in every discipline have lost some or all of their expected performance fees.

In 106 days from now it will be September 25th: the projected opening night of Parsifal.

In 19 days it will be June 30th, the renewal deadline for my COC subscription.

I have the option to cash in the two operas that we lost in April- May on the new season. But I wonder, will I be purchasing six operas for the price of four? Or is it to be a shortened season, perhaps four operas: for the price of, gulp, two?

For the customer? that sounds like a bargain, if indeed that’s what it comes down to. But it sounds like so much of a bargain that I wonder. Will the COC be able to survive?

If Alexander Neef leaves as expected in the spring of 2021, what shape will the COC be in? This is the backdrop as the COC cast about for a new general director to ensure the survival and prosperity of the company.

Implicit in that process of searching for new leadership is the whole question of identity.

  • What is the COC and whom does it serve?
  • What is its mission? It would be a good new beginning for the Company if the new leader were to articulate the mission of the company, a vision for the Company in Toronto and in the country bearing the Company’s name.
  • What do we understand by success for the COC? In other words, what are the strategic objectives that matter other than balancing the books and finding donors?

I’m putting this out there more in the interest of encouraging a conversation than to claim I have the answers.

In the aftermath of the pandemic the COC may want to retreat into a more Canadian model closer in spirit if not actuality to the founding impulses of the company seventy years ago, when the performers were all Canadians.  If Parsifal is to be staged in the fall its cast is mostly imported, a hugely expensive undertaking. One can think in the short-term, not unlike the governments planning for our survival during the pandemic, while remembering longer term concerns.

A short-term nationalistic approach to casting may preclude ambitious works such as Parsifal, while preserving the company.  It may seem like a lame analogy, but in a family’s finances, if one or both of the bread-winners lose your job, you put off expensive purchases, lavish vacations: until such time as you’re not going broke. Perhaps the COC might do the same at least for the short-term.

What if the Ensemble Studio members were to step into a more central role (excuse the pun), not merely the spear-carriers but the stars..? In their auditions they sang the arias belonging to lead roles, even though their time in the Ensemble Studio rarely affords such opportunities. They know how to act,  they know how to sing. Let’s give them the chance.

What if the next General Director were to be the steward of the company & the dream of Canadian opera, the guide & guardian of our talent & our culture.

What if the new General Director’s mission were to seek out the prodigals who have wandered away, offering them sanctuary & a welcome home? Go ahead, call it romantic & even nonsensical. But there are many singers right here in Toronto, across the country & abroad. It’s not so much that they deserve the chance (although they do), as we the audience deserve the opportunity to see & hear them, finally.

Imagine a Canadian hockey club filled with European players, when there are Canadians living here and abroad who could take the ice & play just as well or better. Is that crazy? But Canada punches above her weight as a producer of hockey players, AND opera singers. (Soccer players? No.)

But the point of the analogy is to suggest how crazy it is to bring in talent from afar if locals are being ignored, especially if the hockey team is funded or subsidized by a government agency. The COC gets money from granting bodies at several levels of government, who have not –at least not yet—demanded the hiring of Canadians as their quid pro quo for funding.

IS it such a crazy idea, when singers & artists get CERB-funds, when the companies are subsidized: yet there appears to be no accountability as far as how the grants are used?
Call me a Philistine. But I will be happier walking into the Four Seasons Centre to see a Canadian Opera Company comprised of Canadians, backstage, onstage, in the pit, in the front office.

The mandate could extend further afield, naturally. I grew up listening to stories about the COC tour, tales of funny ad libs from singers & character actors such as comedian Briane Nasimok.  Nevermind MAGA, by touring they could Make COC Canadian Again (is that MCOCCA?…oh dear that sounds more like something out of Monty Python).

I’m just putting it out there.

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5 Responses to Whither Canadian Opera Company: after Neef

  1. Edward Brain says:

    Leslie, actually as the “Canadian” Opera Company I would like to see the company having more investment in Canada – some tours would be nice but so would more Canadians in the operation of the company – the Ensemble Studio is a good way to help young Canadian singers, but I think we could look for more Canadian artists on the stage. Although, some roles are more difficult to cast, so naturally they will have to always consider non-Canadian talent (plus the fact that there are non-Canadian singers that I enjoy listening to to be fair.)

    But, I also wonder if they could not find some sponsors like Stratford has in order to show some of their operas on the CBC. Again, it would go back to the fact that it would make it easier for those outside the GTA to see what the COC is doing, especially as the first word in their name is Canada, not Toronto.

    Just my two cents though.

  2. John Gilks says:

    I’m not a huge fan of nationalism but if we are going to do it let’s do it properly. The COC just only perform operas by Canadian composers and librettists. Naturally they should only cast Canadians and use Canadian musicians in the pit; playing Canadian made instruments of course. Seriously though I’m pretty sure the COC as is provides work for more Canadian singers (at higher fees) than any other company in Canada. That’s worth recognising.

    • barczablog says:

      I’ve heard rumours to suggest a huge disparity between what imports & Canadians earn, but if you like I can stick a really big gold star on the front of Four Seasons Centre (that is if I don’t get arrested for doing so).

      We can set aside the broader strategic questions for another day. First man the pumps and make sure the good ship COC doesn’t go under. Will Parsifal (to open Sept 25th, rehearsals to begin when?) and Figaro (opening Oct 20th rehearsals to begin when?) actually be staged? I’d love to see them (was planning to see multiple performances of Parsifal), happy to renew my subscription. And if they’re not going to be staged wouldn’t it be reasonable to know that before I commit to renewing?

      Yes it’s a challenging time.

      • anncoopergay says:

        I will post your blog article on my FB site. I’m eager to support this idea. I like the idea of “Only in Canada” (remember the Red Rose tea advert), but shoot for the highest standard (shouldn’t be a problem to do that b/c we have so many Canadians here and all over at the top of the heap). Lots to consider!

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