Question marks about the COC’s winter & spring season

I’ve seen some disgruntled responses in social media to the announcement of the Canadian Opera Company offerings for early 2022.

The COC are offering nine performances of Madama Butterfly in February, then seven shows each of La Traviata & Magic Flute in late April through May. Two of the three are identified as COC productions, while the third is a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chigao & Houston Grand Opera. That surely means that the Butterfly would be Brian Macdonald’s (last seen in 2014) the Flute would be Diane Paulus’s (seen in 2011 and 2017), while the co-pro Traviata was seen in 2015.

The disgruntlement I heard has to do with the comparative safety shown by COC’s management in programming three of the absolutely most popular operas.

How safe?

If we go to operabase.com they will tell you that the most popular operas are, in order, (I didn’t bother going past #7 for obvious reasons):
1) THE MAGIC FLUTE
2) La boheme
3) Carmen
4) The Fallen Woman( aka LA TRAVIATA)
5) The Marriage of Figaro
6) Tosca
7) MADAMA BUTTERFLY

I don’t know the year for this listing, only that this was what presented itself without any preamble or adjustment to the site.

I will look at this, and the question of whether the dissatisfaction I spoke of is reasonable from at least three overlapping different contexts:
1) As a Canadian concerned about the COC and the stewardship of the company.
2) As a lover of the arts who has observed singers & musicians struggling through the pandemic.
3) As a subscriber, aka as a customer considering renewal of my subscription

1 concerns the COC’s survival. We’re coming out of a pandemic that has devastated many businesses. The choice of operas strikes some people as too conservative (in being 3 of the 7 most popular operas).

But that conservatism is in the service of the company’s survival. These three operas are more or less a guaranteed sale, money in the bank. And speaking as someone who misses live performance, I would love to see these operas done live, especially if they’re done well. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.

2 concerns the working artists. While I hope that the COC will aim to employ Canadians rather than bringing in a bunch of foreign imports, at the same time, the ticket sales that drive #1 may require a few stars. Later this month for instance, the COC are offering an online concert featuring Canadian baritone Russell Braun opposite American superstar soprano Tamara Wilson. We don’t yet know who is to sing in those three operas, but the management has to reconcile fiscal prudence against their responsibility to the artform & the artists. I don’t envy them, given the challenges they face.

For #3, my options as a subscriber pondering the renewal, I’m in the dark as to what’s really being offered, given that we’re told on the website & in our emails, that (and I quote)

Subscriptions on sale: October 14, 2021
Subscription renewal deadline: November 10, 2021

Yes the season has been planned very quickly, but this is an astonishingly narrow renewal window, in fact just four weeks.

We don’t yet know who is to sing in these operas. Presumably they’ll tell us by October 14.

We don’t yet know whether we will be permitted to fully occupy the theatres as of February 2022. If the delta variant & the “fourth wave” prevent a full opening of theatres in Toronto perhaps the question becomes moot.

But come to think of it, if Perryn Leech and the COC brass are asking the same question –that is, wondering whether full occupancy of theatres will be permitted – that would go a long way towards explaining their safe programming.

COC General Director Perryn Leech

Imagine if they had undertaken something risky such as the coproduction of Wozzeck that’s eventually coming our way, and they were committed to it, but forced to work in theatres holding a limited seating capacity. The “safe” programming choice makes sense if they fear having the rug pulled out from under them by COVID.

There’s another question mark of another sort. If we don’t jump on board between October 14 & November 10, we have no assurance that we keep our subscriptions for the following season. I haven’t phoned up the subscription office to query, but in the FAQs, they say this:

What if I did not renew for the canceled 2020/2021 season?

No further action is required from you at this time, and your priority in the seating queue will be maintained if you order a subscription for any 3 opera package of Madama Butterfly (Feb 4-25, 2022), Verdi’s La Traviata (April 23-May 20, 2022), and Mozart’s The Magic Flute (May 6-21, 2022).

That implies that if we feel uncomfortable about going inside a full theatre in February, April or May, and skip the winter-spring offerings, that we lose our place in line. Or in other words “your priority in the seating queue will be maintained if you order a subscription for any 3 opera package.”

I’m not sure how I feel, predicting the future. What will it be like in Toronto in February, or April or May? I’m conflicted about risking my health (or the health of my 100 year old mom whom I see regularly). I’d be totally cool with seeing the Macdonald Butterfly, the Paulus Flute and the Arbus Traviata if I knew they were employing young Canadians who need the work. I’m eager to see the François Girard Parsifal, or the William Kentridge Wozzeck, whatever year they’re finally programmed, and so I must not lose my subscription seat to be assured of that opportunity.

I assume that I must buy a subscription even if I don’t feel comfortable attending: to keep my place in line. I will have four weeks (between October 14 and November 10) to decide what to get, without knowing how safe it will be. I trust that they’ll tell us a bit more about the casting by October 14. Perhaps they don’t mean to put a gun to my head about seeing these three operas if I want to continue on in the fall of 2022. But then again that’s usually the deal. A subscription normally means a leap of faith.

Then again I wonder what the availability of tickets will be. Perhaps a subscription is not needed? But I love our location and would hate to lose them (although I wonder whether we will even be able to sit in our usual location for the three operas…? so many questions).

All these factors — COVID, the health & safety of Torontonians, the fiscal health of the company, the casting choices — come into the question of the COC’s programming in February April and May.

We shall see.

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