Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Sunday Read: Interview with Alexander Neef, General Director of The Canadian Opera Company

Four Years and Counting
I would like them to embrace being opinionated.
by Shannon Christy
(photo credit:

CHARPO: In 2008 in an interview with the CBC you briefly sketched your vision for the COC and among those you included attracting new stars, creating a high quality repertoire and commissioning new operas. Four years later how do you feel about those goals?

NEEF: We have done what we wanted to do during these four years. The quality of the cast has improved and it was never only about bringing in stars but about making everything we do more consistent.  What we have focused on is bringing up the general level of the performance. I don’t want a season with two peak productions and five that are so-so.

CHARPO: So, are some people still nostalgic about Richard Bradshaw era?

NEEF: When I came here the Company had been without a General Director for a year and everybody was ready to embrace a new leadership. I have very rarely been compared to my predecessor because people knew that it was something that had come to an end.  People were ready to embrace a new story and help create that story; and rather than feeling compared I felt carried and supported.

CHARPO: Regarding the season and its story, how does it work? Is there any particular theme you try to incorporate?

NEEF: The big theme is and will always be the diversity of the art form. For the specific needs of our public we still need to do a lot of work to introduce them to the repertoire. We want to give the audience an idea of what the art form is in general. With 400 years of work we can pick and choose but the message we want to convey is that no piece is quite like the other. What I want to tell the audience is that each time you come you are not going to have the same experience.

CHARPO: What about a plan? Do you have a five-year plan or do you play it by ear?

NEEF: Of course I have a plan. My contract has been extended until 2021 and, therefore, I have a plan that is much longer than just five years. There are a few pillars during my time that I want to say these are the things between now and 2015 that we should have done and these include a bigger repertoire, some shows that are a little more costly, more of our own productions, and get into more contemporary works.

The biggest disadvantage is the biggest advantage.

CHARPO: Speaking of contemporary pieces. You must have seen a great deal while you were in Paris. What are the advantages and disadvantages of your experience in Toronto vs. Paris?

NEEF: The biggest disadvantage is the biggest advantage. The very high public subsidy in Paris means that you can produce 20 operas but when you must do 20 different operas each season, not all of them are equally loved. Because we have a seven opera season in Toronto, we can take time to build a season that is important to us and we can still stand behind every single production and take care of it.

CHARPO: Yes but what the people want to know is how much better we compare to the people of Paris?

NEEF: The public here is not as open to the repertoire but they are much more open to discovery. A European public are much more prejudiced towards what they are willing to embrace. In Toronto, we have a great public because they are willing to embrace many different forms and have gained confidence as to what they like and don’t like.  What is important to me is that the public in Toronto take a much more active role during the performance and that they are ready to embrace the art form.

I would like them to embrace being opinionated.

CHARPO: Where would you like to see the audience in two years?

NEEF: I would like them to embrace being opinionated. During TIFF a Director was asked specific questions as to the purpose of his film and his answer was that it was irrelevant. He was not going to give them a manual to the movie; they needed to draw their own conclusions. Likewise if an audience goes down that road at the opera it will benefit from a performance so much more because it invested in it. What becomes interesting is when we move beyond a simple “I liked it or I did not like it” and start to focus on the why.

CHARPO: To do that you need to start early. What have you done to introduce a new generation to opera?

NEEF: We have done some things like having specially priced tickets for those under 30 but in the end people in North America feel that you have to be educated to enjoy it and with opera that is not true. It is unbelievably accessible through the music and we provide surtitles in English to make the story accessible. When people ask me what they should do to prepare for the opera I tell them nothing - they should not ruin their experience before they have it.

CHARPO: What about making the awesome audience members of Toronto available for Canadian performers?

NEEF: Canada has an enormous amount of talent from their Universities and their Conservatories. We get their graduates as singers and turn them into artists.

CHARPO: Was there any backlash against you for being German and not Canadian?

NEEF: Never heard or felt anything but welcome.

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