Bramwell Tovey on how Canadian opera excludes Canadians

Alexander Neef’s eyes are trained on Europe, not his own country

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Bramwell Tovey is a Grammy- and Juno-winning conductor and composer, and a recipient of the Order of Canada. He is the music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

One thing seems unlikely to change at Canada’s national opera company in 2014. At a press conference a few years ago, Alexander Neef, general director of the Canadian Opera Company, responded with some impatience to a suggestion from a reporter that the COC stage Canadian opera. “I find it very odd, actually, to have that discussion,” he said. “In France, I never had this discussion about ‘why don’t you do operas of French composers?’ Because we would do them if we believed in their value.”

This was the week of the world premiere of my opera The Inventor, commissioned by Calgary Opera. The Globe and Mail asked for my reaction. I told them then what I would say now, that the COC needs to have a creative agenda that will encourage Canadian composers to contribute to the repertoire and provide a Canadian component to what is otherwise a European-dominated tradition. That’s part of the job of the general director.

Our U.S. neighbour can easily dominate in the arts. Canada needs creative independence in film, music, theatre, television, dance, art and even opera. The COC’s recent record in this area has not been impressive. Shortly after that press conference, the COC announced a 2017 production of the late Harry Somers’s 1967 opera Louis Riel, but no new work. Last week, it announced that Rufus Wainwright, the celebrated pop musician, was to be commissioned to write a new opera on the subject of Hadrian, the Roman emperor. At its announcement Mr. Neef was quoted as saying, “I’ve always deplored the useless and misguided kind of musical nationalism.” It’s easy to appreciate how this appears contemptuous and uninformed from the head of the national opera company.

Mr. Neef’s predecessor, the late Richard Bradshaw, worked tirelessly to connect with all strands of Canadian musical life. His legacy includes the Four Seasons Centre and several Canadian operas which emerged under his tutelage. He attended the Calgary premiere of the Ontario-born John Estacio’s first opera, Filumena, and employed a composer-in-residence at the COC.

Mr. Neef has worked differently. He failed to attend any of the new mainstage Canadian operas mounted by the companies in Victoria, Vancouver or Calgary. His blog states he flew to Italy during the premiere run of Estacio’s Lillian Alling in Vancouver, promising, “I will report from Palermo tomorrow.”

Five minutes’ walk from the COC in Toronto, the Canadian Music Centre is the authoritative source for recordings and scores of Canadian composers. The CMC can find no record of Mr. Neef visiting.

In 2018, after a decade under Mr. Neef, the COC will have received around $20 million through the Canada Council, and the only new Canadian music heard on the COC’s mainstage will have been by Rufus Wainwright.

This will be Mr. Neef’s legacy.




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Bramwell Tovey on how Canadian opera excludes Canadians

  1. A fair assessment, Maestro. As a composer and longtime promoter of both Canadian music and musicians, few are more qualified to comment than Mr Tovey.

  2. At the time of his death, Richard Bradshaw was planning six COC performances of R. Murray Schafer’s massive “Crown of Ariadne.” The performances of this world-premiere full staging would be independent of the COC subscription series but take place on the main stage, in 2008. I facilitated the two meetings between Schafer and Bradshaw, at the second of which Bradshaw expresses optimism that the (very substantial) funding could be found.

  3. Richard Bradshaw also promised to not only attend our performance run of Schafer’s “Princess of the Stars,” but to participate as a volunteer war-canoeist at one show (all action took place on a wilderness lake in Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve, before dawn). He died just 2 weeks before.

  4. I disagree with one thing: the COC is a “national opera company” in name only – like if the bar down the street called itself the Canadian Martini Bar but served only Russian vodka.

  5. A re-naming is in order: the Toronto Opera Company, perhaps. The ‘Canadian’ Opera Company? Apparently not.

    A national opera company should be leading, commissioning, and creating new Canadian work in English and in French. It should be prepared to take risks, and be supported if those projects do not succeed. Even Mozart had flops.

    In the States, major companies like San Francisco Opera, Opera Santa Fe, Houston Grand Opera, and The Met have strong programmes for creating new American opera. In Canada, it is the regional companies that — with far fewer resources than the COC — are taking all the risks, and earning all the credit, for new Canadian opera.

    It says something that Margaret Atwood’s first opera is being premiered in Vancouver.

  6. Just one thing to add to @tomservua:disqus post. Margaret Atwood’s first opera “A Handmaid’s Tale” had its Canadian premiere in 2004 at the Canadian Opera Company thanks to Richard Bradshaw.

    • Not quite. ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ as an opera was written by librettist Paul Bentley, and composer Poul Ruders. It was premiered in Copenhagen on 6 March 2000 by the Danish Royal Opera, in Danish: ‘Tjenerindens fortælling’. It was based on the Atwood story, but not — as opera — written by her.

      This production transferred to the English National Opera in London’s Coliseum Theatre on 3 April 2003, and was given in English. The opera’s North American premiere was performed by the Minnesota Opera in May 2003, in a new production. The Danish Royal Opera production transferred to Toronto on 23 September 2004.

  7. Thanks Bramwell for your commentary. As Richard Bradshaw was, you are a model for stimulating Canadian talent. The number of works you have commissioned during your time at the Winnipeg Symphony and Vancouver Symphony may be unprecedented in Canadian history. Only the CBC Radio Orchestra legacy precedes you. A perhaps little-known fact: when Richard Bradshaw first took the helm at COC, the first thing he did was to revamp the Canadian composers-in-residence program so that instead of having little workshops for a half-a-dozen Canadian composers, he committed to commissioning a major work from a single Canadian composer. The composer was me. The work was “Guacamayo’s Old Song and Dance” a fantasy on Mayan legends. He went on to do this several times, commissioning new works from various Canadian composers on the rise. We lost a real force for Canadian creation when we lost Richard.

  8. This is what happens when you appoint foreigners to run your institutions. They have no reason to care about Canadian art, and why should they be expected to have any interest in it? The real fault lies with those of us who appoint these foreigners in the first place. “If they’re from somewhere else, they MUST be better than our local talent” …

    • That is not the case with Bramwell Tovey. When he arrived in this country, he went straight to the Canadian Music Centre and the Manitoba Composers Association to look at scores from Canadian composers. And then he commissioned hundreds of pieces.

      • Richard Bradshaw and Bramwell Tovey both came to Canada to take up their positions running large cultural institutions in Canada. Both adopted Canada as their home, and stimulated enormous creative activity through commissioning and sensitive programming. The fault is bad thinking, not “foreigners”. Canada is a country built on immigration. What may be true is that some small-minded Europeans or other “foreigners” have landed jobs in Canada which they view as stepping stones to “better” jobs elsewhere. If they don’t plan to stick around, they may have a bad attitude. That said, there are snobs among us who hold the view you expressed that “if they’re from somewhere else, they must be better…” These I can only describe as uncultured people, at least they don’t share my culture, which includes all manner of creative people, most of them Canadians. Good artistic directors will not include or exclude based on nationality, but based on cultural relevance and artistic excellence. Including Canadian artists makes sense if our culture likes itself.

        • ‘What may be true is that some small-minded Europeans or other
          “foreigners” have landed jobs in Canada which they view as stepping
          stones to “better” jobs elsewhere’

          This nails it… Both Alexander Neef and Johannes Debus were hired at the opera company at the time the company was desperate for new leadership, and these guys came with their own agendas, caring nothing about Canadian musicians or Canadian audiences. If at least they had artistic merit to warrant their directorship positions…. Instead COC now has a conductor who conducts Tristan like a beating stick machine and a general director who commissions his buddy Rufus to write an opera. What’s next? Justin Bieber? Shame.

    • No conductor in Canada has showcased more new works by Canadian composers than Bramwell Tovey, who’s British It’s crazy how much Canadian music he commissioned when he was in Winnipeg. A lot of foreign-born conductors are tireless advocates of Canadian talent, including Kent Nagano in Montreal and Edwin Outwater in Kitchener-Waterloo.

  9. I absolutely agree with the sentiment of this article but, why wait for Neef? If one looks at the initiatives and types of productions he’s been championing, he is obviously trying to attract new audiences, with new types of productions, and composers. His collaboration with Wainwright is a perfect storm. Neef is buddies with the already-famous-in-pop-and-society Wainwright, who will attract existing Wainwright fans and seasoned but critical Opera goers (all out of curiosity), that’s on top of the blissfully ignorant looking for the Opera experience. If you can show the audience, then you can show the money. With the types of media and technology we have, Canadian composers should be banding together to find ways to create their own push for their works, and invest in the talents of people who understand media and marketing find new venues. This is the direction of the music industries, including classical music and Opera. For examples, perhaps these Operas could be webcast to expose more of the public to these works and make the demand for them to be seen. Furthermore, Canada is NOTORIOUS for not supporting our artists. We often mention the influence of the American arts scenes, but even it contains a fair share of Canadian expats who got sick of trying to get past the glass ceilings and archaic rules of engagement that bog down our arts. Europe has a completely different way of running things as well. Artists need to reach outside the typical communities and find and adopt new methods of growing their audiences, one this is figured out, Neef will be knocking on your doors.

    • Let’s be very clear. Herr Neef has failed miserably on many fronts. 1) If he was truly interested in getting some pop musicians into the opera house he should have asked Drake to write the words, and someone like Avril Levigne to write the tunes. Then asked Norman Jewison to direct it. This would be Canadian, and International at the same time and at a level of success Herr cannot even think about. I’d pay a lot to see that opera and I’m sure many, many thousands of other people would too. Have you ever heard of those people Herr Neff?
      2) If he doesn’t want to do Canadian Nationalistic things like a) finding out who the Canadian composers are that are capable of writing quite wonderful operas (I can give him a list of about 30 of my fellow composers who could do super works) then he shouldn’t be getting money from such CANADIAN National sources as the Canada (note Canada) Council.

      Ah yes I will now toot my own tiny horn (as I haven’t received even a rejection letter for the works I offered to the COC) In 2009 in Houston and again this year in Vancouver my opera Transit of Venus was chosen as 1 of 5 operas by Opera America to be showcased at their annual conference. Note – of all the new operas produced in the US and Canada in the last three years or under are new opera under construction at this moment my little (1.2 million dollar opera which the Manitoba Opera found the money to produce in 2007) was picked.

      But wait a minute, who else was picked from all those other US and Canadian operas? Two other composers – both Canadians (!) were picked by a New York jury to appear at this same conference this year! John Estacio (with 2 operas) and Bramwell Tovey with 1. What do those ill informed mostly American opera directors, producers, and conductors know that Herr Neef doesn’t? I guess they’re not worth talking about either…

      One more little toot on my own horn, Transit Of Venus was to be produced by Opera Carolina in 2009 but their season was cut in half with the economic downturn of 2008. (they don’t have those Nationalistic Arts councils we are fortunate to have here, just big donors) but it’s coming soon – in America, it seems……

      There is no doubt that new operas for the main stage are expensive and risky because any large scale opera requires all the pieces of the machine to work. But it should be the job of THE CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY to have the vision, the nerve, and to find the resources to be able to take the chance to win and or fail. This is Canada Herr Neff. Have you ever heard of the CPR, The Transcanada Highway, The Canadarm, Insulin, The Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge, the liberation of Europe? We as a nation have done those things and we deserve to have you pay attention to our native voices more than once every ten years and support them and that you will go to your Board and demand that they support them too.

      Well Herr Neef?

      And in response to Clara – artists can only have as big a vision as producers will pay for……

      Victor Davies

      • Let’s face it- Neef is interested in keeping bottoms in seats- and a younger generation is his target audience. Too bad they are broke. Spending all of their $$ on designer clothes is at the forefront- not donating to the institutions like generations prior.. Not to mention – the number of Americans coming into work here is a shame – great Canadian talent is being overlooked.

      • I’m not a Wainwright fan, but he can hardly be compared with your examples, but I’d also argue he shouldn’t be compared to other Canadian composers. I think his appeal is among a very specific demographic, than for musical appeal so I’m sure if it will even work out as expected. So Victor Davies, please toot your horn and make it as big as you can! And use media and technology to do it. Producers will pay for your vision when they see the audience is on board. As we know, audiences mean money, but now audiences are online. I’m only suggesting that there may be other ways to present work to gain momentum with audiences, and attract the attention of private donors to produce works. There are Canadian stories to be told, but they must told with the audience in mind which is an increasingly non-european, multi-cultural one. Even at the COC and many other institutions, I don’t see this happening. The stories themselves don’t have to change, the marketing models must. The marketing of the work needs to be refined in such away that it resonates with a broader audience which requires different efforts than has been made in the past. While he is an influential agent, Neef is not responsible for single-handedly saving Opera in this country, and I do detect the assumption that this should be the case. There is so much nepotism across the arts in Canada, and I have seen first hand artists, arts organizations and instituitions reluctant to aligin with someone because of their talent and insight unless it fits into what they’ve been used to from someone they already know. Reaching outside existing circles for new talents and ideas is what will bring new works to the forefront regardless of what Neef or anyone else thinks about it.

      • Oh and, I think it would very interesting to take that list of 30 composers you have call them up and have a good old fashioned brainstorming session on how to get your amazing works produced and successful. Bring in some other players to weigh in like business people who are passionate supporters of the arts, as well as those who are media savvy and audience members and try to discern the shifts that are taking place and what action should be taken. Just having this conversation I have think of at least 4 or 5 ideas. What we need are solutions. Neef clearly has none, so at the end of the day why not move on to more useful opinions?

  10. Bravo to Mr. Tovey for his insights.

  11. Mr. Neef also hasn’t hired Mr. Tovey and so perhaps that’s grating a little. Of course he’s not going to put on Canadian opera for the sake of it – how tokenistic.

    • It’s not tokenistic at all. It is essential.

      The commission and staging of many canonic operas was very often the product of ‘Russian’ or ‘German’ or ‘Italian’ opera created for the sake of it. Examine the history of Mussorgsky, or Rimsky-Korsakov, or Borodin, and see how the Tsars, and the great merchants, actively sought to create a Russian national opera.

      So too in proto-Germany and pre- and post-Risorgimento Italy. The major national institutions of the day set out — as a matter of policy — to create a national culture by the support of national composers and librettists and themes.

      Hapsburg Emperor Franz-Josef II commissioned Mozart to write ‘Die Entführung aus dem Serail’ in order to enhance the rise of an authentic German model, and to move away from Italian precedent. It worked. Tokenistic? Nonsense.

      Canada has 34 million people, far bigger today than the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time of Mozart. Are we unable to do what Franz-Josef did?

      It’s not a token at all, Mr Cutlass. It is an ESSENTIAL enterprise. It requires inspired leadership, a willingness to take risks, and an audience determined to join in the risk and the excitement.

      The Canadian Opera Company holds itself out as our national opera. If they are not willing to do the job, they need to change the label — and drop the pretense.

      As to Mr Tovey, he has an extraordinary record of championing Canadian artists at every level. He is an ornament to our country, and has been since he joined us. It would be splendid, one day, to be able to say the same of Mr Neef. Some of us still have hope.

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