Alexander Neef is like the star of an operatic home-makeover show: he’s been given a big new house and has to figure out what to put in it. The 34-year-old has been general director of the Canadian Opera Company since June of last year; he recently helped select conductor Johannes Debus, a fellow German, as his musical director. While he hasn’t had a chance to initiate new productions yet, he already knows what the company’s main selling point is: “The first and major attraction, before I got to know the company, was the new opera house.” The opening of the Four Seasons Centre in 2006 created huge expectations, but the more important question may be: can the COC’s new chief live up to them? “Building the house was a big achievement,” he says. “Ironically, it asks for an even bigger achievement.”
Neef, who spent the last several years as casting director at the Paris Opera, was chosen for the COC after a year-long search that followed the sudden death of the previous general director, Richard Bradshaw, who gets a lot of the credit for getting the house built. Bradshaw believed that a world-class opera house could turn Toronto from a second-tier opera location into the kind of place that would attract the best stars and directors; it certainly attracted Neef, who was carried away by the look of the place even before he’d ever been to Toronto: “Though I’d only seen it on the Internet, it seemed like a very interesting space. And when I got here and got a tour of the building, I found it really is one of the most wonderful performance venues for opera, not only in North America but throughout the world.”
But though the Four Seasons received great reviews, the COC still doesn’t quite have a reputation to rank with the big companies of North America. Neef, who has worked with many star singers at the Paris Opera, hopes to change that by attracting some big-name singers with international reputations, using the house as bait. Signing stars, he explains, is not about paying top dollar but convincing them that “we can actually offer them the same quality conditions that they find in other houses in the world.” Now that the Four Seasons has improved the COC’s reputation, these singers might find it worth their while to sign up—which will improve the company’s reputation still further.
An extra advantage of the building is that it helps the COC hold onto homegrown stars, like Adrienne Pieczonka and Isabel Bayrakdarian (who continue to sing with the COC). “Their attitude has changed substantially since the new house opened,” Neef says of Canadian stars. “It’s not only about singing at home anymore. It’s about singing at home and having a satisfying artistic experience.”
But if Toronto operagoers can expect to see more star singers, they can also expect to see more productions where the director is the real star. Neef has expressed some admiration for the modernized productions that are popular in Europe, and the COC was already moving in that direction before he arrived; this season’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio was a co-production with a European opera house, and the setting was changed to a 20th-century bureaucracy. Though Neef says that the COC will continue doing traditional productions, he’s all for this kind of approach to certain operas: “One of the problems I have with very traditional productions is that the drama is hidden behind very sumptuous costumes and sets.” When the COC didn’t have a permanent home, it could afford to stage comfortable productions; now that it has a major-league opera house, it has to operate like a major-league company—which, today, means doing productions that are either borrowed from Europe or might as well be.
But whichever type of production you prefer, the COC’s climb up the status ladder will be helpful, especially when it comes to the supply of wealthy donors. While many opera companies around the world are having trouble raising money, Neef has discovered that his new company has “a very loyal and supportive donor base.” What keeps the COC’s donors coming back is that they have an interest in the success of the theatre, which their donations helped build in the first place. “The building of the house has brought supporters and the company much closer together,” Neef says. “There’s a shared pride that makes a very strong link.” It’s up to Neef, Debus and their colleagues to make the COC worthy of the Four Seasons, but the building itself might be what helps the COC survive.