It’s been rumoured for weeks but now it’s confirmed. Alexander Neef will leave the COC at the end of the 2020/21 season to head up L’Opéra de Paris. I don’t think anybody should be surprised. He’s a relatively young guy with a lot of working years ahead of him. He’s been in Toronto eleven years. It’s probably for the best for everybody that he moves onwards and upwards. Toronto will miss him. He’s been, in my view, a force for good here but, realistically, could he have continued to be transformational? I doubt anybody could. Has he solved, or would he solved, all the challenges facing the COC? No he hasn’t. Would anybody have done better? I doubt it.
So let’s look at the legacy. He’s taken the COC, with help from the Four Seasons Centre, from a decidedly provincial company of rather modest artistic standards to being an internationally recognised leader. People in Boston and Detroit who once made there two or three times a year opera pilgrimage to New York are now as likely to come to Toronto instead. That’s some achievement and it’s not all down to the opening of the FSC. Pushing the planning cycle out from 1-2 years to 4-5 has helped bring top talent to the company. Neef’s own network, built up as casting director in Paris, has also played a part.
I’ve also been impressed by Neef’s embracing of Canada and it’s issues. He took on the remount of Louis Riel and all the issues that that involved. He’s been responsible for a number of commissions of new works by Canadian composers and librettists. But what impressed me most was his genuine desire to understand what reconciliation between settler Canada and Indigenous people might mean. I’m lucky enough to have a friend and mentor who has taught me much about this issue. I was, genuinely, surprised to find that Alexander does too. I think a chunk of Alexander will stay, spiritually at least, in the Dish with One Spoon Territory.
So what’s next for the COC and what should they be looking for as a successor? The elephant in the room is the declining audience base. For all the artistic progress of the last decade the number of seats sold declines every season. The city grows but the opera audience shrinks and ages. It’s clear that the future has to embrace more than the Rosedale/Forest Hill demographic. I’m struck by the fact that a staggering proportion of young orchestral musicians and, to a slightly lesser extent, singers in Toronto are Chinese or Korean by ethnic origin. But those groups are not much represented in the opera audience. That’s a bit weird. How do we tap that? Can we find a GD who knows how to?
As to a successor, I want the best person; male or female, Canadian or not. I don’t care if they are Martian. I want somebody who understands what “world class” means and knows how to bring the people who can create world class opera to Toronto. I understand the argument for wanting a Canadian but ultimately I don’t agree. I want jobs for Canadian artists young and older and the best way to ensure that is for the COC to be successful. And that means the best person for the job. Having a Canadian boss didn’t do much for Canadian jobs in Ottawa or Hamilton!
I think it’s probably a good idea too to avoid conductors or stage directors. With only six productions each year there’s a risk that one of those would impose their own style on too many productions. I think it’s important too that we get someone who thinks and cares about opera. In my view it would be a mistake to hire someone who would make decisions about artistic standards largely on the basis of what would please the richest donors. An imaginative and far sighted opera technocrat is what we need. I know that’s a tough order but it’s a tough world for opera right now.