I’m quite disturbed by some of the things I’ve been reading in the wake of Alexander Neef’s departure from the COC. Much of it seems driven by a kind of cultural chauvinism that I find as unpalatable as other kinds of chauvinism. There’s an underlying (or not so underlying) assumption that a Canadian GD would have looked out for the COC while Neef was just looking out for himself. I have two problems with this. One is the rather obvious point that if you hire someone who is on a career trajectory they are going to devote some time and energy to their career. It doesn’t mean they won’t get the job done for you (and likely better than a mediocrity) because if they don’t that career trajectory will disappear rather rapidly. ny organization hiring a high flyer knows this..
Some people also seem to think that Neef has “hollowed out” the COC in pursuit of his own ambitions. Now there’s no question that under his tenure there’s been an audience decline and I really wonder how robust the financials are. That said, show me a major opera company in Canada that isn’t struggling on these dimensions. It’s a huge issue. Nobody has found the magic bullet of “making opera great again”. Canadian leadership doesn’t do it. Traditional productions don’t do it. And, no, I don’t know what the answer is or even whether there is one. I do know is that the problem isn’t having a German GD.
The other criticism is that under Neef the COC wasn’t Canadian enough. Even if I thought being more Canadian was a good thing (which I don’t, see below) I think the criticism is unfounded and that Neef did what he was primarily hired to do; raise the standard of the product on the Four Seasons stage. I don’t think there’s any doubt that he did that and Toronto was treated to singers and directors who are international names never, or less often, before seen here. And that included lots of Canadians; Pieczonka, Braun, Radvanovsky, Finley, Carsen, Heppner, Schade and so on. It’s not like Canadians were shut out in the Neef years. And of course, many roles could not have been cast with Canadians even had the COC so desired. Find me a credible Canadian Isolde. Did that cost too much? Maybe, but I fear had the COC continued with the artistic standards of the previous regime the decline would have been even worse.
There are a couple of other dimensions to how the opera business works that have been ignored too in the criticism. There are aspects of casting that are not “fair”. If you want the big name singers you have to play ball with their agents and that may mean some reciprocal favours, and that likely includes casting some of the lesser lights on their roster in other than leading roles. It sucks but c’est la vie. The other is co-pros. I understand the frustration about young Canadian directors not getting work from the COC. After all, many of them are my friends and I would love to see Aria Umezawa or Alaina Viau directing at the COC. But here’s the rub. Most of what is seen on the COC stage is co-productions with other companies. It’s the only way the COC can afford to do what it does. Now, think about. You are sitting down with bosses at the Teatro Real and Chicago Lyric to talk about who should direct your new production of, say, Fidelio. The Teatro Real suggests Pedro Ximenez; who you have never heard of. The Lyric wants Putnam Merrill; who you have never heard of either. You want Aria Umezawa who they have never heard of. So you compromise on David McVicar. C’est la vie.
Is it even helpful to Canadian singers etc to argue that the COC should only hire Canadian? If the COC and other Canadian companies were to actively discriminate against non-Canadians what might the impact be? What if Germany, to take an example, retaliated? Could Canadian companies employ all the Canadian singers, pianists, conductors and others employed by (heavily tax payer supported) German houses? Let alone the ones working in France, Italy, Spain, the UK etc. Of course not. Like most “trade wars” it’s is a really bad idea. Apart from likely being entirely counterproductive it feeds a whole lot of even nastier sentiments. I’ll admit it. I’m an unashamed internationalist. I’ve never seen anything good come from narrow nationalism and I don’t see it being the case here.
So bottom line, I think Alexander Neef did far more good than harm and I hope his successor is as capable whether they are Canadian, Mongolian or Martian. If they have the magic answer to reversing the long term decline in interest in opera in Canada that would be great but I’m not holding my breath. The future may need to be less ambitious. And I really hope the opera business remains truly international. I just wish the world was trending that way rather than the disastrous opposite.