Alexander Neef and the COC

torontoparisI’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.

5 thoughts on “Alexander Neef and the COC

  1. Yes to all of this.

    I’ve only read AK’s column on AF’s tenure and it was all I could expect from AK. One half-decent point there: ticket sales (therefore, audience) crept down gradually over the ten years. AK of course blames AF but I am not sure how much of it is down to the actions of one GD – I’d say not entirely, or even predominantly, as a whole bunch of factors intervened at the same time and opera ticket sales went down for all Canadian opera houses of similar size. (If someone has different information, maybe they’ll share) I expect AK would have wanted more ticket-selling warhorses, fewer Regie productions, less Canadian opera? Or is he arguing for a different education and outreach methods, different ticket pricing and sub strategies? He doesn’t say. Going into that is not as fun as yelling about AF. Would be interesting to model how some of the armchair critics would have planned these seasons and where that would have taken the COC and the entire sector in the past decade.

    The ‘locals first’ and ‘Canadian firsts’ argument… it’s getting tiresome. Do people making these arguments really expect that the COC should have been a training ground for some of our up-and-comers who’ve never directed a production that cost more than a couple of thousand (of their parents’ money) and wasn’t staged in a pub?

    A friend told me somebody made the argument that “AN only looked after his career”. That doesn’t even make sense. A GD looks after his CV best if he looks after his house well, raises its profile, and as you say make ‘the product’ as good as possible. If he wrecks the place, that won’t look good on his CV, will it? I just don’t understand the value of that argument. What AF did well for the house will look great on his CV. What he didn’t, won’t.

    The streaming issue… and that it wasn’t solved during the AF tenure. Yes, it’s an issue. But we know what happened there, and that pretty much all the other NA houses except the Met failed on that score. What could have been better scenarios? Would a GD paycut would have made a difference if that money could have been directed to pay the extra fees that the unions asked for? I don’t know. What could have been the GD salary? Let’s say he earned $300k a year. Would shaving off $150k and directing it to the extra fees for recording rights would have saved the day? Is it all the same budget, HR and production costs? What else could have been done? Genuine questions.

  2. I am all for hiring more Canadians, but singing isn’t something that you can just make up – either the person has the ability or they do not. And even those with a good singing voice may or may not be able to sing certain roles – for example, just because you have a ‘good’ or ‘great’ Soprano voice does not mean you can sing Isolde or Brunnhilde.

    I would rather the COC concentrate on putting on good performances and hiring Canadians when possible, but the priority should be on the production in my view.

    However, the one thing that I feel was a mistake was cutting the number of productions and overall number of performances. The seven productions was always nice and gave more options for people. There were a couple of season where I was really only interested in one or two productions and the rest of the season was not appealing to me. Having seven operas meant there was a higher chance that I would go to a third, or fourth, opera.

    • Your point about cutting the number of productions is one worth thinking hard about. I understand the logic for doing it but I think it has had unintended consequences. Continuing to programme a not inconsiderable list of operas on a five year cycle means that half a dozen operas account for something like 20% of productions and a higher percentage of performances. I frequently hear “I really can’t be bothered seeing that Madama Butterfly/Bohème/Figaro for a third time”. I think six productions might work if it weren’t for the frequency of those “pops”.

      • It’s also a double edged sword. The Butterfly/Boheme/Figaro operas are cash cows. It would be nice to see more operas – there are loads of other operas out there to do as well: Tannhauser to my knowledge has never been performed by the COC, or Lohengrin for years. Or La fanciulla del West, or Il trittico (Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi), or Verdi operas like Nabucco, I Lombardi, Simon Boccanegra, or both the original French version of Don Carlos (last performed in 2007) or the Italian version Don Carlo.

        There are many operas out there that the COC hasn’t performed, or not performed in several years. There are options. But, that could make for a ‘daring’ season or two for them.

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