COC season 23/24 reveal

coc2324Things are a bit sub fusc at the COC these days.  The season reveal isn’t a glitzy gala with a big fight to grab the charcuterie.  It isn’t even a 10am doughnuts and coffee presser in the RBA where the ghost of Robert Everett-Green could ask what happened to the promised new Canadian operas .  It’s just an email arriving at the prescribed time.  There isn’t even an embargoed press only version to let us get our ducks in a row before the broader public get the news.  Such is life.

Anyway I was actually pleasantly surprised by the announcement though aspects are a bit troubling.  To my utter astonishment there are five “new to Toronto” productions in the six show main stage season.  The sixth is the predictable (and predicted) revival of John Caird’s La Bohème.  So, and I guess this is where I’m a bit troubled, there are no new new productions.  The five “new to Toronto” shows are all co-pros or rentals.  The time period spanned by the operas is also, essentially, the long 19th century.  The oldest premiered in 1788 and the newest in 1923 so yet again the COC main stage will see nothing less than a hundred years old.  As predicted, the COC commissions bruited about a few years ago don’t even get a mention.

So what do we get?  There’s Beethoven’s Fidelio (seven performances) in a Matthew Ozawa production from San Francisco Opera.  The casting looks OK with Clay Hilley as Florestan though, Anne-Sophie Neher as Marzellina aside, there are no names that will resonate in Toronto.  It’s coupled in the fall with the La Bohème revival (eight performances).  Amina Edris makes a welcome return to the COC as Mimi alongside her husband Pene Pati as Rodolfo and, perhaps best of all, Jordan de Souza makes his COC debut on the podium.

Winter brings Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen (seven performances) and really it’s about time the COC did some Janáček so that’s a definite plus.  Johannes Debus conducts which I’m happy to see because Janáček demands a conductor with a grasp of structure.  Jane Archibald sings the Vixen with Ema Nikolovska as Fox (yea, yea and thrice yea).  The excellent Chris Purves is the Forester.  It’s an ENO production by Jamie Manton which got good reviews at ENO with Lucy Crowe headlining.  It’s paired with Don Giovanni (seven performances).  I thought we might go maybe another year before the Don returned but apparently not.  It’s the Kasper Holten production from Covent Garden which, besides being seen live there, has had a global theatre broadcast and DVD releases with two different casts so it may be “new to Toronto” but…  It’s a good production though and it brings Gordon Bintner back to Toronto in the title role alongside fellow Ensemble Studio graduates Joel Allison as Masetto and Simone Macintosh as Zerlina.  The rest of the cast are not familiar to me.

Spring brings Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (eight performances including one by the Ensemble Studio).  Somewhat weirdly this is a Scottish Opera production by the Quebec duo Barbe and Doucet.  The good news is they are usually lots of fun.  Josh Hopkins sings Malatesta which ups the CanCon.  It’s paired with the Toronto stop on the Radvanovsky Medea world tour.  The Italian version of Cherubini’s Medée is one of those pieces that gets revived once in a generation for the reigning diva and this time it’s the Callas of Caledon!  It’s a co-pro with the Met with David McVicar directing and a super starry cast including Matthew Polenzani, Janai Brugger and Eric Owens.  I think it’s a bit weird that it only gets seven performances.  I’m a  bit surprised we are getting this so soon but not at all surprised otherwise.

On the COC Theatre Stage in June there’s the world premiere of a new opera about Nova Scotia contralto Portia White.  Aportia Chryptych: A Black Opera for Portia White is written by Haui and Sean Hayes and created in collaboration with the amazing Neema Bickersteth.  With an all black cast and combining spoken word, rap, folk songs, hip-hop, R&B, and classic opera this will obviously be the most innovative piece of the season.  It’s kind of a shame that it gets relegated to three performances on the secondary stage.

There’s also Centre Stage that will be on October 26th 2023 at the Four Seasons Centre.

So what happened with my predictions?  Well as i said in that post I had no real expectations of being right because patterns have been shattered by the pandemic.  I would never in a million years of predicted five “new to Toronto” shows after only one last year.  That really blew me out of the water.  I’m surprised, in the circumstances, that I got two right.  Next year I’ll be thinking more “new to Toronto” productions but even more conservative in terms of rep than the Neef era.  Will we ever see a COC commission again on the main stage?  Only time will tell.

And that leads logically I think to a needed discussion about trends and the future.  In 2009/10 the COC put seven productions on stage for a total of 67 performances.  This new announcement promises 43 shows (excluding the Ensemble studio) of six productions.  That’s a drop in seats available of 36% and it’s most unlikely that they will sell a higher proportion of them than back in the day.  When the COC cut back from seven to six productions the rationale was that it would free up funds to do at least one “grand opera” per year.  That seems to have disappeared too.  This is happening in a city/region where population has grown by something like 17% in the same period.  That’s a decline in seat sales per person of almost exactly half.

The “conventional wisdom” is that the answer to declining audiences is conservative productions of top twenty operas.  That, broadly, seems to be the direction the COC is going.  Can anybody find an example of where that has worked?  I don’t claim to know the reasons or to have the cure for a problem I suspect is complex and multi-faceted but I do think it needs to be seriously discussed.  Instead we get the results spun year after year as good news.


5 thoughts on “COC season 23/24 reveal

  1. No glitzy announcement? BUDGET! No new COC-created productions? BUDGET! Every opera next season has a running time under 3 hours? BUDGET! New $3 charge for programs? BUDGET! Orchestra size for “Salome” this season reduced by 10 players? BUDGET! No volunteer program or house tours? BUDGET! It is good but depressing to note the steady decline in performance numbers while the GTA has seen a population explosion while Queen Street continues to enjoy its reputation as a happening scene. The COC has been in a soft landing trajectory (toward what?) for several years.

    • I largely agree with you here. There’s a debate that really needs to be had about the COC’s future. Can one get out of a hole by doing less of the same? Can one fix a problem while publicly proclaiming at every AGM that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”? It’s a broader question than just the COC of course. Opera in Canada is in a parlous state.

      • The Canadian opera scene is puny and shrinking. Look at Ottawa and Hamilton – and there used to be opera in that fine venue in Mississauga. I recall “Lakmé” in Hamilton with a very assured performance by newbie Jane Archibald and deft conducting by a young guy named Yannick. I feel sorry for young performers trying to get a start. The list of those who went to Europe and made a go of it is sadly exceeded by those who didn’t or couldn’t.

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