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Canadian Opera Company presents its next season

J. Debus & A. Neef (© bohuang.ca)

The case of the successful but shrinking season

On January 15, the Canadian Opera Company enlarged the audience for its annual season announcement by making the event a gala occasion, with subscribers invited to a reception preceding the unveiling of the 2014-15 season. Featured were some of next season’s singers (Simone Osborne, Russell Braun, and Robert Gleadow) performing arias (with piano accompaniment) from their upcoming roles. A talk show format had CBC announcer Brent Bambury interviewing COC General Director Alexander Neef and Music Director Johannes Debus.

The COC’s former general director, Brian Dickie, visited in February, 2013, and on his website stated “I consider the COC to be the gold standard for opera companies - an example for all of how to a happy and productive company”. To be sure: the orchestra and chorus are everything one would want and the Four Seasons Centre has proved a marvel right from its opening in 2006. Johannes Debus, music director since 2009 (and whose contract currently runs to 2016-17) is wildly popular with audiences. It is generally agreed that casting under Mr. Neef (hired in 2008 and whose contract runs to 2020-21) has ranged from acceptable to superb, with a happy emphasis on the latter, featuring an exciting mix of established names and well-chosen new singers, including lots of Canadians in both categories. The company’s production method is pure stagione (as opposed to repertory) - in that each production (even a revival) is created anew with careful preparation, with generally marvellous results. The company certainly has presented a range of “highly reinterpretive” productions which can cause a degree of audience anguish, but this is endemic throughout the opera world. The company continues to win an impressive share of the city’s theatre prizes, the Dora Mavor Moore Awards. Happy stability seems the order of the day.

But: in the second season in the new opera house (2007-08) the company gave 76 performances of seven operas and achieved 99% houses. Five years later (in 2012-13) it gave 61 performances of seven operas to 90% houses. This year: 58 performances. In 2014-15, there will be 56 performances of just six operas. (The shrinkage of the season to six productions was rather casually announced in last fall’s issue of the COC magazine, Prelude.) Does anyone else spot a worrisome trend?

Since the opening of the new theatre, the greater Toronto area has grown by some 700,000 people, and the central city has experienced a veritable explosion of apartments and hotels. There is a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar (e.g., the HD cinema presentations have been a runaway success), but there always has been. The theatre is nestled within the city’s urban fabric within easy distance of a host of restaurants and a bustling hipster scene. It has a convenient direct entrance to the subway.

The company has drawn flak recently re its sketchy track record for producing new works. Its last main stage world premiere was Randolph Peters’ The Golden Ass in 1999, a viable, entertaining work given a terrific production. It was not shared with any other company and unfortunately has never had a second outing here or anywhere else. A new work is planned for the 2018-19 season, Rufus Wainwright’s opera about the Roman emperor Hadrian. But I don’t think this issue has affected attendance.

The company has an annual budget of just over 40 million dollars. Annual fund-raising exceeds box office revenue, and government support has remained steady. However, the last few seasons have seen somewhat more revenues than planned transferred from the COC’s foundation (last year almost one million dollars) to cover the annual shortfalls.

At the presentation, Mr. Neef expressed special pride in the fact that there will be no rented productions next year. Two will be co-productions with other companies (details below), three will be revivals of COC productions, and one will be brand new.

Here are the details of the season’s six productions.

The season opens Oct. 3 with Robert Carsen’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff (seven performances), a co-production with La Scala, Covent Garden, Netherlands Opera, and the Met. Gerald Finley sings the title role, with Amanda Echalaz (Alice Ford), Russell Braun (Ford), Lauren Segal (Meg Page), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Mistress Quickly), Simone Osborne (Nanetta), and Frédéric Antoun (Fenton). Johannes Debus conducts. Falstaff was last seen here in 2004.

On Oct 10 the company’s handsome production (dating from 1990, last seen in 2009) of Madama Butterfly returns for 12 performances, under its originating director, Brian Macdonald. Sharing the title role will be Patricia Racette and Kelly Kaduce. Stefano Secco and Andrea Carè will share the role of Pinkerton, while Dwayne Croft and Gregory Dahl will share the role of Sharpless. Elizabeth DeShong will perform Suzuki. Patrick Lange will conduct. Butterfly holds the record as the most performed work in the company’s history.

On January 10, 2015, a 10-performance run of Don Giovanni opens. This will be another co-production, this time with the Aix-en-Provence Festival where it was first seen in 2010. Dmitri Tcherniakov’s controversial production has also been staged in Madrid with Russell Braun in the title role which he will repeat in Toronto. Jane Archibald (Donna Anna), Jennifer Holloway (Donna Elvira), Michael Schade (Don Ottavio) and Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello) are also in the cast. Michael Hofstetter will conduct. The opera was last performed here in 2008.

On Jan 31 Atom Egoyan’s production of Die Walküre returns. It was last seen in 2006 when the Four Seasons Centre opened with Wagner’s Ring designed by Michael Levine with each opera produced by a different director. Die Walküre was the only one to be booed on opening night - one wonders whether there will be changes this time around. Christine Goerke will make her role debut as Brünnhilde - this will attract a LOT of attention. Clifton Forbis will return as Siegmund, Heidi Melton will sing Sieglinde, and Johan Reuter, Wotan. Debus will conduct.

The following two seasons will feature revivals of François Girard’s Siegfried, then Tim Albery’s Götterdämmerung. There is unlikely to be room for two Wagner productions in one season, so it seems that the co-production of Girard’s Parsifal (first seen in Lyon, then at the Met) will have to wait until at least 2017-18. As for other Wagner: the COC has never produced Tannhäuser, and its only production of Lohengrin was in 1983 and of Die Meistersinger was in 1985.

The spring season will open April 17 with a 13-performance run of a new production of Il barbiere di Siviglia. The Spanish group El Comediants (whose La Cenerentola was performed here in 2011) will create the production, with Joshua Hopkins as Figaro, Alek Shrader as Count Almaviva, and Serena Malfi and Cecelia Hall sharing the role of Rosina. Rory Macdonald will conduct. One performance will feature singers from the COC Ensemble Studio. The opera was last performed here in 2008.

The season will end with a seven-performance run of the company’s heralded and much-travelled production of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Schoenberg’s Erwartung. Robert Lepage’s production dates from 1993 when it made a tremendous impact in the COC’s former performing home, an impact sure to be magnified in the Four Seasons Centre. Ekaterina Gubanova and John Relyea will sing in the Bartók, Kristina Szabó will perform the Woman in Erwartung, with Johannes Debus conducting. Its last local performances were in 2001. I’m surprised - and happy - to see it returning.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of the productions (or casts) being presented next season. Two of the works are chestnuts (fine) and I am grateful the COC isn’t adopting a panicky regime of G&S or other lightweight fare (the Fledermaus of last year wasn’t much fun anyway). Still, five of the works have been seen locally within the last 10 years. This raises the issue of diversity of repertoire, which will obviously be further restricted with shrinkage in the number of productions. Aside from the Wagner operas cited above, there are several other worthy mainstream works that haven’t been done here in decades - Der Rosenkavalier, for example, and Andrea Chenier. I don’t know the details re comparative costs of renting productions vs engaging in co-productions, and quality (or perceived quality from the point of view of the audience) can be variable no matter what the source. I can certainly see that it is cheaper to stage 56 performances of six operas rather than of eight or ten operas, but just how much can we expect from a $40 million budget? The company has given us interesting glimpses of works outside the core repertory over the years and one would hate to see this curtailed. At the same time, operas never produced by the COC include Nabucco, Les Pêcheurs de perles and Samson et Dalila (to cite but three popular works), and there is a broad repertoire awaiting exploration without delving into the truly recondite.

So: undoubted artistic success coupled with audience shrinkage. There is a paradox here I can’t quite fathom.

The Canadian Opera Company

Michael Johnson



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