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“It’s not so much what you do, it’s about what people think you do,” Neef says with a wry laugh. “We still get a letter once in a while that our cheapest tickets are $ 350, which is of course completely inaccurate, but it’s what some people believe.”
Trying to surmount notions of opera being a purely elite art form while trying to balance the books — and continuing to produce grand spectacles — is no small thing. But Neef, who became general director of the COC in 2008 after being director of casting for Opéra national de Paris, says the balancing act “is what I enjoy. I learn so many new things every day.”
Coming to Canada from Europe, where government support of the arts is enviably strong, provided a big learning curve. A sophisticated fundraising effort, he quickly learned, is vital to the survival of the company. Canada is what Neef calls a “hybrid” between European and American models, and says there’s still a long way to go in creating a culture of philanthropy in Canada. The arts is not “on the level of the hospitals and the universities in terms of how funding-worthy it seems to be.”
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In recent years the COC has concentrating on creating grand new productions of homegrown opera, which can be a tough sell.
“Audiences tend to be suspicious of new work,” Neef admits, but that hasn’t stopped the company from trying.
For the 2018-2019 season, the company is set to present the world premiere of Hadrian, with music by Rufus Wainwright and libretto by actor and playwright Daniel MacIvor. La Reine Garçon, by Canadian composer Ana Sokolovi?, with libretto by Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard, will be part of the COC’s 2019-2020 season.
“I think it’s part of the overall moral obligation that we have to, being a Canadian company,” says Neef, “but the thing about new work is, it competes in a season composed of masterworks of the past.”
Those pieces of the past are popular because a significant portion of the public, both newcomers and old hands, want what Neef calls an “affirmation” around their ideas of what opera is: big dresses, wigs, music by long-dead composers like Mozart and Rossini. “There’s a tendency for people to buy safe value tickets to things like La Bohème or L’elisir d’amore.”
Some of those older works, too, have brought a bevy of international talent to town. They’ve included bass baritones Ferruccio Furlanetto and Luca Pisaroni, soprano Christine Goerke, tenor Stefan Vinke, baritone Gerald Finley, mezzo soprano Clémentine Margaine, and soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, to name a few.
“When I came in 2008, we opened the Four Seasons Centre two years earlier and the building really had put the company in a completely new level of excellence,” Neef observes. “Sondra’s debut as Aida in 2010, and then Susan Graham coming for Iphigénie en Tauride in 2011 — and that’s just a couple of big marquee names that started coming — they became our best ambassadors.”
Casting the right combination of performers, directors, conductors and musicians is, he says “a kind of puzzle game” but it’s always a challenge to surmount what he sees as competition from technology.
“You need to give people a good reason to leave their sofa,” he says. “You really need to make a good argument for people to come through the door and embrace it, because I don’t think we make it as easy as we should. The ticket price portion is something we right now cannot control in the way we would like to.”
Despite having $ 12 standing-room tickets and an under-30 club with $ 22 tickets, Neef says he’d like the company to offer even more. When asked what he would do if given an unlimited budget, the first thing says is having greater numbers of tickets at lower prices — and to produce more work.
One long-held dream for many Canadian opera fans is seeing a highly lauded production of Wagner’s Parsifal done with the Metropolitan Opera and presented in New York to wild acclaim in 2013. The production, directed by Quebec’s Francois Giraud, will finally come to the Four Seasons Centre in the fall of 2020. Casting is already underway.
“It will be worth coming down for.”