Poor Alexander Neef.
Faced with unfavourable reviews from Toronto’s critics for the Canadian Opera Company’s last production of the season, Handel’s Semele, the general director turned to Brooklyn Academy of Music executive producer Joe Melillo for solace, twice tweeting his assessment that, “The production is a sensational artistic achievement.”
The thing is, Toronto’s core opera and classical music audiences are not only sophisticated, but really picky, spoiled by decades of being exposed to the world’s finest artists and the relative proximity of New York, London and Paris.
Renée Fleming may need to sing Opera’s Biggest Hits in middle America, but feels comfortable to dust off more esoteric fare when she comes to Roy Thomson Hall — and her audience returns the favour by selling out the house and hanging on her every note.
We now have an opera company that reflects that level of discernment, whether or not we agree on the details.
Neef took over an institution built, brick by brick, artist by artist, by the very different but equally determined ambitions of Lotfi Mansouri and Richard Bradshaw, allowing him to treat the company as an artistic (if not financial) equal to the world’s best.
So, four seasons into his tenure, where are we?
Rather than looking at the shortcomings of productions like Semele, L’Amour de loin and last season’s Aida, just to name three that left some of us grumbling, we should appreciate the consistently high standard of singing, musicianship and production values that these have displayed.
Any sense of post-performance disappointment comes from a disagreement with the director and designer’s visions. It is about interpretation, rather than objective standards of quality, which, I’m convinced is the true badge of a great performing arts producer.
That sort of disagreement and debate is played out in every opera house in the world, and is what keeps the artform alive, and the post-performance conversation animated.
Best of all, Neef has consistently found opportunities to showcase Canadian singers who, in many instances, have had to leave their native land to find career-building opportunities.
I fondly remember a recital Jane Archibald and Measha Brueggergosman, two young sopranos from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, gave at Roy Thomson Hall with pianist John Hess a decade ago. It was so clear both singers had the stuff of greatness, and I wondered how they would develop their careers.
Archibald left for Austria, where then Vienna State Opera general director Ioan Holender was able to turn her potential into reality — by casting her in as many productions as she was able to take on.
Since Neef arrived in Toronto, Archibald has been able to return to Canada take centre stage and dazzle with a voice and artistry that only present themselves a few times in every generation. The same holds for Isabel Bayrakdarian, Adrianne Pieczonka, Allyson McHardy, Russell Braun, Michael Schade and, well, the list goes on.
That is because Neef and his team mix an international perspective with a goal of celebrating Canadians.
We have to remember that Neef and the COC don’t get any bonuses for prizing our own. There is no increase in grants, no thank-you hug from the Prime Minister, no acknowledgment from the mayor that there actually is anything of value across the street from City Hall’s underground parking garage.
I even wonder if the COC’s donors and corporate sponsors spontaneously give more because there is Canadian talent on stage. I suspect not.
Yes, Toronto really could use a Canadian opera on its mainstage. But, for a reality check, re-read the last two paragraphs.
Our biggest opera marquee really is in fine hands.
Need further proof? Just listen to Archibald and Adrianne Pieczonka in the COC’s Ariadne auf naxos: