Opera fans could be likened to Shakespeare fans. Some prefer traditional productions, others believe in pushing the envelope.
They are also a little like film buffs. Just because you love one opera does not mean you will love them all. You might prefer one style to another, one composer to another, one Mozart opera to another.
It’s impossible to please everyone, every time. So the Canadian Opera Company takes a different approach.
“What we try to do here is to keep and make opera relevant,” says Alexander Neef, the company’s general director since 2008.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean to update everything,” he adds. “The great thing about opera is you can get into it from so many angles – music, theater, visual arts. And there’s a lot of angles for this production [of Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’] that people can get into and embrace.”
Neef is 38 and single. He eats all his meals in restaurants. He doesn’t have a TV. “I’ve never needed one,” he says when you mention that.
Quirks don’t hurt, though, when it comes to opera. Neef chooses the operas himself, and he has a sense of the unusual and the alluring.
Typically, the COC offers six productions a year. “We look at what we’d like to do, and are we available to do it, does it fit with the budget,” Neef says.
He aims for a range of eras and styles, but he cannot always predict how the audiences will respond.
“They surprise me all the time, for better or for worse,” he laughs. “It’s a very positive situation. It’s a curious audience here, a great pleasure to direct with. I’m not afraid of discussion. They always give us the courtesy of see first, judge second.”
The COC also courts new audiences. Opera Under 30 offers $22 tickets to people under 30 who might be new to opera. Operas are promoted with special events: discussions, lectures, special appearances, open rehearsals. For newcomers of any age, though, the first step to opera appreciation is no secret: Just give it a try.
“It’s an adventure each time. It should be,” Neef says. “It’s meaningful to attend a performance. It’s not only about dressing up, it’s about the whole experience.”
Typically, the COC presents its operas in pairs. One is usually more traditional than the other. The current “Tristan,” for instance, is paired with Mozart’s late opera “La Clemenza di Tito.” The Mozart, set in ancient Rome, is not as well known as “Don Giovanni” or “The Magic Flute.”
“It’s a fantastic piece,” Neef says. “Sophisticated Mozart writing, a very tight story. We haven’t done it in a while, and we happened to have a great cast.”
The three overlapping operas that complete the COC’s current season strike a delicate balance.
From April 17 to May 24, on stage will be Donizetti’s “Lucia de Lammermoor,” a masterpiece of the bel canto style of the early 1800s.
Running from April 21 to May 22, is Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” in a production by avant-garde filmmaker Atom Egoyan. “Salome,” inspired by a play by Oscar Wilde, was seen as shocking when it premiered in 1905, and Egoyan’s production, which the COC has staged before, makes it more so. Biblical costumes mix with business suits, and the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” is reinterpreted through video.
Francois Poulenc’s “The Dialogues of the Carmelites” (May 8 to 25) closes the season on a French note. The music has a modern feel, though it is based on a true story from history, the martyrdom during the French Revolution of a convent of Catholic nuns.
“This is a production I think it’s important to bring to Toronto,” Neef says. “I saw it a while ago in Amsterdam, and fell in love with it.”
The COC’s 2013-14 season, recently announced, includes another Peter Sellars production and another from Egoyan, in addition to several lush productions that explore the eras the operas come from.