Well okay, au revoir, I guess? The Canadian Opera Company's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Photo: Tim Griffith.

Well okay, au revoir, I guess?

Jenna Simeonov

Alright. This one’s for the Canadians.

Alexander Neef, General Director of the Canadian Opera Company, announced this week that he would be starting his new job earlier than planned. As of September 1, he’ll be the General Director of the Paris Opera - a post he was supposed to start in 2021, after finishing his final season at the COC.

A few things led to this. First, COVID-19. So far, the COC has called off its fall programming, including the much-hyped Parsifal that Neef spent about a decade putting together. It’s postponed to 2022-23. And in all likelihood, the COC will have to postpone or cancel the rest of its season. I imagine that’s a pretty shitty way for Neef to spend a final year in Toronto.

The plot thickened when current (?) Paris General Director Stéphane Lissner announced he would peace out about six months ahead of schedule. He’ll be done in December 2020, probably because, like Neef, he doesn’t want to be the head of an empty stage for his final year either. (Is it just me, or does this also feel like a totally French move? Like, “C’est la pandémie. Au revoir.”)

But there’s a weird vibe happening out of the COC right now.

Anyway, the the end result is that Neef will leave Toronto and take on full responsibilities at the helm of the Paris Opera while still actually being the head of the COC. The COC is still hunting for its next General Director - they’ve likely found their person, but it’s not yet announced - which means that for the 2020-21 season, Canada’s largest opera company will be silent and effectively without leadership.

Bleh. How depressing. It felt icky back in 2018, when Neef took on a second gig as head of The Santa Fe Opera, again while also leading the COC. Sure, Santa Fe is a summer house and the COC breaks from May-ish to October-ish, but let’s be clear: running each of those major opera companies is a full-time job.

Now, this situation isn’t quite the same; there were decidedly circumstances that Neef couldn’t control, like Lissner’s exit or the pandemic. But there’s a weird vibe happening out of the COC right now, like a mix of deference and resignation to Neef as he very clearly makes decisions that are right for him.

I’ll say a few things, since it doesn’t seem like I’ll have any more time to be convinced otherwise. I think Neef has spent his time at the COC using the resources of that company - and paradoxically, the relative under-the-radar-ness of a Canadian opera house - to build his own resume. He has brought in excellence, like Sondra Radvanovsky, Thomas Hampson, Christine Goerke, Susan Graham, and Ferruccio Furlanetto. He’s brought in productions by Peter Sellars, Robert Carsen, and Sir David McVicar. He brought Harry Somers’ Louis Riel back to the stage (whether it should have come back or not), and he gave a cheeky response to all the Canadians’ call for new commissions with Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian. He’s brought to the COC important pieces of today’s operatic puzzle, and Toronto has enjoyed over a decade of seeing and hearing things that didn’t usually come this far north.

It matters that the head of an organization is invested, maybe even emotionally invested, in the actual artistic output.

But if you look closely, you’ll see that Neef is also putting his name on all of these important pieces. He’s established himself as a pretty good player in the opera world, spreading out from Santa Fe to Paris, with a few whispers of a Metropolitan Opera takeover thrown in for good measure. For someone building an impressive career, it’s a wise move to take over a company like the COC, which has an excellent chorus and orchestra, and a great opera house with which to entice the top-tier singers in his contact list. Neef can spend his time working with a decent budget to build his CV - and build major leverage with which to move on up to the better gigs in Santa Fe and Paris.

It all would be fair play in the world of career advancement, if there wasn’t such a cost to the COC along the way. There are loud-ish rumblings about the COC’s financial peril, and about how its resources have been steadily whittled away by the costs of these big-name singers and major productions brought in by Neef. And now, with the the yet-unfinished hunt for a new leader, and the placeholder appointment of COC Deputy General Director Christie Darville - who, if rumours are true, is a decent fundraiser but doesn’t actually like opera - and the pandemic cancelling everything, morale feels freaking low.

I think Neef has been playing a different game than Canadian opera fans.

This all feels so naive, when I unpack it enough. My gripe is that Neef is leaving early to start his newer, more prestigious job in Paris, and that he sort of drained the COC for all it had to get there. In the real world, career advancement is a thing, and people like Neef, who’s obviously brilliant and industrious and a bit of a shark, should have the chance to climb those top rungs. How heartless of him! Doesn’t he care about the COC?

BUT. In Canada, where we don’t have robust government arts funding, we need artistic leaders whose heart is in the work they oversee. It matters that the head of an organization is invested, maybe even emotionally invested, in the message of its artistic output. There’s an enormous difference between Neef’s bringing opera’s best to the COC stage, and a leader who has something to say to the audiences in their community. The former feels a bit like saying, “Actually, opera is…” and the latter is humble enough to let a company respond to social climates and be, you know, relevant.

I think Neef has been playing a different game than Canadian opera fans. He was making the COC a new hub in the international opera scene, and we were loving the big gets onstage. We sure did marvel at the major international talent that came to Toronto, and Neef seemed to enjoy introducing us to the folks he rides with. And the COC Board certainly seemed enamoured with his worldliness and his Rolodex. But I’m not sure we could afford his taste, and I fear we’re getting left with a bill - the literal kind, and the fluffy emotional kind.

I’ll just say this: it’s going to take quite a leader to step in for Neef. I hope the COC doesn’t fuck this one up.

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