Alexander Neef on Canadian Opera

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I wasn’t at the Canadian Opera Company’s annual season announcement yesterday, to hear General Director Alexander Neef pitch the COC ‘s upcoming season. But music critic Robert Everett-Green of Toronto’s Globe and Mail was there. In addition to reporting on the COC’s slate of operas for 2011-12 (see here) he reported on something else.

The German-born general director seemed somewhat exasperated by the suggestion that the Canadian Opera Company might want to make it a priority to perform some Canadian opera.

"I find it very odd, actually, to have that discussion," he said. "In France, I never had this discussion, about 'why don’t you do operas of French composers?' Because we would do them if we believed in their value. I think that’s what it needs to be about."

Yoiks! Let’s have a closer look at Neef’s remarks.

The first two sentences sort of make sense. It doesn’t surprise me that Neef, who worked at the Paris Opera before he moved to Toronto a few years ago, is unfamiliar with such concerns. The French regularly perform French operas, and the Germans regularly present German operas, so there’s no need for anyone to ask why they don’t present French and German operas. (However, don’t some Europeans get upset about the way American films dominate screens in their own cinemas? And don’t get them started on McDonald’s Restaurants!) By comparison, Canada’s largest opera producer hasn’t presented a full-scale Canadian work since 1999, when the COC staged The Golden Ass, by Randolph Peters with a libretto by Robertson Davies.

The third sentence is a little fuzzy. Whom, exactly, does Neef mean by "we"? Happily, the fourth sentence seems clearer: the decision to produce an opera to should be founded on (somebody’s) belief in the opera’s intrinsic value.

Neef’s comments are sure to anger some Canadian nationalists. But perhaps there’s a truth buried in his awkwardly dismissive statement. The French and Germans don’t stage French and German operas out of a sense of national obligation – they stage them because they sincerely love them. But what Canadian operas are beloved by the Canadian people? Most Canadians couldn’t even name one.

However, Canadians, like other people, can’t love what they don’t know. Unless Canadian opera companies are willing to bring Canadian operas before the public – even without any pre-existent demand for such works – there will be no possibility of cultivating a national operatic repertoire. (By the way, some Canadian companies have a good track record with Canadian works – Calgary, for example.)

So how’s about stepping up to the plate, Herr Neef, by bravely showcasing a Canadian composer one of these years, to advance the cause of Canadian opera? And if that seems contrived or wrong-headed – a way of doing things that would be rejected as absurd in Europe – Canada isn’t Europe.