"What I would wish for from a healthy ecosystem like the one we have is that there is greater security and funding so that you can plan with more confidence and sometimes also just take a risk that might not pay off at the box office but might bring the art form forward." 

The Canadian Opera Company:
Alexander Neef

by Dani Williams and Michael Zarathus-Cook

In June of 2008, Alexander Neef became General Director of the Canadian Opera Company (COC). Twelve years later, he leaves behind a commendable legacy to take on the role of Artistic Director of the Paris Opera House. As part of the final act of his tenure at the COC, the internationally renowned impresario has been making moves to position the company for the digital initiatives needed to weather the current storm. Like so many cautious movers and hopeful shakers in the performing arts, the chaos of the moment is nevertheless an opportunity to attempt projects and erect platforms that are usually prohibited by the art-form's formulaic approach to programming. Ahead of his exit from the COC stage, and into his new seat in Paris, Neef joins smART Magazine editor Michael Zarathus-Cook for a look back at the last twelve years as well as how the COC plans to meet the digital moment.

Alexander Neef by Kalya Ramu

We’ll start with the three- day digital festival that you're creating from the Free Concert Series at the COC, when do you plan on launching that festival?

I don’t think we’ve settled those dates, as COVID-19 isn’t going in the right direction. We were actually set to film it all in early November, then again the trajectory of COVID-19 took a turn for the worse and we had to press pause, but the project stands as it is and we’re going to get on it again as soon as possible. At this point I’m not very confident that it will happen this year, but we are definitely looking into dates for the new year. It’s hard to tell what the government will decide for our city, so it’s hard to plan even a couple months out.


Our business, even pre-COVID times, is a business where you run one season the way you’ve planned it carefully a couple of years out and it happens more or less the way you’ve planned it. This has all been different since March when COVID-19 first hit and the first lockdown occurred and we were very much in a dilemma, sometimes so you don’t even know what's going to be possible next week. It’s a shame that this intervened at the moment when we were actually gearing up to create some content that wouldn’t require a physical audience to be enjoyed, but in the end it’s an unfortunate turn of events. We’re not going to give up the project itself.

What are the chances that the COC will emerge out of this year, out of this situation, with a permanent digital offering for those who can’t make it to the Four Seasons Centre?

Well that’s a very good question. It's been, even without COVID, a long-term goal to create a digital platform for performances. Unfortunately, in Canada there are some serious challenges surrounding unionized labor that need to be figured out before you can do that. We’ve made some progress in that regard before COVID-19 and during COVID-19 I think we’ve had a good collaboration without a unionized workforce, but it does remain a challenge in terms of remuneration. I think the biggest challenge for the performing arts is that nobody has figured out how to develop models of digital programming that would at least allow people to still experience the arts during this time.


We will be experimenting with smaller formats that enhance our physical programming and then take it from there step-by-step. It’s also an interesting question regarding what kind of content people want to consume and where they want to consume it. I think opera at the movies is a pretty established format and has been for the last fifteen years or so. However ,I think it’s interesting: there have been studies with companies that have done a lot of streaming and there’s an interesting trajectory from the beginning to the first lockdown in March. There were very high viewer numbers and then it started to go down after a couple of weeks and hasn’t really recovered. So we also had to ask ourselves what kind of content do people want to have on their computers or tablets at home? Is it a long format full-length opera or are there other types of content that are complementary to a main stage offering? It would be better to propose those in a digital format, at least for at-home use and I think there’s a whole other issue around paid or unpaid content. What is the audience ready to embrace? What is their expectation? 

I have to say that the federal government in Canada has been extremely supportive in a variety of measures to the performing arts and we are fortunate to benefit from subsidy measures. As part of the COC’s funding allocation, we were invited to apply, through a very collaborative format with the National Ballet of Canada, and we got approval essentially for audio visual equipment for the Four Seasons Centre, which we haven’t received yet. But we should receive it early in the new year, which will allow us to produce more high quality content from the opera house for people in the future. That is definitely a huge step forward that we are able to make and we wouldn’t have been able to do that without the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. 


The situation in France is so different because most, if not all, performing arts companies are government companies as opposed to privately owned for- profits in Canada, so the attitude towards keeping theatres open and creating content is very different because the government is much more intimately involved, so we actually could perform here, until the most recent lockdown in October, for an audience of 1000, which does make it worthwhile having an audience. I think there’s been a lot of research of course into which places are safe and it so happens that theatres are one of the safest places if there are distancing measures in place.

Since the beginning of September we’ve also had the mandatory use of masks almost everywhere outside the home, I think that the only exceptions are in your home or when you’re alone in your office, but I’m literally wearing a mask everywhere else. Obviously there are several layers of protection, but if you combine them in a performing arts space it becomes quite a safe space and we hope that we can get back there as quickly as possible once the current lock down is over.
In terms of the Canadian environment, the gathering limits have been so low and performing arts spaces have really been treated differently from other venues like restaurants and bars. It would be my hope that that is reconsidered at some point. We really look at health and safety protocols which we can enforce on the audience and keep everybody safe, on stage and the audience, but in order for us to be able to put on performances, attendance limits need to be much higher otherwise it doesn’t make any economic sense. 

What are some of the differences that you have perceived in your time in Paris, between how the French and Canadian governments are handling the crisis when it comes to performing arts venues? What do you think is the one thing that we can be doing differently to make the moment safe and relatively productive for performing artists?

In your update to the 2020/21 season last month on the COC’s website, you mentioned that the COC will be sharing the Four Seasons Center with theatre companies and community organizations. Could you give an example of that and how perhaps the building could be used year-round? As a personal perspective, I used to work at the COC as an usher and bartender and one of the things we always thought was ‘oh it would be good if this building stayed open during the summer so that obviously we can all continue to be employed’. I think this pandemic might be an opportunity to take a look at how the building's used. What are your thoughts on that?

It used to be open during the summer -- we had a tenant for a couple of years but they just couldn’t make it work financially and that’s the only reason why it closed. It’s a very costly building to maintain and if you keep it open it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars every week and you have to generate the revenue to do that. I think there are a lot of small organizations that we would like to welcome and that would like to engage with us, the general cost of labor is a big issue. We had a post the other day on our Instagram that spoke about Why Not Theater rehearsing at our 227 Front Street facility that was planned to be happening at the Four Seasons Centre, but because of the lock down measures it became much easier for us to move to the Front street location. They were one of the companies we had invited to take the stage and create content in our space and some of those efforts have been abandoned now because of the intensification of COVID-19, but when we had to stop our mainstage season what I said to my team was, this might be a great opportunity to make progress in other areas, to create some opportunities that will stay with us once COVID is over.

I was in Toronto for twelve years as you know, and I think the opera scene has grown tremendously in that time. It’s got what I call a very healthy ecosystem of small, midsized and large organizations that interact with each other in many ways, through creative friction sometimes, or sometimes a simple exchange of ideas between artists, or performing in front of the other companies and so on. I think it’s a very exciting ecosystem right now, but at the same time it’s a very fragile ecosystem, especially with the absence of being able to put on shows that you can sell tickets for and welcome an audience. I think that is the thing I am the most concerned about -- the fragility of the economic model in general for the very small ones as for the very big ones. It makes it difficult to take risks.

What I would wish for from a healthy ecosystem like the one we have is that there is greater security and funding so that you can plan with more confidence and sometimes also just take a risk that might not pay off at the box office but might bring the art form forward. Unfortunately, those are not always concurrent developments, some of the most famous flops in art, in general, have become best sellers over time, but you never get around to giving someone that opportunity to be a disruptor or just someone who wants to take a risk that nobody has taken before. I think it slows down the process unnecessarily and that is really something I think can grow as the appreciation for arts and culture grows from both the public funders and sponsors and donors, that there is more of an appetite for supporting initiatives that are pushing the limits of organizations a little and allowing them to explore those boundaries.

Looking at the future of opera in Toronto, what’s one thing that excites you the most and where do you see the greatest need for improvement?

Well, what I’m incredibly proud of is that when the company hired me, we’d just built one of the best opera houses in the world, which was there to be activated. We got together as a team and made it a destination for some of the greatest operatic artists from all over the world and launched some interesting Canadian careers as well. I think it’s a great point of pride for myself but also for my team because you don’t do these things alone, you are only ever really successful in your company if you manage the support of your team and allow them to run with it on their own terms. What would one do differently?  

When I came to the COC I had never run anything, I was a very young General Director and my time with the company certainly allowed me to quickly learn the job. There are always questions that you ask yourself, like: should we have taken more risks? Sometimes it’s easy to get intimidated by economic constraints and then sometimes you think maybe you should have just done it and not have abandoned it because you were afraid it wouldn’t generate the revenue. On the other hand, there’s significant danger for the organization with that kind of an approach. So I think it’s a question that you can’t really answer, the outcome is always uncertain. More risk taking could have allowed us to access more funding that we couldn’t access otherwise. The big challenge is you need to jump in the water before you know if it’s cold. 

What are you most proud of in your twelve years at the COC? Anything you would have done differently knowing what you know now?