Illustration by Matthew Daley/Torontoist.
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The Canadian Opera Company has been on a roll for a while now, but it really hit its stride this past year, both artistically and in its campaign to bring opera to a broader audience.
Two and a half years into his reign as general director, German-born Alexander Neef has really settled into the role, bringing an art form that many see as stagnant and archaic into the twenty-first century. The youthful Neef has made no bones about his desire to see the company produce dynamic, forward-thinking pieces, frequently updating classic stories by staging them in contemporary contexts or bringing traditional operatic pageantry to more modern operas. The results have been no less than dazzling.
The magic started in late 2009 (okay, we’re cheating here a little), at the beginning of the COC’s sixtieth season, with the debut of Robert Lepage‘s The Nightingale & Other Short Fables. The director brought his visionary eye to the COC stage, staging Igor Stravinsky’s nearly hundred-year-old opera with shadow puppetry, Vietnamese water puppetry (putting 67,000 litres of water in the orchestra pit), Kabuki theatre, acrobatics, and Chinese opera. The final product was called “the most enchanting work for the musical stage to hit Toronto in years” by the Star and “magical storytelling” by the Globe.
The current season hasn’t disappointed either, kicking off with a drastic update of Aida (Verdi’s version, not Elton John’s), taking place in mid-twentieth-century Egypt and stripping away the opera’s Eastern fetishism to focus instead on the power of the text. The rest of the season will continue to challenge traditional notions surrounding opera, offering innovative productions of The Magic Flute, Orfeo ed Euridice, and Nixon in China. The latter, a 1987 piece by John Adams, had its Canadian premiere at the Vancouver Olympics, and fuses the media spectacle of Nixon’s 1972 visit to China with his more introspective moments.
For the past few years, the COC has also worked to bring opera to a wider audience and free the form from perceptions of elitism. The company continues to broadcast its productions live on CBC across the country and tour its productions for schoolchildren in remote areas. This year, it went farther than ever before, visiting an Inuit nickel mine in northern Quebec.
This is also the first year that the opera has offered twelve-dollar standing room tickets to sold-out performances. This provides people who might not otherwise be able to afford expensive opera tickets with the opportunity to enjoy the performances, a tradition in opera houses like La Scala and the Met.
Under Alexander Neef’s leadership, the COC has blossomed into one of North America’s most vibrant and exciting opera companies. For a so-called “dead art,” opera in Toronto sure is bursting with life.