I Want Your Job: Nina Draganic, COC Free Concert Series Director
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I Want Your Job: Nina Draganic, COC Free Concert Series Director

She brings a range of cultural experiences to Torontonians—at just the right price.

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Photo by H. Lewis, courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company

Three times a week from late September until early June, Nina Draganic watches as audiences file into the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre. People ranging in age from infanthood to “as old as it gets” settle into the step-like seating that overlooks the intersection of Queen and University and wait for Draganic to introduce a new musical performance—which might involve an indie dance troupe, a Balinese gamelan, or a classical opera singer. Draganic, as the Free Concert Series programmer for the Canadian Opera Company, has introduced hundreds of concerts since the series began in 2006, but she still gets excited by the fact that “anybody who wants to can come to these concerts.” They are, as the title says, totally free.

Draganic, 50, has been in the role since the inception of the series in 2005. She worked closely with Richard Bradshaw as his executive assistant in the five years leading up the opening of the opera house; before that, she was the general manager of Canadian Children’s Opera Company and the administrator at the Canadian Opera Volunteer Committee. Now, she says, “I’m a department of one,” but her passion for the job is obvious. “I didn’t set out saying that I wanted to work at the Canadian Opera Company or that I wanted to program a concert series. I pursued the things that I love, and they all came together very beautifully in the field of opera and then in this completely unique concert series portfolio.”

She was born in Zagreb, Croatia (at the time, Yugoslavia), and came to Canada at the age of five. “I grew up here and did all the usual things that children of Eastern European immigrants do: piano lessons, dance classes, all that stuff.” This led to a double major in piano and music history from Queen’s University, where she enrolled at the age of 16—and she originally had aspirations to become a concert pianist. (She also played trumpet and an instrument called the sackbut.) When she sustained a fairly serious hand injury toward the end of her degree, she realized some of the vulnerabilities professional musicians face: “I was playing a work by Bartok that involved a lot of heavy playing and a particular technical issue”—here she pounds her pinky finger heavily on the table—”and as a result of it, I had to take time off.” She then spent time in Europe studying languages (she speaks seven) and soaking up musical history. She earned a Masters in Slavic languages and literature from the Freie Universität Berlin and also worked at the Berlin Film Festival as a translator and program coordinator for the festival’s international section.

Our interview with Draganic—about artistic opportunities, transcendent moments, and keeping many balls in the air at the same time—is below.

Torontoist: How did the free concert series get started?

Nina Draganic: I was certainly in the right place at the right time. Richard Bradshaw was the kind of person who loved to talk, and he shared his dreams and aspirations with the people he worked most closely with—and I was one of those. He was sitting in his office one day, dreaming in Technicolour about what we could do with this new building, and he mentioned the possibility of some kind of concert series to animate the space, to bring people in, and to fulfill a variety of mandates. I think my eyes lit up like hundred-watt lightbulbs. He immediately recognized that it was a perfect fit for me, and basically I was given carte blanche to set it up.

The idea was very much to have as diverse as possible a programming that really reflected our city: who we are as Torontonians and who we are as Canadians. And reflect that diversity in our audiences, as well, and make everybody in Toronto, and everybody visiting Toronto, feel welcome in our building. Of course, we’d also be very happy if the people who are coming into our building take an interest in what we’re doing, so there are a lot of different mandates.

The artists in the series range from emerging artists who are often still students—the brightest young students, but not yet professionals—to the stars of the international opera stage and touring artists of a real international calibre. It’s really a fantastic opportunity for younger artists to have some profile and be on the same playbill as some of their greatest heroes. The artists are so grateful for the opportunity to have something like this, where they can try new things and different collaborations. Audiences are also very grateful when you give them this rich and high-quality programming for free. They can try things that they might be a little bit apprehensive about, and it’s a great way to open doors for people. But the artists are equally appreciative because they can try things, and there just isn’t the same kind of pressure as in other performance situations. There’s a tremendous amount of goodwill.

How do you plot out a season? There are so many different factors—touring artists, promotion, planning for a wide range of performers—not to mention the fact that you have to organize it all up to a year in advance.

I always have my dream document of all the things I want to do. In the first seasons, before anybody knew what it was, I had to reach out and convince people that they would want to be part of it. Now, I’m literally inundated with proposals. You can’t imagine the number of people who want a piece of this, and there are a limited number of slots, there’s a limited budget, and there’s only so much I can do. It’s a great problem to have. I could put together five series each season, but that’s not what a programmer does. You want to balance emerging and established artists, you want to have a good mix, and you want to have different themes running through it. I quickly realized that you can’t overproduce things. There’s a place where it comes together and you go, “Yeah, that’s it.” But you have to start with your vision, and then deal with the reality of a million logistical things.

It’s a little bit like cooking, I guess. You can have a recipe and say that it’s exactly what you’re going to do. Or you can look in your fridge, see what you’ve got, and creatively put something together that makes use of those ingredients. It’s a combination of both approaches. It’s a long process that goes in many layers, and the juggling act is phenomenal. We’re dealing with the scheduling of the building, the schedule of the opera company and the ballet and third-party rentals, and then we’re dealing with the schedule of about five hundred artists. It does involve some very good systems and organizational systems. There are always balls in the air, and hundreds of people that you’re dealing with. Programming is one thing, and then you’re also running the concerts at the same time. It’s a lot of people in your orbit. It can feel overwhelming at times, but it’s so exciting.

Most of the series is musical, but you present dance as well. How does including dancers in the series change the programming?

We’re so blessed in Toronto that we have so many different and colourful varieties of dance. We have companies like Ballet Jorgen, who are wonderful and offer so much variety in their performances, and other groups that focus on a particular ethnic tradition that they bring a more contemporary sensibility to; again, you’re trying to get a balance.

From a technical standpoint, the space does not have a sprung floor. We do have a surface that we can put down that offers some padding and protection, but any classical companies who dance on pointe and have impact stuff have to modify their programming for the space. So it does tend to be heavy on the contemporary dance, which tends to be less high-impact. I mean, dancers just love that space. It’s so open! Peggy Baker said that whatever we put in there is just so perfectly framed. They’re used to dancing in a dark space, in a spotlight where they don’t see the audience. You can almost hide in that spotlight. Here, you’re so much more connected. We often do previews of works in progress, so they might be preparing to do a bigger production of something, but they’ll do it in our space with minimal production values and without all the trappings. It’s more of a naked performance, and it really keeps them honest about where they are in their process and gives the audience a very different look at a piece that’s evolving.

But seriously, though. How is all of this free?

It was part of Richard Bradshaw’s original vision that no matter what, these performances should always be free. It’s part of the title of series! [Laughs] It’s very much about accessibility and about eliminating any barriers so that anyone who wants to can attend these concerts. We’ve made that a priority.

We had a very generous donor who established an endowment specifically to fund the free concert series, and there are always sponsors and donors to help out with the programming. It’s also a very important platform for our younger artists in the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio. We showcase members of our orchestra, and many singers who are on the main stage perform there. There are many collaborations and co-presentations and sponsorships, so the artists are paid, but not always by the COC. For example, I’m bringing in an Icelandic pianist, and the consulate of Iceland is paying his fee and his travel costs, and I do everything else. You need to be creative when you’re coming up with these types of arrangements. We might have a Russian singer who’s performing in an Italian opera on the main stage, and who never gets to sing Russian repertoire, or folk songs, or whatever it is. We get to see another side of them, and it’s a real enhancement on many levels. We work with young instrumentalists, many of whom end up playing in our orchestra or being connected to our company. I don’t know what will happen down the road, but the idea is that it should always be totally free and accessible.

It’s particularly sweet, as a programmer, to not be driven by the bottom line of ticket sales. If you have to meet your ticket sale quotas, and you’re programming very adventurously, and audiences are forking over forty or fifty or one hundred dollars, you might have a hard time selling something that is absolutely worth doing. Interestingly, the concerts are always full, whether I’m doing some really out-there contemporary thing or something really popular. It is very wonderful to have the luxury to try things and not worry about the bottom line.

How can you tell when your concerts are successful?

There are many different ways of measuring success, and it’s not always one of those things that you can define and quantify. Of course, if it’s a full house, you can call that a successful concert, but that’s clearly not the only measure. There’s just a certain magic that happens onstage when everything comes together. There’s a palpable communication between the performers and the audience and that certain je ne sais quoi and that flow of energy that you feel? I mean, you can also have a good review, and there are so many different things. But for me, it’s that moment of transcendence when everything comes together and the air molecules change. Something really special happens. I have to say that, in those particular moments, the performers kind of look at each other with that smile, and they just know that this is something extraordinary. The audience knows it. It’s the most beautiful thing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

CORRECTION: December 5, 2014, 10:20 AM This post originally stated that the Four Seasons Centre overlooks Queen and Spadina, when it is actually located at the intersection of Queen and University. We regret the error.