'The purpose of a theatre," the Canadian Opera Company's Alexander Neef tells me, "is to be full."
He's quoting Giuseppe Verdi, the master of keeping theatres full. And over the past few years, with ticket sales at 91 per cent of capacity, the COC has done an admirable job of fulfilling theatre's purpose, Verdi-style.
But for Neef, now in his fifth season as general director of the COC, there's another goal that transcends that basic need to keep patrons in their seats at the Four Seasons Centre during the 70-odd evenings and afternoons this season the opera is in town. It's the need to engage his audience, to create a relationship with his community.
"Indifference is the enemy. We're not just there to provide a pleasant evening of entertainment, but an experience to which people can react, to which they can bring their own judgment. We don't just want people to sit back in their seats." And over Neef's tenure so far, he's accomplished that goal, with controversial productions of operatic classics, such as his 2010 Aida, to groundbreaking (for Toronto) forays into the world of contemporary opera (last season's Nixon in China and Love from Afar), to generally novel treatments of the staples of the operatic repertoire.
Some of the same ingredients of Neef's past seasons are in play for this one. There are two 20th-century pieces – Richard Strauss's Salome and Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites – three, if you count Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, which, although premiered in 1865, is still a piece of modern art, when all is said and done. There are the staples of the 19th-century Italian repertoire: Verdi's Il Trovatore, which opens the season Saturday night, and Donizetti's Lucia de Lammermoor. We have a taste of the 18th century with Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, his last opera, written more or less at the same time as The Magic Flute. And in the spirit of keeping the theatre full, the light-hearted masterpiece of that other Strauss, Johann Jr. – Die Fledermaus. Something for everyone, basically. And done very much on purpose, according to Neef. "To me, a season is made up not of operas, but of Opera – it's important to give our patrons the full range of the art."
It's not possible to talk about this year's COC season without noting the Canadian singers appearing in major roles: Russell Braun, Michael Schade (twice), Richard Margison, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Judith Forst, Adrianne Pieczonka – and, for the first time in 17 years – 17 years! – Ben Heppner, singing Tristan. A friend, the most devoted opera buff I know, tells me that his heart swells with pride as he walks along the outside walls of the Four Seasons Centre these days and sees the Canadian singers featured so prominently there. We hadn't ignored these singers in the past, but it took a German-born opera manager, it seems, to remind us in spades of the great talent we've been developing for the world in our own country.
We'll find out starting Saturday night how that sense of engagement Alexander Neef cherishes so much continues to develop this season. Asked how he thinks Toronto audiences view his tenure, he says, "I think they know I can provide them great singers." He takes a considered breath. "And they know I like to push them a little bit."