On January 15 the Canadian Opera Company announced its 2014/15 season. In contrast to the current season that features three company premieres, the 2014/15 season revives three famous productions from the past – Madama Butterfly, Die Walküre and Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung – and has no company premieres. Instead, there will be three new productions of standard repertory – Falstaff, Don Giovanni and The Barber of Seville. Patrons who have been happy to see the company exploring new repertoire are bound to be disappointed. Even more disappointing is the fact that the COC is presenting only six productions, not the seven it has presented ever since it moved into the Four Seasons Centre in 2006.
At first glance one fewer production might not seem important. Yet, anyone who attended the late Richard Bradshaw’s press conferences leading up to the opening of the new opera house will know that it is. Bradshaw always mentioned to the press that it was impossible for the COC to present a balanced season with only six productions. He said he therefore had to program operas with a view to achieving balance over several seasons. The reason why the COC added a seventh production once it moved into the Four Seasons Centre was part of a larger plan to increase that number eventually to at least eight in order to match the number of productions presented by the most important American opera houses after the Met – like the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera. To return to six productions looks like the postponement of that dream.
In fact, the last time the COC presented only six productions was in the 2000/01 season and before that in the 1994/95 season. It presented six or fewer from its founding to the 1982/83 season, then somehow managed eight operas from the 1983/84 season to 1992/93.
Before the 2009/10 season, the COC gave the Ensemble Studio its own production which made six operas into seven. Granted, these were on a smaller scale, but this allowed the COC to delve into smaller works outside the standard repertory with rarities by Gazzaniga, Walton, Sartorio, Cavalli and Ullmann. This slot also allowed the COC to present new Canadian works such as Swoon (2006) by James Rolfe or Red Emma (1995) by Gary Kulesha without the expense and risk of a mainstage production. If the company must move back to six operas, perhaps it should give the Ensemble Studio its own production again to offer more variety in programming and give cause once more for the Studio members’ work to be reviewed in a context less contrained than the one-night Ensemble production of a current mainstage production such as the current production of Cosí.
Frankly, the retreat to six productions might be less troubling if it were not so clearly dictated by financial considerations. In his entry on June 18, 2013, in his blog Musical Toronto (musicaltoronto.org), music critic John Terauds remarked that the COC was trying to put a positive spin on bad fiscal news. He noted that “Since the 2009/10 season, the Canadian Opera Company’s net ticket revenues have fallen by 23.5 percent, while overall attendance has dropped by 16.7 percent.” He concluded that “Our city’s musical bounty sits perched on a knife’s edge.” On June 17, 2013, Arthur Kaptainis of the National Post after reviewing the same information went further and ventured an outright prediction, which now has come to pass. He said, “The downward turn at the COC is troubling. My crystal ball says the 2014/15 season will contract from seven productions to six. I believe you read it here first.”
Both Terauds and Kaptainis note that the COC gave 67 performances in the 2011/12 season but only 61 in the 2012/13 season. In the present season there are only 58 performances. While the administration touts the fact that attendance at the COC has been 90 percent or above since it moved into the new opera house, that figure is meaningless if the number of performances is reduced every year. For 2011/12 attendance reached 125,238, but for 2012/13 it was 114,133 – a drop of 11,105 in one year. It should be obvious that in shrinking from 67 performances to 58, the company has lost the equivalent of nine performances which equal one full opera production. It should therefore not be surprising that the company has decided to drop one production.
What has caused such a precipitous drop in such a short time? Kaptainis mentions that L’Opéra de Montréal, experiencing a similar decline, puts the blame on the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD cinema broadcasts whose original goal was to increase attendance at the Met. Kaptainis however points the finger on COC general director Alexander Neef’s penchant for Regietheater.
Now Regietheater, or opera productions guided by a directorial concept, can be either good or bad. The three famous COC productions to be revived in 2014/15 are all examples of Regietheater at its best, where a directorial concept illuminates an opera. Unfortunately, the COC has recently presented several examples, in my opinion, of Regietheater at its worst. One thinks of Christopher Alden’s Die Fledermaus and La Clemenza di Tito in the 2012/13 season or Zhang Huan’s Semele in 2011/12. Here the directors rather than illuminating the operas deliberately subverted their stories.
The plan to move back to a six-opera season was known before January 15. Neef first revealed it in the Fall 2013 edition of the COC’s magazine, Prelude, citing the burden that seven operas places on the company without ever mentioning declining attendance. He stated, “Since 2007 we’ve forced the seven-opera model to function, but at a cost of too many compromises – artistically, financially, and from a patron and staffing perspective.” With the six-opera season, he said, “We’ll have more financial flexibility to produce more grand operas, and contemplate some new productions.” Speaking of the 2014/15 season, he predicted, “Starting next season, you’ll see more varied repertoire, including the potential for one grand and/or new opera per season.”
Unfortunately, the announced 2014/15 season contradicts this prediction. Not only has Bradshaw’s goal been set aside but so, it seems, have goals of Neef’s. In 2010 when Neef announced the first season solely chosen by him, he said that he wanted to fill in gaps in standard repertory that the COC had never done, such as Parsifal and Nabucco. He also pledged to present one contemporary opera per season. Following this, he gave us Nixon in China in 2010/11 and L’Amour de loin in 2011/12. Neither of these goals is evident in the 2014/15 season. Bluebeard’s Castle (1918) and Erwartung (written 1909) can hardly be considered “contemporary” and the three new productions are of operas the COC has often done before.
Looking at the figures, the problem does not seem to lie with the seven-opera model per se, as Neef claims, but with a decline in attendance that makes seven operas impracticable. Ultimately, the COC needs to be more open about these difficulties. If a company is having problems, people will help. If it claims that all is well, people will not. Why is attendance now lower than the 117,700 at the Hummingbird Centre in 2004/05? The COC needs to identify why it is losing patrons – especially now that Toronto finally has one of the finest opera houses in the world and can attract the finest talent in the world.
The most positive side to the 2014/15 announcement (and there is a positive side!) is that COC audiences will indeed be seeing so much of opera’s finest talent next season. Appearing will be such stars as Christine Goerke, Patricia Racette, Jane Archibald, Russell Braun, Gerald Finley, Clifton Forbis, Ekaterina Gubanova, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, John Relyea, Michael Schade, Lauren Segal and Krisztina Szabó. Let’s hope that next season represents a period of adjustment while the COC finds out how to win back those it lost. To inquire about subscriptions, visit coc.ca.
Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.