Their birthdays are a month apart. They have just turned 40. They are both German, but they never knew each other in their home country. They also just happen to be the leading lights behind the Canadian Opera Company.
General director Alexander Neef was appointed in 2008, and music director Johannes Debus the following year. Together they represent the wunderkind generation who are the new movers and shakers in the arts.
We three met in Neef’s office for a wide-ranging conversation about the COC in particular, the arts in general, and, of course, living in Toronto. Debus came across as an idealist, Neef as a realist.
Alexander, how did you end up at the COC?
Neef: I didn’t apply for the position. I was first approached by the search committee. There were four days of interviews. It was an important decision for me. Running a company would allow me to take a major career step out of artistic administration, but it had to be the right company. At the same time as the COC came calling, I was offered a “B” company in Germany, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to attract the same quality of artists as the COC. It was an easy decision to say no, even if the German company had a bigger budget. The COC is a big international company with high standards. It is also a complete package because it has its own house. Top artists like Susan Graham and Sondra Radvanofsky want to come to a quality environment.
How did you two meet?
Debus: After Richard Bradshaw died suddenly, I was one of the conductors brought in to replace him. It was October, 2008, at a rehearsal for Prokofiev’s War and Peace at the Four Seasons Centre.
Neef: We had to find a music director, but we were going to spend two or three seasons inviting people to conduct. I was sitting at the War and Peace rehearsal and I felt the strong connection between Johannes and the orchestra. His conducting debut got rave reviews. I thought, why put him on a list and wait? He might move on. I’m a decisive person. We met for a brief lunch and I asked him, “How do you feel about becoming music director?” The interesting thing is, no one thought I was crazy because Johannes had made such a great impression.
Debus: I was shocked, but in a positive way. It was something that I had never imagined. Conducting War and Peace was the best time of my life. The whole thing was like a fairytale. I haven’t regretted coming to the COC for one second.
Neef: We haven’t had our epic fight yet.
How does your relationship work?
Neef: It’s an inspiring relationship. We don’t play games. We have no factions, because neither of us is a politician. When we have to talk about things, we do. We never let things go.
Debus: Alexander is a general director with passion and knowledge. He has good taste and a strong eye. He’s willing to take certain risks and avoid falling into the trap of routine. I’m involved in the decision-making about putting together a production team – choosing artists who have something to say about an opera and the composer. They have to have an affinity for the piece. I’m also learning so much from Alexander about how the art form works. We have a strong team.
Alexander, working at the COC must have been a big change from the Paris Opera.
Neef: The Paris Opera puts on around 20 operas a year. Five could be happening at the same time. You tend to go where there are problems and stay away when things are going well. No conflict means no reason to go. In Paris you never drop in on rehearsals for pleasure. At the COC, I can take personal care of all the operas, attend all the rehearsals, go to concept meetings and spend time with Johannes. I can have a direct communication with what’s happening on stage, and keep a close connection with everything else. It’s an enjoyable experience. I’m also here in the off-season, overseeing administrative work like preparing budgets, and doing social stuff in the community.
What’s the COC like as a corporation?
Neef: Opera is unbelievably expensive. There are so many people to pay. It’s a big challenge to keep the machine going. Luckily the administrative staff believes in giving the best for the company. It’s like a code of honour. Given the iffy funding we have to face, no one works here for the money. The commitment the staff gives to the COC is extraordinary.
Debus: Even the security guards are committed. There is a family spirit here that is very special.
Johannes, what’s it like working with the COC orchestra?
Debus: Some European orchestras don’t like to do homework, so you first have to be a bad cop. At the COC, the musicians have a high work ethic. They do prepare at home because they want to perform well, to present themselves in the best way possible. They also love to play opera, and are always focused, which is the best possible music-making, no matter who the conductor or composer. It’s a rare quality. It’s also a form of generosity. They make me a better conductor. They are sweethearts.
Another question for you Johannes. How do you decide which operas you conduct?
Debus: I have a contract to conduct three productions a year. I like the idea of having guest conductors because it’s good for the orchestra to get inspired by others. When I’m not conducting, I can sit in the audience and observe – see what’s working, and what needs work.
How do you both see the state of the arts in general?
Debus: It’s true that many more people are interested in hockey, but we have to find a way to influence them. The arts are essential for holding society together. They make life interesting. The arts are not a luxury good. They are an essential experience. We should be thinking about what our art form can offer in the future.
Neef: European countries have a cultural identity. The arts are official policy. Here in Canada, we should be building an identity that is both national and cultural. But there has been huge progress. Remember, the COC has just 65 years of history, versus 400 years for some companies in Europe. The arts impact on the community, and we have to do a better job of explaining what we do. I know and love the arts, but many people take the arts for granted. That’s our challenge – to keep the momentum going. We’re still building something here.
And the financial health of the company?
Neef: Nobody has come through the recession unscathed. Our subscriptions have dropped from 75 percent to closer to 70, but it is still the highest in North America. Subscriptions used to be 30 percent of the budget 20 years ago, now they are 16. A board member helped us do market research and we found that if a person subscribes for three years, they stay forever. That means we have to do more grooming of the one- and two-year subscribers to make them stay. Their renewal rate is around 50 percent. We have a solid young audience under 30, because they can buy discounted tickets, but after 30, when the tickets get more expensive, they stop coming. People do tend to return in their 40s and we have to encourage that. The Four Seasons Centre is now eight years old, and lower subscriptions and ticket sales probably indicate that the honeymoon with the new house is over. That means we have to rely more on philanthropy. There has been a cultural renaissance in Toronto that is producing big donors.
What about the HD performances in movie theatres?
Debus: Opera is the greatest art form, but there is a price tag. People ask themselves why should I go to the opera and pay high prices if I can see it on the internet or at the cinema – but it’s a two-dimensional experience. Live opera in the theatre is three-dimensional. Opera needs to be seen in an opera house because of the magnified emotions. Live performance is how the art form was born – as a religious ritual in ancient Greece. Opera is a communal experience.
What’s opera like as a career for emerging artists in Canada?
Neef: It’s a big issue. There is talent but no employment. There are only a handful of companies. It’s also more difficult to go to the States now because companies are closing down. We should be nurturing smaller companies to provide performing opportunities.
How are you finding Toronto?
Debus: It’s not a shock coming here. Toronto is a cosmopolitan city.
Neef: It’s not a shock because the German mentality and Canadian mentality are close. There is a seriousness. We’re both a little bit reserved. From an economic point of view, in both Germany and Canada, you don’t spend money you don’t have. And the little things mean a lot. People call me to take me shopping. They offer me their cars. A big shock would be moving to Italy, for example.
Debus: People are kind and I’m well-treated. There’s an honesty here. You can connect to people because they make it easy. They open up. It’s a pleasant life. It’s feels like home.
Neef: Maybe we haven’t been here long enough for the bad stuff to hit.
Are you able to sense a Canadian character?
Debus: I see an inferiority complex. For me as an artist, that is a failing. There is enormous potential here. People should take pleasure in that.
Neef: It’s interesting that some Torontonians don’t see their own city as a world player. People ask me when I’m moving on. Do I have my eye on New York? On the Met? People should be building up the possibilities of the city, harnessing the energy.
Can we talk about the 2014-2015 season? Why is it down to six productions from seven?
Neef: Since moving into the new opera house, we’ve done three productions in the spring, but our time is limited by the National Ballet’s dates. We are now reallocating our resources. Three spring productions curtailed our repertoire options. We couldn’t program any big operas like Walküre, for example. Also, some subscribers didn’t like having to give up three dates in May when they wanted to be at the cottage. Dropping one opera gives us room to create a season we can be happy with. The budget will be close to what it was with seven operas, so the change isn’t due to financial considerations. When the renewal of the agreement with the Ballet comes up, we have a list of things to talk about to make the dates better for everyone.
For me, The Barber of Seville, Don Giovanni and Madama Butterfly on the same season is being populist. My preference is for the new and the different.
Debus: As for Barber, we haven’t done a pure comedy since La cenerentola in 2011 – one where nobody dies, where parents can bring their kids. The Don Giovanni by director Dmitri Tcherniakov is very different than any production that you’ve seen before. It cuts deeply to the core of the piece. Even warhorses can offer something unusual. Both are new productions. Butterfly is a blockbuster – a great cast that features soprano Patricia Racette. People will come out for the voices. There are, of course, financial considerations behind programming Butterfly, but we do have to sell tickets.
Neef: We’ve pushed the rep in the last few seasons, so this year we’re giving the unfamiliar a break to establish balance. We still have to fill 2,000 seats every night. Programming familiar titles services a wider public, but you can make them interesting by offering new productions or big names. We have a great house and it’s a very satisfying experience to see a production at the Four Seasons. I’m happy about both the six operas, and the encouraging subscriptions sales.
Where were you born, and was music always part of your life?
Was it always going to be a career in music? I actually had two plans. If I didn’t get into a conservatory, I was going to go to university and study German and Latin.
But you did get into the Hamburg Conservatory where you studied conducting. Where did that interest come from? For me, the music-maker was the conductor who stood out in front. I wanted to be the music-maker. I studied old videos of conductors and then I’d conduct in front of the stereo. I was very serious about church music and choral conducting.
So how did you develop an interest in opera? Opera, at first, seemed very far away. I though it was artificial and superficial, until a teacher at the conservatory had me prepare La traviata. I started to play through it and I was hooked. The variety of the opera repertoire is enormous. A well-made masterpiece has so many riches to reveal. After I graduated, I spent ten years at the Frankfurt Opera, starting as a pianist, then coach, then assistant conductor, and finally, resident conductor. My freelance career started after Frankfurt.
What’s your background? I was born in a small village called Rosswälden, just outside Stuttgart. I come from a simple working class background. Languages were easy for me, and I thought I would become a Latin teacher. I have an M.A. in Latin and modern history.
So where did opera fit in? I got hooked on opera when I was eight or nine by listening to the classical music station on the radio. When I was older, I’d go to the opera three or four times a week. At the University of Tübingen, I was dramaturge for a student opera company. I did research, wrote program notes and attended casting meetings. I was able to consult piano scores because I can read music. I started studying piano when I was nine.
How did you get to the Paris Opera? My friends in university were musicologists. They went to Berlin to start an academy for music theatre and I went to visit them. They invited lecturers, and Gerard Mortier, head of the Salzburg Festival, came. That’s where I met him. He really connected to the group. I didn’t become a teacher because I became an intern artistic administrator at the Salzburg Festival for two years. After that I joined the artistic administration team at the RuhrTriennale, a three-year multidisciplinary festival in Germany’s Ruhr region. When Mortier took over the Paris Opera in 2004, he brought me in as director of casting.
Paula Citron is a Toronto-based journalist. Her areas of special interest are dance, theatre, opera and arts commentary.