Opera's Next Wave
Canadian Opera Company's ALEXANDER NEEF
Imperially slim, immaculately tailored and unremittingly polite, Alexander Neef, general director of Canadian Opera Company, projects a cosmopolitan image that befits his background as an administrator at the Salzburg Festival, the Ruhrtriennale and Opéra National de Paris. Born in Ebersbach an der Fils, near Stuttgart, Neef was just thirty-four when he was chosen to head Canada's largest opera company in June 2008, less than a year after the sudden death of COC's previous general director, conductor Richard Bradshaw.
Neef arrived in Toronto with a solid administrative background. He spent much of his early career working in close collaboration with the redoubtable Gerard Mortier. During Mortier's term as general director of Opéra National de Paris, Neef served four years as that company's director of casting (2004–08), a job that sharpened his ears — few opera administrators of Neef's age can listen to singers with his level of accuracy and understanding — and allowed him to participate in the production of more than eighty operas. Neef is savvy about how a theater and its repertory should work: he believes that his company's success depends on supplying Toronto audiences with the highest possible quality of singing and production.
Although the repertory for Neef's first few seasons at COC had been planned before he arrived in Canada, he moved immediately to put into action a plan for the company that included attracting more top-level singers, directors and conductors to Toronto and expanding COC's repertory with company premieres and new works. Shortly after he took office, Neef hired thirty-four-year-old Johannes Debus as music director. The German-born maestro had impressed the COC orchestra with his work on Prokofiev's War and Peace in autumn 2008 and his appointment has proved to be both popular and wise. Debus's work under Neef's administration has covered Verdi, Mozart, Offenbach and Saariaho.
Armed with the advantages of a handsome new theater — the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2006 — a discerning public and his own acumen, Neef has had some notable successes within a relatively short time. Among the many attractions of the seven-show 2011–12 season were the COC debut of Susan Graham in Robert Carsen's well-traveled staging of Iphigénie en Tauride and the first Canadian performances of Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin, a work that Neef had admired since its world premiere in Salzburg. The coming season will bring Toronto audiences the Salome of Erika Sunnegårdh, directed by Atom Egoyan; the extravagantly admired Peter Sellars–Bill Viola staging of Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek; and the local premiere of David Alden's powerful English National Opera staging of Lucia di Lammermoor. Neef's 2012–13 casting is a deft mix of established names — Ramón Vargas as Manrico, Melanie Diener and Ben Heppner as Isolde and Tristan, Michael Schade as Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus and Mozart's Tito, Adrianne Pieczonka as Madame Lidoine — and some of the most exciting young singers on the international scene, including Elza van den Heever, Tamara Wilson, Isabel Leonard, Stephen Costello, Ryan McKinny and Brian Mulligan.
As part of his job responsibilities, Neef travels extensively, taking the measure of productions, conductors, singers, directors and designers in Europe as well as North America. He is candid but tactful and talks about opera with a crisp combination of erudition and enthusiasm. But even a brief conversation with Neef makes it clear that there is one thing he cannot abide in an opera house — business as usual.
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