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Double Duty

Alexander Neef takes on a new job at Santa Fe Opera.
By Catherine Kustanczy 

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© Gaetz Photography
“It’s about the dialogue with the artists and having projects that percolate.”

ALEXANDER NEEF, GENERAL DIRECTOR of Canadian Opera Company, will add another title to his résumé in October, when he becomes artistic director of Santa Fe Opera. This fall, Neef, now forty-four, celebrates ten years as COC’s general director, a position he’s signed on to continue through the 2025–26 season. Neef’s goal in continuing his work at COC while taking up his new role in Santa Fe is to create what he terms “better leverage” for both the American and Canadian companies. “It’s about the dialogue with the artists and having projects that percolate,” he says, “and through that intensified dialogue, getting better artists on stages. That’s how I see combining my general-director position in Toronto with the artistic-director position in Santa Fe. I’m not doing this to do more of the same things in two different places.”

Neef’s appointment in Santa Fe, announced in February 2018, is part of a broader overall restructuring of the company’s leadership that will take effect on October 1. Robert Meya, who joined the company in March 2012 as its director of external affairs, is the company’s next general director—the fourth since its founding in 1956. Meya has officially appointed Neef as artistic director and Harry Bicket, Santa Fe’s chief conductor since 2013, as the company’s music director. The division of administrative, artistic and creative duties is new for the company, and Neef cites the chemistry between himself, Meya and Bicket as the impetus for the triumvirate leadership.

“When Robert came to me and asked me if I would be teaming up with him and Harry, it was a bit of a gift the way it felt—we couldn’t have created that situation if we had tried, in terms of the way the seasons work,” Neef recalls, “but we have all known each other, and it probably would never have happened if not for the relationship of the three people involved.”

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Alexander Neef, left, at a 2018 event with COC music director Johannes Debus, COC chorus master Sandra Horst and event host Brent Bambury
© Gaetz Photography
 

Since Neef’s arrival in Toronto, Canadian Opera Company has produced two works that originated in Santa Fe, both from SFO’s 2012 season: David Alden’s staging of Rossini’s Maometto II arrived in Toronto in 2016,and Tim Albery’s production of Strauss’s Arabella, a coproduction between the two companies, opened COC’s 2017–18 season. “You go to places and think, “I’d like to see this here,” and sometimes it’s really just a personal vision, not something doable,” Neef says, “but sometimes you can make it a reality.”

When Neef, who was born in Ebersbach an der Fils, Germany, visited Santa Fe for the first time, in 2009, he had a reaction similar to what he’d experienced on coming to Toronto for the first time. “It’s funny,” he says, “how sometimes you come to a place and you just feel it’s kind of your place. Coming in to the city from the airport in a cab, I just felt like, ‘This is a place I could live at, or be at, or do things.’”

That inspiration has, at its core, an innate awareness of the position of Santa Fe Opera within the North American music scene. “I’ve never attended a rehearsal there,” Neef says, “and even though we’ve worked with the company as a peer, so to speak, I have yet to actually go behind the scenes and see how the place ticks and works.” SFO’s renowned outdoor performance space is, he says, “a very unique situation in which to present opera. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere.” 

The repertory for the 2019 Santa Fe Opera season—a range of new and old works—had already been planned when Neef signed on, but his artistic hand will be evident in the casting and development of the productions, which include Janácˇek’s Jenu°fa (conducted by COC music director Johannes Debus), Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte and a new opera by Danish composer Poul Ruders, The Thirteenth Child, inspired by Grimm’s fairy tales. The new work will mark the sixteenth world premiere presented at Santa Fe Opera. “There’s a commitment [the company] has to new work,” Neef says. “They’ve really been at the forefront of new developments in opera for a long time.”

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Alexander Neef with COC Ensemble Studio alumni Andrew Haji and Simone Osborne during their run in COC’s Elisir d’Amore, 2017
© Gaetz Photography
 

Since neither the seasons nor the rehearsal periods of the two companies overlap, “There is no cannibalization,” Neef says. “I think there’s a lot of synergy with regards to my time that will have a positive effect on both sides. What I’ve been telling people is that it will reinvigorate my artistic practice, because I know I can plan more things, and that’s good for me, but it’s also good for the company.” spacer 

Catherine Kustanczy is a freelance arts journalist based in Toronto and Berlin. Her work has been published in the Globe and Mail, Opera Canada and CBC Music. 



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