Bramwell Tovey on how Canadian opera excludes Canadians

Alexander Neef’s eyes are trained on Europe, not his own country
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Bramwell Tovey is a Grammy- and Juno-winning conductor and composer, and a recipient of the Order of Canada. He is the music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

One thing seems unlikely to change at Canada’s national opera company in 2014. At a press conference a few years ago, Alexander Neef, general director of the Canadian Opera Company, responded with some impatience to a suggestion from a reporter that the COC stage Canadian opera. “I find it very odd, actually, to have that discussion,” he said. “In France, I never had this discussion about ‘why don’t you do operas of French composers?’ Because we would do them if we believed in their value.”

This was the week of the world premiere of my opera The Inventor, commissioned by Calgary Opera. The Globe and Mail asked for my reaction. I told them then what I would say now, that the COC needs to have a creative agenda that will encourage Canadian composers to contribute to the repertoire and provide a Canadian component to what is otherwise a European-dominated tradition. That’s part of the job of the general director.

Our U.S. neighbour can easily dominate in the arts. Canada needs creative independence in film, music, theatre, television, dance, art and even opera. The COC’s recent record in this area has not been impressive. Shortly after that press conference, the COC announced a 2017 production of the late Harry Somers’s 1967 opera Louis Riel, but no new work. Last week, it announced that Rufus Wainwright, the celebrated pop musician, was to be commissioned to write a new opera on the subject of Hadrian, the Roman emperor. At its announcement Mr. Neef was quoted as saying, “I’ve always deplored the useless and misguided kind of musical nationalism.” It’s easy to appreciate how this appears contemptuous and uninformed from the head of the national opera company.

Mr. Neef’s predecessor, the late Richard Bradshaw, worked tirelessly to connect with all strands of Canadian musical life. His legacy includes the Four Seasons Centre and several Canadian operas which emerged under his tutelage. He attended the Calgary premiere of the Ontario-born John Estacio’s first opera, Filumena, and employed a composer-in-residence at the COC.

Mr. Neef has worked differently. He failed to attend any of the new mainstage Canadian operas mounted by the companies in Victoria, Vancouver or Calgary. His blog states he flew to Italy during the premiere run of Estacio’s Lillian Alling in Vancouver, promising, “I will report from Palermo tomorrow.”

Five minutes’ walk from the COC in Toronto, the Canadian Music Centre is the authoritative source for recordings and scores of Canadian composers. The CMC can find no record of Mr. Neef visiting.

In 2018, after a decade under Mr. Neef, the COC will have received around $20 million through the Canada Council, and the only new Canadian music heard on the COC’s mainstage will have been by Rufus Wainwright.

This will be Mr. Neef’s legacy.