Rufus Wainwright to collaborate with Daniel MacIvor
Alexander Neef, the unflappable general director of the Canadian Opera Company, has a secret project he was not only ready but eager to discuss at his favourite restaurant, Nota Bene.
We won’t be able to enjoy the results until the fall of 2018, when Hadrian, a new opera by Rufus Wainwright and Daniel MacIvor, will have its world premiere at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. That’s just a block from the restaurant where Neef was already savoring the details as well as lunch .
“We believe in doing new work,” he said when asked about the risk factor. “It’s part of who we are as a company.”
In fact, this will be the first original mainstage opera production for the COC since 1999, when Neef’s predecessor, the late Richard Bradshaw, brought The Golden Ass, with music by Randolph Peters and libretto by Robertson Davies, to the COC’s former home, then known as the Hummingbird Centre.
The excess cost of doing a new work, besides the normal cost of producing an opera, is at least $1 million, but the bigger risk is how something completely different will be received by audiences who are used to seeing tried-and-true works from the world opera repertoire.
It’s a bold move coming at a time when the financial future is scarier and less secure than ever for the opera company and other major cultural organizations. But even the Metropolitan Opera and James Levine, its revered music director, have been reprimanded in the media for failing to make the creation of new operas a key part of their mandate.
In most ways, the Canadian Opera Company has been on a winning streak since moving into its new home seven years ago. And since taking over in 2008 after the death of Bradshaw, Neef has done so well both artistically and financially that his contract has been extended to 2021.
But five years into the economic downturn that began the same year the German-born Neef arrived in Toronto from his former perch with the Paris Opera, nervous-making cracks are becoming apparent. To show a surplus on the 2012-2013 season, the company had to transfer more than $900,000 from a rainy-day fund (made up of surpluses from previous seasons). Ticket sales are still good but slowly declining and the same is true of total annual revenue.
With all those factors in mind, the company has announced that starting with the 2014/2015 season, it will reduce its mainstage season from seven productions to six, dropping one of the three operas usually staged in April/May.
“What the recession brought to an end was uninhibited spending,” says Neef. “Now everything is much more complicated.”
But Neef shows no sign of panic. Compared to other arts groups in Toronto and elsewhere, the COC is in good shape, with many strengths to carry it through a period of economic uncertainty: loyal and enthusiastic subscribers, a great hall, a sensationally good orchestra, and a record of attracting many of the world’s greatest singers and directors.
“Bringing a world premiere to the mainstage is a significant undertaking and we’re proud to say all the elements are now in place,” says Neef.
The story is about the grief of Hadrian, a Roman emperor near the end of the classical era, over the death of his lover Antinous. Their affair was considered dangerous by members of the emperor’s inner circle, and the drowning of Antinous in the Nile raises many vexing questions about jealousy, treachery and love.
Neef saw Wainwright’s first opera, Prima Donna, at the Manchester Festival, where it had its shaky world premiere in 2009 before getting a revised and by most accounts much better production in Toronto at Luminato 2010.
By then, Neef already knew Wainwright as a talented composer, but what impressed him was discovering that, “Rufus writes with a completely different vocabulary for opera.”
Neef knew Wainwright, best known as a pop singer/songwriter, wanted to write a second opera and was drawn to the subject of Hadrian. But he would need a partner to write the libretto.
Wainwright and MacIvor had never met, but they turned out to be well-matched collaborators.
Neef says the fact that this will be MacIvor’s first opera makes the occasion even more momentous. MacIvor is already known as an accomplished, multi-talented man of theatre and film.
“Daniel is as articulate, sharp and passionate about developing this story through words as Rufus is about using music,” says Neef.
Neef is hoping to find a commissioning partner to share the risks and potential payoff of Hadrian, but if that doesn’t happen, the COC will go it alone.
There will be more at stake than ever on opening night of the 2018/2019 season, but Neef is not the kind of impresario who gets the jitters.