Reflections on the recent COC run

dg9How many Toronto lawyers does it take to change a lightbulb?

Two; one to fly to New York and the other to stand by the fax machine waiting for the instructions.

Today the COC’s winter run of Don Giovanni and Die Walküre comes to an end.  It’s worth reflecting on what we’ve seen I think.  Neither production could be called “traditional” and the Don Giovanni in particular produced a broad range of reactions, some of them quite extreme.  I’m not really sure why as, by international standards, it wasn’t particularly extreme.  And that’s the starting point for this “thought for the day”.

What struck me about this run, the actual performances aside, was how much attention it garnered beyond Toronto.  Both productions were positively reviewed in both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.  Tommasini in the latter compared Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni favourably to Michael Grandage’s “timid” production at the Met.  People came from out of town to see these shows; from New York, from Boston and other places that aren’t exactly traditional selling grounds for the COC.  And yet there’s still a very vocal minority in Toronto that hates it.

This is where it gets personal and perhaps in some people’s view condescending.  I’ll risk it.  I moved to Canada; first Ottawa and then Toronto, after growing up in England.  My first opera experiences were at Covent Garden and the Coliseum.  I saw “straight” theatre in the West End and, perhaps more influentially, at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and the Everyman in Liverpool at a time of considerable experimentation (mid/late 70s).  I moved to Canada for career rather than cultural reasons at a time when you still couldn’t go out for a drink on a Sunday and Toronto folks still went to Buffalo if they wanted a little excitement.

When I moved to Toronto in 1990 I tried out the COC.  I thought it was awful; dull productions, no name singers and a terrible theatre.  To be fair it was a point in my life; busy career, too much travel, small children, when culture was always going to take a back seat but still.  I didn’t have much more luck with Stratford and I was utterly bemused when Toronto audiences reacted with horror to Michael Bogdanov’s Shakespeare which was fairly mainstream by British standards.  For me, the one bright light was Opera Atelier.  At least they were trying!  Bottom line, I was put off the COC for almost two decades though I did make the occasional show.  It’s the changes over the last few years that have brought me, and quite a few other people I know, back.

So what do I see today?  I see a gorgeous new theatre playing innovative productions by top directors sung by some of the best singers in the world.  I see an orchestra and chorus that would be the envy of pretty much anywhere in the world.  I see excellence.  That comes at a price.  Great art is never comfortable.  It provokes, it asks questions, it takes risks (and taking risks means not always being 100% successful).  It doesn’t compromise.  For many of us that’s life affirming.  For others it threatens their sense of self worth.

So from me, a heart felt plea for more.  Let’s see the best and most thought provoking directors.  Let’s see Bieito and Herheim and Kusej  And for those who don’t like it there’s always Buffalo.


4 thoughts on “Reflections on the recent COC run

  1. Wading into deep waters here John! Interesting to compare your experiences with opera and the theatre in the UK before coming to Canada with say another’s coming from maybe Hungary or Czech Republic where the style of productions in the 60s/70s was probably quite conservative generally. As new Canadians a lot of these people were probably comforted by the more traditional style of shows at the COC at the time. Reactions to productions are endlessly fascinating to me. I sometimes hear people say “why can’t you do things like the Met” and yet as you cite here you have the NYT critic praising Tcherniakov over the Met’s Grandage Don G. What’s more, not all Met productions are “traditional” these days and I would bet going forward the HD audience will have to get used to that! But they’ll probably still hanker after the Met’s product. But it’s still not as straightforward as that since I’ve heard younger, presumably less mired-in-tradition opera-goers also complain of non-traditional productions. How to explain that?

    • It’s tricky isn’t it? I have an aversion to anything; productions, performances, whatever where the thing just seems to be phoned in without any real engagement. Others seem to want just that; the comfort of the familiar. It reminds me of that bit in “Educating Rita” (back to my days in Liverpool in the 70s!) where her husband complains that she has changed the unvarying pattern of dinner menus; “Chips and egg on Thursday”.

      I also really, really dislike Toronto’s cultural cringe to New York. New York is so far from being the epicentre of artistic creativity that it makes me laugh. What we are now lucky to have at that outfit you work for is a company that strives to be world class on its own terms and often succeeds. That people are complaining about that frustrates the heck out of me.

      I too have occasionally heard younger opera goers complain about non traditional productions but overwhelmingly the reaction I’ve seen is the opposite. I think I’ve seen too that for more radical productions the cheap seats sell out first whereas for “steakhouse” fare it’s the opposite. I think that’s probably the nearest to quantitative data I have on who reacts how to what.

      Final thought, I’m really disturbed by the discourse around e.g. the Tcherniakov production. The antis use such bizarrely extreme language; “sabotage”, “desecration”, “Eurotrash” etc. They also make the facts up to support their case. According to one commentator people left Don Giovanni at the interval “in droves”. It’s not true of course. Ironically it might have been true of Walker where there were lots of empty seats after the second interval both times i went but I think that has more to do with the length of the piece and the weather than the production.

      • Yes I think the Walkure exodus has much more to do with it being long, late and horrible weather. Something else I’ve pondered in relation to this. In other major centres like NYC and all the big (and not so big) European cities there is soooo much more opera to choose from; so many more productions and often multiple companies. So, a company can offer a wide variety of production styles to their public and people can pick and choose between styles. Not everything rides on say, one production of Don G because there might be another (major) production down the street and you might be able to catch two other operas that week. Given the funding models in North America most large cities only get 4, 5, at most 6 productions per year. So…a lot rides on each show with these audiences, perhaps exasperating reactions to a particular one. And some people don’t realize how good they have it with the COC’s incredible orchestra and chorus which would be the envy of any company.

  2. Thank you for your review. I saw both Don Giovanni and the Walkure. I found them well done. The singing as wonderful and the orchestra excellent. I am currently in Milan with Mashall And Jeannette who are directing “Lucio Silla” at La Scala. It will open on Thursday.

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