Young MC

Young MC

Johannes Debus, the COC’s adventurous new music director, is just what Toronto’s buzzing opera scene needs

Johannes Debus’s balletic style of conducting creates instant chemistry with the orchestra and audience (Image: Barbara Aumüller, courtesy of Oper Frankfurt) 

When Johannes Debus takes the podium, his gestures are lilting and free; his whole body seems somehow up on tiptoe. What he’s after musically, he says, is “controlled ecstasy.” The Canadian Opera Company warmed to the style immediately when the then-34-year-old guest-conducted Prokofiev’s War and Peace in 2008—his first performance in Toronto. He was nervous, he says, “because with an orchestra, either it makes click or it doesn’t make click” (his lightly accented English is excellent, but the German conductor occasionally has problems with colloquialisms). At the COC, he definitely made click. The rapport was so clear that the general director Alexander Neef, also German-born and the same age as Debus, abandoned the elaborate search program he had planned, took Johannes to lunch and offered him the music director’s job. Appointments rarely happen that quickly in the somewhat sclerotic world of high-end classical music (Neef says Debus practically fell out of his chair). Debus didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether he’d accept or not. This month, he makes his mainstage debut as the COC’s music director, conducting Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

The timing couldn’t be better. Richard Bradshaw’s death in 2007 left a void at the conductor’s podium just as his legacy, the city’s stunning new opera house, was garnering raves. The classic horseshoe-shaped auditorium, with its lavish use of wood, is an acoustic marvel—almost every seat is a sweet spot. It now houses one of the largest opera programs in North America, and most shows are sellouts; the 2009 fall season had a 99.6 per cent attendance rate. In glum recessionary times, theatre-goers are eager for a mitigating dose of lunacy and exuberance. Opera is not at all a bad prescription, and it’s become one of the hottest tickets in Toronto.

The COC’s formula—stick mainly to the classics, spice them up with the occasional provocative staging, throw in a more avant-garde piece every few years—is clearly working. As a conductor, Debus will collabo­rate with Neef to make sure it keeps working. Money-makers like Madama Butter­fly and Carmen are here to stay, but the city should prepare itself for more contemporary works. Both men are familiar with the adventurous programming of European houses, and Nixon in China, by the American composer John Adams, is scheduled for next season. Accessible and one of the few contemporary operas that’s a guaranteed success, it’s a smart choice.

In glum recessionary times, theatre-goers are eager for a dose of lunacy and exuberance. Opera is not at all a bad prescription—it’s become one of the hottest tickets in Toronto

Debus gained plenty of experience with gnarly 20th-century works at the Frankfurt Opera, where, by the time he was 27, he had risen from a rehearsal pianist to a resident conductor—a success partly owing to a childhood steeped in music. Growing up in Speyer, near the French border, he remembers fighting with his brother, who cranked Jimi Hendrix albums whenever Johannes was practising the piano. His brother became a jazz bassist, and Debus now regrets his former disdain for rock and pop (today his iPod features Feist and Michael Buble). He’s still a charmingly unselfconscious geek who is able to recite the opening verses of The Odyssey in Homeric Greek. If you ask for The Aeneid, in Virgilian Latin, he’s happy to oblige. He’ll also launch into his Great Conductor impersonations: Fritz Reiner, Richard Strauss, Leonard Bernstein (the full-body Bernstein mode comes closest to his own effusive style).

He’s not married, not dating (which may raise a few hopes locally) and not gay (which may dash a few others). He’s currently looking for a home in the city and has his eye on Queen West, though the Beach is also appealing (he enjoys studying scores while sitting on the sand and watching the waves). He’s working hard to adjust to Canada but admits that he has to get up to speed on Canadian music; R. Murray Schafer is the only Canadian composer he can name. He’s more advanced in the literature department, having read both Atwood and Richler.

He does nothing halfway. Most conductors, says Neef, don’t bother attending staging rehearsals. Debus does. He sees it as part of his job, one he describes as “setting the conditions for the musicians and singers to make music at their best—to leave them with the feeling that they’re even better than their best.” He and Neef have that chance now. They’re in charge of a superb, if cautious, opera company at a moment when the once-elitist art has become a huge hit. The city’s growing tribe of opera queens, mavens and newbies are ready for whatever they’ve got.