The Wizards of Opera: how two dapper Germans made Toronto fall in love with opera

The Wizards of Opera: how two dapper Germans made Toronto fall in love with opera

Alexander Neef and Johannes Debus have turned the COC into a thriving opera company by attracting international divas and staging grand new productions.

The Wizards of Opera: how two dapper Alexander Neef and Johannes Debus made Toronto fall in love with opera
Johannes Debus, the COC’s music director, and Alexander Neef, the general director, at the Four Seasons Centre

One saturday last October, the Canadian tenor Ben Heppner wasn’t feeling his best. It wasn’t serious—a mild vocal inflammation—but he was a few days away from singing the title role of Benjamin ­Britten’s Peter Grimes, one of his signature roles, at the Canadian Opera ­Company. Grimes is a dark, difficult opera. He was reluctant to give a less than perfect performance.

When Alexander Neef got the news that his star wouldn’t be able to sing, he quickly set about finding a replacement. The COC’s 39-year-old general director is almost preternaturally composed—the walking stereotype of a particular kind of dignified, unflappable German. Neef wears fitted Hugo Boss suits and keeps his dark hair scrupulously parted in a Don Draper–ish sheen. When he meets you, he offers you his hand in such a courtly manner—well above waist level, palm angled almost parallel to the ground—that you feel for a moment as if you should clasp it gratefully and press it to your lips. All this to say: it is difficult to imagine Neef freaking out. And, of course, he didn’t.

In his four years as casting director at the Paris Opera, Neef had been forced to replace performers countless times. Once, a singer told him at 2:30 that he’d be unable to perform that evening. “We put one singer on a plane in Switzerland and another in Germany and said, ‘Whoever gets here first gets to sing,’ ” Neef remembers. In his first season in Toronto, the American tenor Jon Villars had given the conductor the finger in the middle of a public dress rehearsal and stormed offstage. Neef recast him immediately. No one is irreplaceable, he says. “The truth is, there’s always somebody. You just need to find him.”

Johannes Debus, the COC’s music director, and Alexander Neef, the general director, at the Four Seasons Centre
Neef with the musician Rufus Wainwright and Luminato artistic director Jorn Weisbrodt (Image: Eye Contact Photography)

Finding someone near Toronto who could sing Peter Grimes is trickier than it is in Paris, where the world’s great opera houses are all a two-hour flight away. The meticulous Neef prides himself on his encyclopedic knowledge of singers, keeping an internal tally of who is singing where, which tenor can handle what role, where to find a Verdi soprano in October. He knew that the American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who had sung Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera, was rehearsing in Houston. Calls were made, and within hours the singer was on a plane to Toronto.

Upon arrival, Griffey was hustled into the dressing room of Johannes Debus, the young German conductor who has been the COC’s music director since 2009. Debus walked Griffey through a few passages, jumping to certain corners of the piece to make sure the tempo worked. A rehearsal that would usually run several months was condensed to two hours.

When Griffey took the stage that evening, he kept an eye on his conductor, and the two of them made their way through the show. On opening night, with Heppner still unavailable, Griffey performed to rave reviews. “What could have been a tragedy wound up as a triumph,” the Star’s Richard Ouzounian wrote. Britten’s 1945 opera about a prickly loner in a fishing village—not an obvious crowd-pleaser—was a hit.

Johannes Debus, the COC’s music director, and Alexander Neef, the general director, at the Four Seasons Centre
With COC board chair Philip Deck and board member Trinity Jackman (Image: David Cox)

Ever since Neef arrived, he has been pulling off similarly impressive behind-the-scenes feats. He’s organized important co-productions with La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera, lured estimable directors like Peter Sellars, whose Tristan und Isolde was the high point of last season, and hired Debus, who became an instant hit with audiences. And he’s done all of this at a precarious time in the history of opera. In the last few years, at least nine companies across North America have shut down, including the venerable New York City Opera. The Canadian Opera Company experienced a surge in popularity in the first few years after it inhabited its glitzy new home at Queen and University in 2006. Now that the building has lost its novelty appeal, the two dapper Germans are doing everything they can to ensure that the opera remains one of the city’s hottest cultural destinations.

Seven years ago, Alexander Neef knew next to nothing about Canada and even less about the Canadian Opera Company. Toronto opera fans, for their part, had never heard of Neef.

In 2007, Richard Bradshaw, the British-born conductor who was in charge of all administrative and musical decisions at the COC, had just completed the greatest season of his life. He’d opened the company’s new home, the Four Seasons Centre, and staged the first-ever Canadian production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Bradshaw was a larger-than-life ­character who seemed to have single-­handedly brought a new opera house to the city through sheer force of personality—­pushing civic leaders, glad-handing donors and passionately making the case for opera in Toronto. “When Richard Bradshaw walked into a dark theatre, you could feel his energy walk in,” says Liz Upchurch, the long-serving head of the Ensemble Studio, the COC’s training program.

Johannes Debus, the COC’s music director, and Alexander Neef, the general director, at the Four Seasons Centre
With the filmmaker Atom Egoyan (Image: David Cox)

In August, after returning from a holiday in the Maritimes, Bradshaw suffered a massive, fatal heart attack at Pearson airport. He was 63. The COC’s managing director, Robert Lamb, still remembers the phone call he got telling him that Bradshaw had died. Lamb rushed over to the opera’s offices on Front Street to tell the staff the news before it could leak out.

While the company grieved the loss, it soon became clear the COC needed two people to do what Bradshaw did alone: a music director, who is responsible for the ensemble and orchestra, and a general director to act as the public face of the company and oversee its artistic direction and budgets. They sent out headhunters to bring back some names for a new general director. One of the names was Alexander Neef.

On paper, Neef didn’t look overwhelmingly impressive. He was casting director at the Paris Opera then—a difficult job at a prestigious organization but not a role that demonstrated he was capable of running an opera company on his own. And coming from Europe, where public funding still accounts for a large portion of an opera company’s budget, he lacked any experience doing the kind of aggressive fundraising required of a North American general director. While Bradshaw had been charming and gregarious, Neef was reserved, even shy. And he was just 34, the youngest person on the short list.

Johannes Debus, the COC’s music director, and Alexander Neef, the general director, at the Four Seasons Centre
With the composer Kaija Saariaho (Image: David Cox)

Face-to-face, however, it was clear to all the members of the search committee that they were talking to an intelligent, ambitious man with a deep knowledge of opera. Going far beyond what had been asked of him, Neef gave a detailed presentation that laid out two future seasons. There was repertoire, suggested casts that included top-notch talent, ideas about international directors. It was a tantalizing vision of what the COC could be—not just a great opera house for Canada, but a great opera house full stop. The board was willing to take a chance on Neef.

Neef has the regal bearing of someone born into a world of high art. In fact, he is from a tiny village of 2,000 people called Rosswälden, east of Stuttgart. His father worked as a printer while his mother took care of him and his sister. “They had no inclination to classical music or high art,” he says of his parents. “I’m really the odd bird of the family.”

When he was about nine, Neef heard opera on the radio for the first time and was transfixed. He began taping it from the radio, then buying the libretti so that he could pore over the pieces on his own. At 13 he saw his first live opera, a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio that left him breathless.

Neef went to the University of Tübingen to study Latin and history, with the goal of becoming a schoolteacher. While there, he spent much of his time voraciously consuming operas, three or four performances a week. He would watch the same opera multiple times, listen to different singers perform the same role, make mental notes on the differences between them.

He gravitated toward a group of musicologists and musicians at university. When his friends went to Berlin to start a kind of academy for music theatre, Neef visited them and met Gerard Mortier, then head of the Salzburg Festival. ­Mortier took a liking to Neef and his group of eager young friends, and hired some of them to work in Salzburg. When Mortier became general director of the Paris Opera, he brought Neef, by then 30, with him, making the kid from Rosswälden the casting director of one of the most prestigious opera companies in the world.

When people talk about Neef today, one of the first things they mention is his extraordinary ear. Sondra Radvanovsky, the great Verdi soprano, says he is a true connoisseur of human voices. “Other people might be raving about a voice and he’ll say, ‘Mmm, but I hear this, this and this.’ And later I’ll think, ‘Darned if he isn’t right.’ ” She remembers performing once while feeling slightly under the weather. Afterward Neef came backstage to pay his respects. “The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Sondra, are you feeling all right?’ I said it was just a bit of a cold, and he said, ‘Yes, but I heard it. These few notes just weren’t quite right.’ It was amazing. No one else noticed.”

Johannes Debus, the COC’s music director, and Alexander Neef, the general director, at the Four Seasons Centre
Debus and Neef at a 2009 COC gala (Image: Courtesy of COC)

The essence of opera, Neef likes to say, is “a voice in space.” Everything else, onstage and off, has to support that voice. When Neef arrived in Toronto, one of his first goals was to bring better voices to the COC. “The programming was good, but it could be better,” he says bluntly. “I came from a big international company with high standards and I thought: let’s do that here.”

Before, the COC had been hamstrung by its location. The Hummingbird Centre was a barn of a building, a legendarily awful place to perform opera because of its acoustics. When searching for talent, the company had to find singers who had never performed there before, then immediately sign them to sing two operas. “Once they sang the first time they wouldn’t sign up to sing another,” says Philip Deck, the head of the board.

But the company had structural problems, too, planning seasons two or three years ahead while the great opera companies of the world scheduled theirs five years in advance and booked all the best singers. Neef fixed that. He also took advantage of his European connections to woo singers who had never before considered performing in Toronto.

In his time at the COC, Neef has significantly improved the quality of singing onstage. He’s booked homegrown stars like Adrianne Pieczonka, Ben Heppner and Jane Archibald, and lured international powerhouses like Susan Graham, ­Sir Thomas Allen, Ekaterina Gubanova and ­Ferruccio ­Furlanetto. “He’s very charming,” says Radvanovsky, “He can talk anybody into coming here.”

When Neef arrived at the COC, he and the board decided there was no reason to rush hiring a music director. The plan was to watch guest conductors who made their way through town over the next two years, then make a list of candidates and go from there.

On October 1, Neef’s first working day, the company was in the midst of rehearsing Prokofiev’s masterpiece War and Peace, a sprawling three-and-a-half-hour opera that involves more than 200 singers and instrumentalists. The company had hired Debus, an impressive 34-year-old freelance baton who had spent time as a resident conductor in Frankfurt. It was a rushed job. When he flew into Toronto, he felt unprepared and nervous about tackling a complicated new piece with an unfamiliar orchestra.

Johannes Debus, the COC’s music director, and Alexander Neef, the general director, at the Four Seasons Centre
With philanthropist Anne Arrell and businesswoman Clare Christensen (Image: Ryan Emberley)

The meeting between Debus and the COC orchestra and chorus was a mutual love affair. “It was a coup de foudre,” says violinist Marie Bérard, the COC’s concertmaster. “The guy just completely beguiled us.”

Debus is a trim, handsome conductor who speaks about music with dorky enthusiasm. When he conducts, it’s with his entire body. His face takes on a beseeching look of sweetness—eyebrows arched, chin raised—as he tries to coax a lightness from the violins before rising to his toes and slashing his baton through the air, head quivering, to provoke a fortissimo passage.

From their first rehearsals, Debus brought ideas about the score but was open to collaborating with the musicians. He spoke the Russian text with a perfect accent, astounding Russian members of the orchestra, and had such a phenomenal memory that he was quickly referring to each musician by name.

Liz Upchurch remembers watching him at work on War and Peace. “Johannes was so in charge and so eloquent and so musical and so entrenched in what the piece, the drama and the music needed,” she says. “We were seriously blown away by him.”

Debus’s debut was a triumph. At the opening night reception, Bérard and principal cellist Bryan Epperson cornered Neef, imploring him to make the young conductor their new music director. The thought had already occurred to Neef, and he spent the weekend considering it. He didn’t want to rush an appointment, but Debus was a rare find. What if they kept seeing people for the next two years, never saw anyone better and watched as Debus was snatched up by another company?

Two weeks into the run of the opera, Neef invited Debus to lunch at Veritas on King East. Debus was expecting a general conversation, perhaps an invitation to conduct a piece in the future. When Neef asked him to be the company’s music director, he nearly fell out of his chair. “My jaw dropped,” Debus remembers. He said yes.

Johannes Debus, the COC’s music director, and Alexander Neef, the general director, at the Four Seasons Centre
Debus with the former governor general Adrienne Clarkson (Image: Chris Hutchinson)

Under Neef and Debus, the COC’s stature in the world has steadily grown. The orchestra sounds better than ever—the sight of the sprightly Debus at the podium has become one of the pleasures of going to the opera—and Neef has brought in the productions needed to take advantage of the strengths he inherited from Richard Bradshaw: the hall, the orchestra and a strong chorus. Co-productions with the Met would have been unimaginable a decade ago. “The COC has moved from being a company of national importance to a company of international importance,” says Marc Scorca, the president of the opera umbrella organization Opera America. “It has become a leading company in terms of the quality and creativity of what it puts onstage.”

Since Debus joined his countryman in Toronto, the joke in the classical music world is that the company should be called the Deutsche Oper am Ontario See: the German Opera on Lake Ontario. The two men were born in southern Germany just a month apart. Both are cosmopolitan, polyglot globetrotters, with a shared set of cultural references. Also, they enjoy one another’s company. They’ll get a drink after a performance or catch a movie together.

Neef and Debus have taken to the city, delving into the cultural scene and watching with awe as the skyline around their place of work has grown thick with new buildings. Debus recently moved from his downtown condo to a place at St. Clair and Yonge. Two years ago, he began dating Elissa Lee, a Torontonian freelance ­violinist who has taken him to the city’s pho restaurants and to the suburbs for Korean food. For the conductor, who grew up in Speyer and developed his love of music in a cathedral 800 years older than this country, Toronto feels fresh—young and full of possibility.

Neef came to Toronto with his wife, ­Eloise Bellemont, but the couple separated two years ago. For the past few months, he’s been dating a Toronto businesswoman named Clare Christensen, who accompanies him on his hectic ­schedule of orchestra performances and concerts, galas and fundraisers.

Being the general director of an institution like the COC is a strange position. Beyond the day-to-day business of running an opera company, a director is required to be something of a mascot and master of ceremonies. Like any cultural pursuit—from punk music to indie theatre—much of the fun of going to the opera is being part of a scene. At the COC, this scene, at its upper echelons, consists of Rosedale lawyers, top bankers, tech entrepreneurs. Opera subscribers hold cocktail parties with Neef as a guest of honour. They take seminars where they spend the weekend at the Rosedale Golf Club learning about a single opera. Part of Neef’s job is to act as a kind of host in this world, ensuring that the social sphere of the opera is a fun and glamorous place to be.

Neef has set about mastering the world of Toronto’s donors and opera lovers. Fewer people are buying single tickets to the opera than in previous decades, but more wealthy people are willing to become donors—to get involved, attend the galas, get behind-the-scenes perks and hobnob with the general director. The Jackman Lounge at the Four Seasons Centre, an expansive glass-walled room with a private bar overlooking Osgoode Hall, is open to donors who have given more than $2,250. At intermission on performance nights, Neef is there without fail, dressed impeccably, working the room. Anne ­Maggisano is a 38-year-old investment counsellor who became a board member last fall. “He asks us what we thought, introduces us to the opera,” she says. “It’s comforting because he’s always there. If you’re going to the opera you know that you’re going to speak to Alexander.”

Johannes Debus, the COC’s music director, and Alexander Neef, the general director, at the Four Seasons Centre
With violinist Elissa Lee, arts manager Kira Perov and her artist husband, Bill Viola (Image: David Cox)

When Neef met Atom Egoyan a few years ago, he suggested the director take a shot at Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Egoyan demurred. He was busy making movies, and a comic opera about fiancée swapping didn’t appeal to him. Over the years, Neef continued to buttonhole him, explaining how his conception of the piece dovetailed with the kind of themes Egoyan had explored in his movie Chloe, until the director finally agreed to take on the work. More recently, when Neef mentioned to Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul that the company was working on remounting the Canadian opera Louis Riel, Saul suggested Neef have a look at the Riel book in his ­Extraordinary Canadians series. The next time they met, Neef had read not only the Riel volume, but a half-dozen others as well, eager to absorb as much information about his adopted country as possible.

An opera season is always an uneasy balance of experimentation and familiarity. You need the hits that will bring in the novice fans, but you also need to provide something new and exciting for the veterans who don’t want to see yet another performance of Madama Butterfly. Neef has programmed a contemporary piece, L’amour de loin by the ­Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, and has also made it clear he isn’t interested in mere “costume parties,” pushing for modern productions of old classics with varying degrees of success. While Tristan und Isolde with video art by Bill Viola was a hit, some audience members were scandalized by the Aida in which the Ethiopian princess appeared as a dreary contemporary cleaning woman.

Recently, Neef announced that the COC will debut an original work in the fall 2018 season, the company’s first new piece since 1999. Hadrian, by Rufus ­Wainwright with a libretto by playwright Daniel MacIvor, will tell the story of the Roman emperor and his young lover Antinous. When Antinous drowned in the Nile, a bereft Hadrian had him proclaimed a god, erecting temples to him across the empire.

Wainwright and his husband, German-born Luminato artistic director Jorn Weisbrodt, are friends of Neef’s, and the choice to commission a work from Wainwright has been met with some skepticism. His first opera, Prima Donna, which debuted in Manchester and made its way to Luminato, was widely criticized. The New York Times called it a “mystifying failure.” Neef says Hadrian could cost approximately $4 million, a million more than a normal production. A celebrity composer offers some small measure of insurance. While the COC remains one of the few North American companies that hasn’t been forced to slash its budget, the attendance trends are troubling. During the 2009–10 season, the company sold 137,000 tickets, earning $13.4 million. By last season, sales and revenues were down to 114,000 tickets and $10 million.

The dip is part of what board members talk about as the “new house effect” wearing out. Now, the COC’s success depends entirely on what Neef puts up onstage.

On a cold Sunday in November, Neef and Debus were at the COC’s offices on Front Street, waiting to meet a group of young singers who were auditioning for a spot in the Ensemble Studio program. In a bit of savvy programming, the company had decided to turn the closed auditions into an American Idol–style evening—a gala event where funders and opera fans could see the talented young hopefuls sing on the stage supported by Debus and the entire orchestra. On this day, the singers would meet the two directors, run through their performance pieces with Debus and do their best to make a good impression.

Johannes Debus, the COC’s music director, and Alexander Neef, the general director, at the Four Seasons Centre
Neef with tenor Ben Heppner (Image: Joey Lopez)

Sitting in a lofty rehearsal studio with Liz Upchurch at the grand piano, the two men had an easy rapport. Between singers they murmured to one another in German and laughed as Debus made music geek jokes about opera stars on YouTube or the notion of singing an octave lower than the score.

The singers nervously presented themselves to the panel of two, trying to address them both simultaneously. Debus was the more talkative, giving singers specific and sometimes baffling notes and leaping to his feet to conduct when he felt inspired. “Donde, donde,” he urged a soprano. “Dip your ‘N.’ ” He asked a baritone to find the heartbeat of the piece. “Have you been to New Orleans when they have a funeral?” he asked. The singer said he had not. “Me neither, but I believe you can see this in one of the James Bond films, I’m not sure which. This is the kind of pulse we’re looking for.”

Neef spoke less frequently, but when he did it could sometimes be cuttingly direct. “You have to exaggerate so the song gets over the pit,” he said to a young soprano who had sung very prettily but without the kind of attention to the text Debus and Neef were looking for. He added: “And I’d like to hear one ‘P’ from you before you leave this room.” The singer nodded eagerly, a painful smile plastered across her face.

Listening to one soprano, a Québécoise brunette with a rich, beautiful voice who kept taking tiny liberties with the rhythm of her aria, Neef interrupted. She needed to establish the tempo, he said. “I think part of the problem is you do the consonants right in the front of your mouth and the vowels are in the back. I think because you’re going from front to back technically you’re falling behind your own conception of the piece,” he said her. “Dare to be rhythmically far more consistent,” added Debus.

She tried it again, enthusiastically, this time sticking closer to the rhythm. They stopped her again, got her to repeat a passage. Debus was making miniscule adjustments, trying to squeeze the tiniest bit more emotion and dramatic clarity from the way an Italian word was pronounced a fraction of a beat earlier or the smallest swell. They were in danger of going over time, holding up their Sunday afternoon, but they were enjoying themselves. Two days from now, they would both be dressed in tails, entertaining the top-level donors at the gala event, providing the kind of backstage access patrons crave. Now, however, they were just working with music. It was a rare thing—to see a group of highly trained individuals working together in the simple pursuit of making something more beautiful.

Upchurch played the opening notes on the piano again and the singer started up. Debus leapt to his feet and walked over to the piano, conducting the young soprano and her accompanist. In his seat, Neef rocked with the music, moving his arms in time. The aria, Handel’s “Piangerò la sorte mia,” is a lush piece that sounds as if it could be a love song but is actually a plangent song of betrayal. The soprano filled it with emotion. It was gorgeous—a beautiful voice in space.