A Prelude:

Dr. Eugene Benson,

I thank you for writing an excellent letter. And, thank you, for an incredible blueprint to follow for the survival of new Canadian operas.

As a proud member of the production team that realized a new and wonderful Canadian opera, I was the Stage Manager of the world premiere of Heloise and Abelard at the Canadian Opera Company.

I am eternally grateful for the wisdom of Herman Geiger-Torel, (a mentor of mine); he truly believed in and clearly demonstrated his support for new Canadian operas. RIP “Papa Torel”.

An Overture:

A serious petition for action:

Herr Alexander Neef:

Als jetzt “frisch gebackenen”, permanente Wohnsitz in Kanada, ich bitte Sie, sich aktiv, zu Herzen zu nehmen, diese weisen Worte von Ihrem Landsmann, und der ehemalige Generaldirektor der Canadian Opera Company, Herman Geiger-Torel, (geboren – Frankfurt-am-Main). As a now, “newly minted”, permanent Canadian resident, I ask you to actively, take to heart these wise words of your fellow countryman, and, former General Director of the Canadian Opera Company, Herman Geiger-Torel, (born – Frankfurt-am-Main).

HGT: “I came to realize …it was best that we concentrate, for the time being at least, on performances of new Canadian operas and give our own composers a chance to write and see their works performed. The box office risk would be the same but the stimulus for Canadian music of inestimable value.”


Susan Weiss

PS: Herr Neef, pursuant to this: “Arrell also explained that the financial risks of presenting new Canadian work are too great at this time.”; how do you justify taking a $1M+ risk with the commission of Hadrian to be composed by pop music composer Rufus Wainwright, (up to now), an unproven Canadian opera composer?

The Epilogue:

Here is Dr. Benson’s entire letter originally posted by John Terauds, #Musical Toronto http://www.musicaltoronto.org

“Benson writes that he did get a response from H.A. Arrell, President of the Canadian Opera Company, on Oct. 15, who defended Alexander Neef’s championing of Canadian singers who would otherwise only get work outside Canada. Arrell also explained that the financial risks of presenting new Canadian work are too great at this time”.

17 September 2013

Mr Philip C. Deck


The Canadian Opera Company

227 Front St. E.

Toronto, ON  M5A 1E8

Dear Mr  Deck,

Following discussion with a number of colleagues whose advice I value, I write to you about my concerns with the CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY’s sorry record in programming Canadian content, and, more particularly, with the management style of its General Manager, Alexander Neef.

Because the COC is heavily subsidized by the Canadian taxpayer, receiving grants that in the period 1993 to 2013 would run, in present day terms, to hundreds of millions of dollars,  it would seem not unreasonable that the Company would play a significant role in fostering new work by Canadian composers. After all, the company is not named the Toronto Opera Company but rather claims a national identity and mandate. Writing in The Globe and Mail (6 Sept. 2012) the paper’s music critic Kate Taylor made the same point: “…in the music community, the lack of Canadian work at the COC is a subject of heated  debate.”  A look at the record confirms that the COC has failed the Canadian public in its neglect of Canadian opera.

In a 1975 publication Remembered Moments of The Canadian Opera Company 1950-1975, the COC’s General Director Herman Geiger-Torel wrote:  “I came to realize …it was best that we concentrate, for the time being at least, on performances of new Canadian operas  and give our own composers a chance to write and see their works performed. The box office risk would be the same but the stimulus for Canadian music of inestimable value.”

Geiger-Torel was as good as his word. He commissioned and premiered such Canadian operas as Deirdre (1966),  The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1967), Louis Riel (1967),  and Heloise and Abelard (1971), and the short operas The Spirit of Fundy (1972) and The Glove (1973).  At the much smaller organization — the Guelph Spring Festival — Nicholas Goldschmidt did the same thing, commissioning four operas:  Seabird Island (1977), Psycho Red (1978), Crazy to Kill (1988), and Saint Carmen of the Main (1989). Additionally, the GSF commissioned some 30 other major musical works by Canadian composers between 1966 and 1992.

The record of the Canadian Opera Company following Geiger-Torel’s retirement in 1976 stands in shocking contrast to that of Geiger-Torel’s COC and the GSF. In the intervening years only one opera has been commissioned and performed — The Golden Ass (1999). When Mr Neef assumed leadership of the COC in 2005 there was hope that that he would foster original Canadian work. But Canadians, especially Canadian composers and librettists, have been gravely disappointed. Mr Neef is on record as saying that it will not be until 2017 at earliest that he may present, not a newly commissioned Canadian opera, but Louis Riel, premiered by Geiger-Torel fifty years ago!  Neef has argued that because government funding for Canadian opera companies falls far below what some European countries provide the risk in commissioning and present new operas is too great. The example of Geiger-Torel’s COC and the GSF in funding new Canadian operas contradicts such a specious argument. New and imaginative strategies in budgeting for new work (an area in which I have experience) can allow companies to overcome the myth that premiering new opera is prohibitively expensive. Geiger-Torel, as noted above, wrote that “the box office risk would be the same.”

Mr. Neef may argue that that there are too few Canadian operas to allow him to plan for the inclusion of Canadian content. The obvious answer is to commission new work.

The question now arises as to why the COC does not do so. A partial answer is that what is known colloquially as the “colonial cringe” still persists in certain areas of the Ontario cultural scene.  For people like Neef, opera is written by Europeans, very occasionally Americans,  but not by Canadians; unfortunately, members of the Board of the COC seem to have bought into this notion. But when the colonial cringe is overcome wonderful things can happen. In the 1960s Canadian dramatists and directors and Canadian writers and publishers, repulsed by the prevailing cultural colonialism and inspired by a strong sense of nationalism, discovered  their authentic Canadian voice and changed in an astonishing way the entire national literary landscape and the consciousness of the nation.

One could forgive Mr. Neef, coming as he does from Europe, for not being familiar with the Canadian musical scene. But there is no evidence of him reaching out to Canadian musicians who might advise him in this important matter and there is no evidence of him responding to Canadian composers who have approached him about writing for the COC. Randolph Peters, composer of The Golden Ass, who has also written music for a new opera Inanna (libretto by Margaret Atwood, commissioned by the COC’s Richard Bradshaw), has been quoted by Kate Taylor as saying “he did not see enough interest at the COC” in his work.  Neef claims he cannot judge Inanna until it is finished. Unglaublich!.  When Geiger-Torel commissioned Charles Wilson to write the grand opera Heloise and Abelard  he did so after listening to parts of the piano score played for him by Wilson one afternoon.  When John Cripton commissioned Wilson and Eugene Benson to write the opera The Summoning of Everyman (performed at Dalhousie University, the Stratford Festival, and by Opera in Canada), he did not ask to see the completed score. When San Franciso Opera premiered Adams’ and Sellars’ Doctor Atomic it did not ask its creators for the complete work in order to approve its commissioning.  The very fact that Margaret Atwood had written the libretto to Inanna should have tipped Neef off to pay more attention to Peters and his proposed opera. After all, the Danish Royal Opera Company had already commissioned and premiered to great success in 2000 an opera based on Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A Canadian advisory committee might have alerted him to investigate the matter more thoroughly.

My own experience with Neef echoes Peters’ dissatisfaction and reveals, I am sorry to say, Neef’s lack of interest in Canadian composers and librettists. In February 2009 and again on 13 July 2009 I wrote to Mr Neef offering him two libretti that I had recently written, the first titled The De Profundis of Oscar Wilde, the second The Birthday of the Infanta. I told him that I could possibly interest Charles Wilson in writing the music but that he was free to pick the composer. The fact that both works were indebted to the writings of  Oscar Wilde would guarantee name recognition by the opera goers — more so, for example, than that of the opera L’amour de loin by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho,  presented by Neef in the COC’s  2012 season. Since Wilson and I had written Heloise and Abelard to commemorate the COC’s birthday,  an opera highly praised by The Times’ music critic, I thought my proposal would be welcomed. I regret to say that I did not even receive the professional courtesy of a reply.

Undaunted, I wrote again to Mr Neef  (with copy to Johannes Debus, COC’s Music Director) on 26 July 2013 offering him a new opera EARNEST, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING.  I made Neef aware that the composer Victor Davies was highly regarded in Canadian musical services (his full length opera Transit of Venus, 2007, had been commissioned and premiered by Manitoba Opera and broadcast by  CBC Radio) and that I was an experienced librettist (I sent him a brief c.v),  I pointed to previous productions of EARNEST (at Stratford Summer Music and Toronto Operetta Theatre), and I offered to provide both Neef and Debus with the finished libretto and a complete video recording of the work.  (This offer is still open to Mr Neef and Mr Debus, as it is to members of the COC’s Board.)  I regret to say that once again I did not receive the professional courtesy of a reply.  I add parenthetically that when The Auction, libretto by me, music by John Burge, was premiered by the Westben Arts Festival in 2012 I made sure that invitations to attend were sent to Neef and Debus. It will not surprise you to learn that neither attended even though the score was by Burge, a Juno-Award winner for classical music. I have no quarrel with Neef twittering from South America that he was checking out opera there, but I would have preferred he do so in Ontario in the company of  Wayne Gooding, editor of the journal Opera Canada, who did attend the premiere of The Auction and in the 2012 Fall issue of the journal praised it as  “a poignant and engaging piece that will resonate with audiences well beyond Westben’s farmyard setting.”  The Toronto Star’s music critic John Terauds cut to the point in his review: “it is mystifying that one has to leave Toronto in order to see the premiere of a new, full-length opera.” There is no mystery for those who have tried to have dealings with Mr Neef of the COC. A number of distinguished Canadian composers have told me they have given up on the idea of the COC ever entertaining seriously the creation of new Canadian opera.

I have dwelt at some length on this matter because I believe firmly that the Board of the COC has a responsibility to both the company and Canadian opera patrons to recognize that integral to its mandate is the encouragement and nourishing of opera by Canadian composers and librettist. Accordingly, I would ask you to copy this letter to your Board members as soon as is feasible for discussion and action. I would also ask the Board to discuss the following recommendations/suggestions that I believe would help it to discharge its duty in this respect: 1. Establish immediately a small committee with expertise in opera and an informed awareness of the Canadian musical scene to advise Mr. Neef on commissioning and producing opera written by Canadian composers and librettists.

2. Devise a simple procedure whereby composers and librettists who contact the COC concerning possible production of their work receive acknowledgement of their enquiry and a response as to whether the COC is interested in their proposal.

3. Agree that a full length Canadian opera be commissioned and premiered by the COC not later than the 2017/18 season.

4. Agree that it will be COC’s stated policy to premiere a new full-length opera written by Canadian composers and librettists in at least every fourth season.

5. That the COC sponsor and organize within the next twelve months (and not later than September 2014) a national weekend meeting/symposium of composers, librettists, senior personnel connected with the production of opera in Canada, and representatives of the COC and the OAC to develop ideas and plans that can be of help in furthering the COC’s policy of premiering new Canadian operas  and advancing the cause of  Canadian opera in Canada as a whole. A central feature of this symposium should be concerned with the economics of staging new work which (I am convinced, from experience) means the invention of new and original budgetary strategies to make this eminently feasible.

6. Should the Board feel that it cannot commit itself to a stated policy of committing itself to the development of Canadian opera along the lines described above, it should consider dropping its present title (officially adopted only in 1977) because it is misleading and is likely to create in some circles the impression that the COC actually does present Canadian work.

I close by saying that I take no pleasure in writing this letter. I have been an opera lover for more than sixty years; I knew and admired Herman Geiger-Torel; at the Guelph Spring Festival I served for over twenty years in various capacities — as President, Vice President, board member, and administrative director; I was a personal friend of Ruby Mercer, an American lady, who founded the journal Opera Canada partly to further the cause of opera created by Canadian composers and librettists. This partially explains why I write this letter. The  COC’s present company is of a very high calibre — it would, I am certain, take great delight in performing work written by fellow Canadian composers and librettists rather than in accompanying yet another director’s version of Carmen or La Traviata.

I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.

With all good wishes,

Yours sincerely,

(Dr)  Eugene Benson

Copies:    Joseph L. Rotman, Chair, the Canada Council;  Martha Durdin, Chair, the Ontario Arts Council;  H.A. Arrell, President, The Canadian Opera Company.