or years, major Toronto-based Canadian classical music companies have been hiring leaders at the highest level from prestigious opera houses in Europe and the United States.
But international leaders often have their ambitions set elsewhere, while Canadian arts leaders crave opportunities to grow and make art that resonates with the city.
While companies including the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) look abroad for leaders who move from one prestigious company to another, Toronto’s indie scene has built a sustainable landscape for Canadian classical music.
This year the COC’s General Director Alexander Neef caused tumult in Toronto, where he was—per his original contract—supposed to stay and lead the COC until the 2025/2026 opera season.
In an ambitious 2014 Strategic Plan led by Neef, the COC announced that, “by 2020/2021 the COC will be a peer to the great opera companies of the world.” Unfortunately Neef left for Paris just before the end of 2020.
“One of the problems with not hiring Canadian talent is that a lot of people look at the COC or the Canadian opera sector as a springboard for something greater, rather than as an opportunity to create something new,” Ryan McDonald, co-founder of Opera Q, said.
Opera Q, created by McDonald and co-founder Camille Rogers, is Toronto’s queer opera collective. It is also one of the city’s many independent opera companies establishing themselves in the landscape alongside monoliths in the last decade.
“The COC and the TSO are following very established institutional, entrenched models of how these organizations...have been run [for hundreds of years]. They are specifically looking at America and they are following those models of performance,” McDonald said.
“These are not just opera producers, which on the surface it can seem like they are,” McDonald said. “These are huge machines that are operated by boards that have private holding companies, as well, that have huge pieces of real estate in the most expensive city in Canada.”
In July 2019, Neef announced he would be leaving Toronto to lead the Paris Opera for the 2021/2022 season. But in the end he left Toronto a season earlier in Sept. 2020 to work both roles from Paris when Paris Opera’s leader stepped down unexpectedly.
“It would have been nice to see the Canadian general director go, ‘Hey, we can't compete with the MET and Paris National Opera—and why would we want to?’ It's not even about competing, we can be something totally different,” McDonald said.
Neef’s successor at the COC, Perryn Leech, took office in March 2021 amidst this flurry and the prolonged pandemic environment in Toronto. Leech moved from a prominent role in Texas at the Houston Grand Opera.
“Coming to a new city and learning about that community allows a fresh set of ears to listen to an audience, fresh eyes to look at the output of the company, and then a fresh voice to be added to the conversation,” wrote new General Director Leech in a statement to The Hoser.
“I am confident that the COC will be a source of pride to all Torontonians, Ontarians and Canadians, giving their voices a platform on the local and world stage,” Leech wrote.
This confidence in ability to represent ‘Torontonians’ on a local and international level is worrying to some who have been trying to understand Toronto’s voice and context for years. This concern is heightened as classical music companies struggle to stay relevant to audiences.
In 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts reported 11.6 per cent of adults in the United States attended a classical music performance. By 2017, that number fell to 8.6 per cent. While arts data in Canada is sparse, sources in classical music in Toronto confirm noticing these trends.
Understanding Toronto’s Context
“Someone said to me once that change moves at the speed of trust,” Tapestry Opera’s Executive Director Jaime Martino said. “Building trust with communities and with individuals and with cities; it takes time and every city has its own personality.”
Founded in 1979, Tapestry Opera is a hyper-local Canadian opera company noted for its steady growth in the last decade, even while other performing arts companies experience pandemic-induced existential crises.
Executive Director Martino lives in the West End of Toronto and was born and raised in Kitchener. She joined Tapestry in 2016. Prior to that, Martino was Director of Operations for Pride Toronto. In 2014 Martino was recognized by the City of Toronto for her contribution to WorldPride.
“It is important that whoever comes in if they are from outside recognizes that this is a city with a personality and that it is important for them to understand what kind of conversations are happening here,” she said.
Toronto is an important part of Tapestry’s organizational identity; both of their leaders have been part of Toronto arts and activism for years prior to their roles. The artists they hire are Canadian and so are the stories they choose to tell through opera, with 18 world premieres of original Canadian works under their belt.
“There's something about our own devaluing of homegrown talent, like: ‘if you were going to be so famous or so powerful, you would have gone to New York, or you would have gone to London,’” Martino said. “The way that we talk about Canadian talent, and our assumption that in order to be really successful, you have to leave.”
“We have a tendency...to assume that things that come from Europe are inherently more refined, or more classic, somehow,” Martino said.
While all-Mozart programs may not be the best fit for Toronto audiences, that doesn’t mean Toronto doesn’t want classical music. Standing testament to that fact are several independent opera companies in the city, including Opera Q, making the kind of art they want to see.
“The vibrancy of the indie scene [in Toronto] is really compelling,” Martino said. “The ecosystem of people making what they want to see, and then growing because other people who also want to see that, find them. I think that is absolutely beautiful and feels like a key part of what makes Toronto what it is.”
Michael Hidetoshi Mori is Tapestry’s Artistic and General Director, as well as the chair for the Association of Opera in Canada. He said he “gets excited” about how classical music can resonate with the city and how “we can turn the trend around of declining audiences that's been so consistent in the last 20 years.”
While Mori grew up in the United States and then on the West Coast of Canada, he now calls the East End of Toronto home. “I see things happening here that aren't happening in other places—not in New York, not in London. And I see leaders here that are ready for the next generation of what the world is going through,” Mori said.
Tapestry is one of 11 companies that are part of the Indie Opera Toronto collective, each one aiming to tell their part of the Toronto experience through song. They are in good, quirky company alongside companies like The Bicycle Opera Project, bringing Canadian contemporary opera to communities by bicycle.
“All of these startups essentially, in the last seven years have gone and built their own audiences and had some really significant successes. Those are the things I feel define a leader who can then take real-world knowledge from having fought their way up into becoming a very interesting leader at a larger institution,” Mori said.
Mori and Martino say they agree it's not impossible to understand Toronto’s cultural landscape as a leader coming from abroad. However, they say it’s important to understand the peculiarities of the city in which you’re creating art.
“I have no problem with traditional works; there's lots that I love. But the danger is in thinking that we can exist outside of the context of the place we're in,” Mori said. “So, if you think that this great production from Vienna is wonderful for what the world of opera thinks, there's always a danger there. Because we're here and [a production] should be because of what Toronto is.”
Mori said he acknowledges that in a time when “you can stream almost anything from your home, in your pajamas with a glass of wine” there needs to be many prospective solutions for classical music. For Tapestry, part of the solution is a local slant; Mori said he attributes the double-digit growth per year of Tapestry’s audiences over the last six years to the way the company strives to resonate with the city.
“We need to make sure we support smaller and medium-sized organizations so that we can find—or I should say grow—great Canadian leadership, outside of just coming up the ranks inside of large corporate institutions,” Mori said.
European leaders have a tendency to appoint other European leaders and continue the cycle; Neef appointed a German Music Director for the COC, Johannes Debus, during his tenure. Debus has been in the position since 2009 and conducts regularly at various German opera houses.
The TSO also imported musical leadership from Europe when hiring Spain-based Music Director Gustavo Gimeno for the 2020/2021 season and beyond. Gimeno, who signed a five-year contract with the TSO, is also currently the Music Director of the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg—an impressive juggling act, to be sure.
“There's a way to look at it, say: ‘Okay, why are there so many international artists leading in Toronto instead of Canadians? That's one way to look at it,” the TSO’s Vice President of Communications Sally Szuster said. “The other way to look at it is: Toronto is such an extraordinary city that is able to attract these global leaders who are at the top of their game.”
Gimeno himself has only been in Toronto for a handful of concerts with the TSO: “I have been working closely with TSO colleagues from my home in Amsterdam, and I am so proud of the way in which your Toronto Symphony Orchestra has adapted to the pandemic circumstances,” Gimeno wrote in the TSO’s 2019/2020 “Annual Letter to the Community.”
The TSO’s CEO Matthew Loden hails from Philadelphia, USA. These prominent roles oversee casting and hiring, strategic decisions and artistic choices.
The Diversity of the Indie Scene & The Renaissance of Classical Music
Candidates like McDonald who are establishing themselves formidably in the Toronto indie scene are increasingly common for a reason; and they’re good news for those hoping for eligible Canadian arts leaders to appear on the scene.
“Why are there so many indie opera companies? None of us are certainly in this to make any money or to save ourselves any time,” Macdonald said. “So why is it that in the city that has Canada's largest producer of opera do we also have the highest number of indie opera companies?"
"Does it speak to what opera artists are feeling, that they are not getting from Canada's largest producer?” McDonald said.
McDonald’s opera collective elevates the voice of queer Canadian opera artists because that’s the kind of opera he wanted to see one stage. He said he thinks that is the way to keep opera alive and well.
“The renaissance of classical music, the renaissance of opera—what is that going to look like? The reality is, it's not going to look like the opera that we know,” McDonald said. “As much as people love to see stars, people love to see themselves on stage as well.”
McDonald said he believes the renaissance of classical music will have to focus on Canadian art to be relevant: “It has to be Canada's voice. We certainly need Canadian leaders if we're going to see that change.”
“You hear people [say]: ‘You need stars to sell tickets,’” McDonald said. “Well, there are Canadian stars, and, if there aren’t Canadian stars, let's make the Canadian stars; but the only way they're going to become stars is if we give them the opportunity to be.”