Based in Toronto, the Canadian Opera Company is the largest producer of opera in Canada and one of the largest in North America. The company enjoys an international reputation for artistic excellence and creative innovation.
The Canadian Opera Company (COC) is based in Toronto, Ont., and is the largest producer of opera in Canada and among the largest in North America. The company presents six fully-staged productions at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing annually.
The COC’s repertoire spans the history of opera from the baroque to the 21st century and includes several commissioned works and Canadian premieres. Professional opera artists from all over the world are engaged for COC productions, including a significant number of Canadian singers, directors, conductors and designers. The company performs with its own professional Chorus and Orchestra. The company also fosters emerging Canadian talent through its Ensemble Studio, Orchestra Academy and Company-in-Residence programs.
The company’s administrative home is the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre at 227 Front St. E. in Toronto. This facility houses rehearsal spaces, workshops, administrative offices, and the intimate 450-seat Imperial Oil Opera Theatre.
The company was founded in 1950, under the name of the Royal Conservatory Opera Company, by Nicholas Goldschmidt and the late Herman Geiger-Torel. Later that year the company was re-named the Opera Festival Association of Toronto, and in 1955 the late Ettore Mazzoleni was appointed General Director.
In 1959 the company was again re-named, the Canadian Opera Association (performing under the name of Canadian Opera Company), and Geiger-Torel was appointed General Director. Under the directorship of Geiger-Torel, the company developed as the leading professional opera company in Canada.
After Geiger-Torel’s retirement in 1976, Lotfi Mansouri became General Director, and the following year the company’s name was legally changed to Canadian Opera Company. During Mansouri’s 12-year tenure, the company’s subscription base doubled and the operating budget rose from $2.68 million to $14.4 million.
In 1988, Mansouri resigned to take up the position of General Director of the San Francisco Opera. His successor, from England’s prestigious Glyndebourne Festival Opera, was Brian Dickie. Under Dickie’s leadership, an emphasis on musical standards and quality of production was central to the company’s work.
After Dickie’s resignation in 1993, the decision was made to appoint both an Artistic Director and a General Manager. Richard Bradshaw, who had been Chief Conductor and Head of Music during Dickie’s term, became the company’s Artistic Director. Elaine Calder, formerly Administrative Director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., was appointed the General Manager in June 1994, a position she held until the end of 1997. In January 1998, Richard Bradshaw was named General Director, the fifth in the company’s history. Bradshaw placed major emphasis on the theatrical values of opera. He enticed from the world of film and theatre such innovative directors as Atom Egoyan and François Girard, and continually strove to showcase the COC on the international stage. In addition, Bradshaw strengthened the musical side of the COC. The COC Orchestra and Chorus have both grown in reputation and are acknowledged as the artistic backbone of the company. The sudden passing of Richard Bradshaw in August 2007 was a great shock to the company.
In 2008, after an extensive search, German arts administrator Alexander Neef was hired as the COC’s new General Director, who in turn appointed German conductor Johannes Debus as Music Director in 2009. Neef continues to cement the COC’s reputation as world-class producer of opera, regularly bringing several international stars to the Four Seasons Centre stage and co-producing new productions with such major international companies as the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House, English National Opera, La Scala, and more.
From 1961 to 2006, most COC productions have been presented at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts (formerly the Hummingbird Centre and O’Keefe Centre) at 1 Front St. E. in Toronto. As of September 2006, all mainstage performances have taken place in Canada’s first purpose-built opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, at 145 Queen St. W. Before the construction of the Sony Centre, performances were given in a variety of venues, including the University of Toronto’s Hart House Theatre, the YMCA, the YWHA and the Royal Conservatory of Music. For a number of seasons the Royal Alexandra Theatre was the COC’s home. Since the 1990/1991 season, some performances have also taken place at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto.
One of the COC’s most far-reaching achievements was the creation of SURTITLESTM. This technology provides a simultaneous translation of the opera’s text, projected above the proscenium arch, and was first used in the COC’s production of Elektra in 1983. Audience reaction was very positive and since then companies around the world have adopted SURTITLESTM or similar titling technologies.
The long awaited announcement for the COC’s new home was made in July 2002. Ground-breaking for the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts took place on April 11, 2003 and inaugural celebrations took place in June 2006. The opera house, situated at the southeast corner of Queen Street and University Avenue, is a 2000-seat theatre specifically designed for opera and ballet with the finest possible level of acoustics. The contemporary expression of a traditional five-tiered, European horseshoe-shaped auditorium provides unparalleled intimacy between the audience and the stage. A glittering five-storey transparent Isadore & Rosalie Sharp City Room faces University Avenue, encouraging the public to experience the artistic life of the building through regular informal public recitals and performances. This first Canadian purpose-built opera house is designed by the award-winning Toronto-based firm Diamond Schmitt Architects.
The COC’s Die Walküre, opened in 2004, and launched Richard Wagner’s monumental Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen), never before produced by a Canadian opera company. The combination of extraordinary artists on the team was an enormous achievement and guaranteed to create a Ring Cycle unmatched in the world. Canadian film and theatre directors Atom Egoyan and François Girard, Canadian designer Michael Levine, and Toronto-area resident, esteemed theatre and opera director Tim Albery, each directed one of the four operas that comprise the Ring Cycle. COC General Director Richard Bradshaw conducted and production designer Michael Levine designed the sets and costumes for all four productions. With a generous lead gift from Kolter Communities, the total cost of the production was $15 million, which was funded through ticket sales, a special Ring fundraising campaign, project grants from the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund and the COC’s operating budget. The complete Ring Cycle was performed as the first production in the new opera house in September 2006.
The COC’s first touring production was The Barber of Seville, which in 1958 was presented in the Maritime provinces. Since then, COC productions have been seen in every Canadian province and territory, and in 45 American states.
Of particular importance was the company’s 1975 tour to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., where Louis Riel, by Canadian composer Harry Somers, was presented as a bicentennial gift to the United States from Canada.
The company’s first tour outside continental North America was in 1984 to the Bermuda Festival, where the COC Ensemble Studio performed The Merry Widow.
In 1993, the COC mounted its double bill production of Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York and at the Edinburgh International Festival. The following year, this production was presented in Australia at the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts, and in 1996 it was seen at the Hong Kong Arts Festival.
In August 2002, the COC returned to the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival to perform Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with Symphony of Psalms to enormous critical acclaim.
In June 2007, the COC returned to Ottawa after a 29-year absence for Opera under the Stars, two free concerts on June 29 and 30 at LeBreton Flats Park. The concerts inaugurated the National Capital Commission’s new festival park, LeBreton Flats, and also commemorated the 150th anniversary of the choice of the nation’s capital.
In 2010, the COC again toured to the renowned Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York with Robert Lepage’s acclaimonce ed production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, set to the music of Stravinsky. The company returned in 2015 for the U.S. premiere of director Zhang Huan’s production of Handel’s Semele.
The Canadian Opera Company’s administrative home at 227 Front St. E. in Toronto is situated in a group of factory and warehouse buildings that date from the 19th century. The COC purchased these buildings in 1985 and embarked on an extensive program of renovation and reconfiguration. The complex was renovated at a cost of $10 million. A private capital fundraising campaign was successful in raising much of the renovation cost, with a substantial lead gift from Joey and Toby Tanenbaum. In addition to their donation towards the restoration of the buildings, the Tanenbaum family also donated the mosaic in the box office lobby and the Max Tanenbaum Courtyard Gardens, located behind the administrative offices.
Phase I of the renovation was completed in November 1985, and now houses the 450-seat Imperial Oil Opera Theatre and facilities for rehearsal, coaching, workshops and receptions. Phase II, containing the administrative offices, box office, the Margo Sandor Music Library and the Joan Baillie Archives, as well as workshops for properties, costumes, wigs and make-up, was completed in December 1987.
The COC’s sets are constructed in the COC’s Scene Shop on Melita Avenue in Toronto’s west end, and are stored in a former airplane hangar in Picton, Ontario.
The COC is committed to providing education and outreach opportunities for adults, youth and children. Programs range from informative talks and symposiums to interactive workshops and behind-the-scenes events, many of which are free to the public. The COC also presents its popular Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, an annual opera for families and custom school workshops.
In addition to events taking place at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, the COC partners with locations across the city, including libraries, community centres, schools and even pubs.
To learn more about the company’s current education and outreach offerings, click here.
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (2016). Photo: Sam Javanrouh; Alexander Neef, photo: Bo Huang; Johannes Debus, photo: Bo Huang;