Canadian Opera Company | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Canadian Opera Company

Victor Braun as Duke Bluebeard in the 1993 Canadian Opera Company's production (photo by Michael Cooper).

Canadian Opera Company

 Canadian Opera Company (COC). Leading producer of opera in Canada after the middle of the 20th century. (An earlier COC, Montreal 1931, mounted only one production, Gounod's Roméo et Juliette.)

The Origins of the COC
The COC emerged as a direct result of the establishment in 1946 of the Royal Conservatory Opera School (University of Toronto Opera Division) under Arnold Walter, with Nicholas Goldschmidt as music director and conductor, and with Felix Brentano as stage director, succeeded by Herman Geiger-Torel in 1948. By 1949 the school had presented opera excerpts at Hart House Theatre, five complete operas at Eaton Auditorium, and one production each at the Art Gallery of Toronto and the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Public interest and support encouraged the school's directors to form the Royal Conservatory Opera Company and to present the first Opera Festival - Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, and La Bohème - at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in February 1950. Although the singers and most of the technical and musical staff were from the Opera School, this festival marked the true beginning of the COC.

In November 1950 the Opera Festival Association was incorporated to sponsor the annual presentations of the company and, by assuming all administrative and financial responsibility for the productions, to absolve the Royal Conservatory of Music of direct costs while providing an opportunity for the school's students and staff to exercise their talents. Geiger-Torel, stage director and producer, was named artistic director in 1956 and Goldschmidt remained music director until 1957. Ernesto Barbini had begun his long association as a conductor with the COC when he joined the RCM staff in 1953. With the 1955 season the Opera Festival Association began to mount its own productions under the name Opera Festival Company of Toronto. Casting and preparation were independent of the RCM and personnel were hired under contract.

After a successful fall season of operetta in 1957 the main season was shifted to the fall, where it remained for many years (locked there 1968-76 by the availability of the Toronto Symphony [TS]). Ettore Mazzoleni, director of the Opera School 1952-66, was artistic director 1953-4, managing director 1954-5, and general director 1955-6 of the Festival; in 1956 the last official links with the school were broken. Although the increased use of professional casts and the limiting of the season to the fall precluded Opera School participation on more than a supportive basis, the COC continued to use the school's facilities and to co-operate until 1976, through mutual employment agreements with the school, in ensuring the year-round availability to both organizations of competent stage directors.

Adoption of Name; Support Organizations

During 1958, with the beginning of the first tours, the name Canadian Opera Company came into use and remained the popular and operative name of the organization. The appointment in 1959 of Geiger-Torel as general director and Barbini as music adviser preceded the letters patent of 20 Sep 1960 that changed the old name (Opera Festival Association of Toronto) to The Canadian Opera Association. This remained the legal title until 1977, when Canadian Opera Company was adopted.

Ancillary to the COC but important as supporting organizations have been the Canadian Opera Company Women's Committee, which originated in the Opera and Concert Committee of the RCM, founded in 1947 with Mrs Floyd Chalmers as its first president; and the Canadian Opera Guild, formed by Vida Peene in 1959. The Guild began to publish Opera Canada in 1960.


Although securely based in Toronto, with the O'Keefe Centre as its home after 1961 and the TS as its accompanying orchestra 1968-76, the company justified the inclusion of "Canadian" in its title by its intention to tour. Indeed, a 1958 tour that took 19 performances of The Barber of Seville, with George Brough as accompanist and music director, to cities in eastern Canada was the beginning of regular tours by a special COC touring company that travelled some 15,000 km each year, visiting virtually every urban area of Canada and parts of the USA. At first performing with only piano accompaniment, the touring company began travelling with its own orchestra in 1968. The last tour, a production of L'Incoronazione di Poppea, took place in 1991. In addition to the touring company's performances outside Toronto, the main company has appeared elsewhere in Ontario (Hamilton, Kitchener, London, and Ottawa), and also in Montreal (including Expo 67), Washington, DC, at the Brooklyn Academy, and at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Extended Season
Geiger-Torel continued as general director of the COC until his retirement in 1976, when he was succeeded by Iranian-born Lotfi Mansouri. Geiger-Torel would have continued as general director emeritus, but he died suddenly the same year.

In 1977, under Mansouri, the COC decided to spread its opera productions throughout the year instead of giving them all in a fall season. Since the TS, because of its heavy concert commitments, could reserve only September for the COC, continued collaboration became impractical under the new system, and the COC began working with its own orchestra. A transitional step toward the new schedule was the presentation of two spring seasons at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (1978 and 1979). Beginning in 1979-80, performances were given in three periods - fall, winter, and spring.

COC Ensemble and Composers-in-Residence
The Canadian Opera Company Ensemble was established in 1980 to provide training and experience for young Canadian singers. Stuart Hamilton was the first musical director. The ensemble formed the nucleus of the touring company, and acted as a resident company, participating in productions at the O'Keefe Centre and performing at Toronto's Harbourfront, in Toronto area schools, and from 1986, at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre (which provided much-needed rehearsal and performance facilities as well as a home for the company's administration and archives). The need to foster young Canadian talent was also recognized in the establishment in 1987 of a "composers-in-residence" program. By 1995 the program had resulted in the creation of three full-length and six one-act operas by Canadian composers Michel-Georges Brégent, Richard Désilets, Denis Gougeon, Peter Paul Koprowski, Gary Kulesha, Andrew MacDonald, John Oliver, Randolph Peters, and Timothy Sullivan.

Development of Surtitles
In 1982 the COC's director of operations, John Leberg, developed a system for projecting translations of opera libretti onto a screen above the stage. Known as surtitles, in 1983 the system began to be used for every COC foreign-language production, and it has been adopted by a number of opera companies in Canada and abroad.

Appointments 1989-Present

Brian Dickie, former general administrator of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, succeeded Mansouri in 1989. With the declared intention of placing emphasis on musical standards, Dickie re-organized the COC's administration to include a music department and appointed Richard Bradshaw as permanent conductor. Dickie left the company in November 1993, and Bradshaw was appointed in January 1994 as artistic and musical director. Elaine Calder was made general manager, but in 1998 the administration returned to a single administrative head when Bradshaw was made general director. After Bradshaw's sudden death in August 2007, Alexander Neef (b Germany) became general director in 2008, and Johannes Debus (b Germany 1974) was made music director in January 2009.


By 2004 the COC had given about 1,900 performances of 122 different operas by the main company in Toronto and approximately 1,650 performances by the touring company. Although the COC repertoire has leaned heavily on standard works, such as La Bohème (13 productions up to 2004), Madama Butterfly (14 productions), The Barber of Seville (9 productions), and Rigoletto (11 productions), it also has staged less-heard works, such as Boris Godunov (1974, 1986, 2002), Don Carlos in the original French (1977, 1988), Billy Budd (2001), Death in Venice (1984), Wozzeck (1977, 1990), Lulu (1980, 1991), Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites (1986, 1997), Janáček's The Makropulos Case (1989) and The Cunning Little Vixen (1998), Henze's Venus und Adonis (2001), Schoenberg's Erwartung (1993, 1995, 2001), Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex (1997, 2002), and John Adams' Nixon in China (2011). In September 2006 the company successfully mounted the first full Canadian productions of Wagner's The Ring Cycle, the first time the cycle had been heard in Canada since it was sung in 1914 by a visiting English company.

Operas Composed by Canadians

The COC performed Willan's Deirdre in 1966 and has commissioned operas by Canadian composers, including Harry Somers' critically acclaimed Louis Riel (performed 1967, 1968, 1975) and Mario and the Magician (1992); Raymond Pannell's The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1967); Charles Wilson'sHeloise and Abelard (1973); and Randolph Peters' The Golden Ass (1999).

Performers and Staff

 Many of Canada's leading singers have risen within the COC ranks, including John Arab, Peter Barcza, Alexander Gray, Peter Milne, Mary Morrison, Patricia Rideout, Jan Rubes, Heather Thomson, and Bernard Turgeon. Over the years almost every Canadian singer of note has appeared with the company, among them Pierrette Alarie, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Emile Belcourt, Colette Boky, Jean Bonhomme, Benoit Boutet, Pierre Boutet, Russell Braun, Victor Braun, Claude Corbeil, Alan Crofoot, Tracy Dahl, Mark DuBois, Pierre Duval, Gerald Finley, Judith Forst, Don Garrard, Marguerite Gignac, Frances Ginzer, Robert Goulet, Ben Heppner, Gwenlynn Little, Richard Margison, Ermanno Mauro, Morley Meredith, James Milligan, Allan Monk, Cornelis Opthof, Maria Pellegrini, Adrianne Pieczonka, Louis Quilico, Gino Quilico, Joseph Rouleau, Irene Salemka, Michael Schade, Léopold Simoneau, Teresa Stratas, Richard Verreau, Jon Vickers, and Jeannette Zarou.

Administration and Budget

The growth in the COC's season and repertoire has been accompanied by a corresponding growth in the company's annual budget. In the 10-year period 1980-90 the budget rose from $3.6 million to $14.6 million, the funds assembled from production revenue (40 per cent), federal, provincial and municipal grants (30 per cent), and fundraising (30 per cent). The company enjoyed four surpluses in a row in the early 2000s. In 2005-6, box office revenues were $8,919,000 and attendance was 92 per cent of capacity; box office receipts provided 40 per cent of total revenues, fundraising 34 per cent, and government only 22 per cent.

In April 2003 the company broke ground for a new theatre in Toronto - the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts - which opened in June 2006. Box office revenues alone for the 2006-7 season shot up to $16.9 million. The company continued to draw crowds in 2009-10. A number of sold-out productions, including Madama Butterfly and Robert Lepage's acclaimed The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, resulted in an average attendance of 97.6 per cent and individual ticket sales numbering more than 51,000. It was the highest number of tickets sold in the company's history.

The COC's administration has evolved to meet the needs of the company's operations, growing from seven full-time staff in 1960. In 2004 the company engaged about 120 people in all branches of its administrative and artistic operation, in addition to 55 permanently contracted members of the orchestra. There were seven departments: executive; artistic (including music, archives, and the Ensemble); production (including the scene shop); development; finance and administration; marketing; and public relations.

The COC Ensemble

From its inception the COC Ensemble proved to be a valuable training ground for many of Canada's leading young singers, including Theodore Baerg, Kimberly Barber, Odette Beaupré, Peter Blanchet, Alain Coulombe, Michael Colvin, John Fanning, Joanne Kolomyjec, Gaétan Laperrière, Linda Maguire, Brian McIntosh, Robert Milne, Wendy Nielsen, Mark Pedrotti, Gabrielle Prata, Christiane Riel, Janet Stubbs, Krisztina Szabó, Patrick Timney, Frédérique Vézina, and Irena Welhasch-Baerg.

Visiting Artists

Leading singers from outside of Canada who have sung with the COC include Martina Arroyo, Ingrid Bjoner, Richard Cassilly, David Daniels, Marilyn Horne, Siegfried Jerusalem, James McCracken, Johanna Meier, Marina Mescheriakova, Regina Resnik, Neil Shicoff, Elisabeth Söderström, Joan Sutherland, Tatiana Troyanos, Carol Vaness, and Astrid Varnay.

Conductors and Directors

Among Canadian conductors frequently engaged by the COC (besides resident conductors Barbini, Goldschmidt, and Bradshaw) have been Derek Bate, Mario Bernardi, James Craig, Victor Feldbrill, and Ettore Mazzoleni. Conductors from abroad have included Heinrich Bender, Richard Bonynge, Leopold Hager, Kenneth Montgomery, Nicola Rescigno, Julius Rudel, and Walter Susskind (when he was conductor of the Toronto Symphony). John Fenwick, Errol Gay, and Timothy Vernon have conducted many touring and COC Ensemble productions.

The company's stage directors have included Geiger-Torel (34 different operas), Mansouri (42 different operas), Carlos Alexander, Robert Carsen, John Copley, Peter Ebert, Atom Egoyan, Anne Ewers, Constance Fisher, François Girard, Colin Graham, Irving Guttman, Robert Lepage, Leon Major, Mavor Moore, Nicholas Muni, and Robin Phillips.

Designers, Archivists

Among its designers have been Hans Berends, Murray Laufer, Michael Levine, Lawrence Schafer, and Wolfram Skalicki (sets), Marie Day, Warren Hartman, Suzanne Mess, Amrei Skalicki, and Michael Stennett (costumes), and Wallace Russell and Michael Whitfield (lighting).

In 1974 Joan Baillie (d 1997) founded the COC archives, which were named in her honour in 1988. Christopher Morris was assistant archivist 1988-90 and became the archivist and resource centre supervisor in 1990. Birthe Joergensen became the archivist in 1995.

Further Reading