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Volume 19 Issue 7 - April 2014

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Johannes

Johannes Debus/Pre-COCWhere were you born, and was music always part of your life?I was born in Speyer, a city in southwest Germany. I learned to playthe recorder in kindergarten, and my teacher told my mother that Iseemed to have a passion for music. I joined the cathedral choir, andthe choir director was a marvellous music-maker.Was it always going to be a career in music? I actually had twoplans. If I didn’t get into a conservatory, I was going to go to universityand study German and Latin.But you did get into the Hamburg Conservatory where youstudied conducting. Where did that interest come from? For me,the music-maker was the conductor who stood out in front. Iwanted to be the music-maker. I studied old videos of conductorsand then I’d conduct in front of the stereo. I was very serious aboutchurch music and choral conducting.So how did you develop an interest in opera? Opera, at first,seemed very far away. I though it was artificial and superficial, untila teacher at the conservatory had me prepare La traviata. I started toplay through it and I was hooked. The variety of the opera repertoireis enormous. A well-made masterpiece has so many riches to reveal.After I graduated, I spent ten years at the Frankfurt Opera, startingas a pianist, then coach, then assistant conductor, and finally, residentconductor. My freelance career started after Frankfurt.B E H I N D T H E S C E N E SCOC’s Johaand AlexanAlexander NeefBO HUANGAlexander Neef/Pre-COCWhat’s your background? I was born in a small village calledRosswälden, just outside Stuttgart. I come from a simple workingclass background. Languages were easy for me, and I thoughtI would become a Latin teacher. I have an M.A. in Latin andmodern history.So where did opera fit in? I got hooked on opera when I waseight or nine by listening to the classical music station on the radio.When I was older, I’d go to the opera three or four times a week. Atthe University of Tübingen, I was dramaturge for a student operacompany. I did research, wrote program notes and attended castingmeetings. I was able to consult piano scores because I can readmusic. I started studying piano when I was nine.How did you get to the Paris Opera? My friends in university weremusicologists. They went to Berlin to start an academy for musictheatre and I went to visit them. They invited lecturers, and GerardMortier, head of the Salzburg Festival, came. That’s where I met him.He really connected to the group. I didn’t become a teacher becauseI became an intern artistic administrator at the Salzburg Festival fortwo years. After that I joined the artistic administration team at theRuhrTriennale, a three-year multidisciplinary festival in Germany’sRuhr region. When Mortier took over the Paris Opera in 2004, hebrought me in as director of casting.Paula CitronTheir birthdays are a month apart. They have just turned 40. Theyare both German, but they never knew each other in their homecountry. They also just happen to be the leading lights behind theCanadian Opera Company.General director Alexander Neef was appointed in 2008, and musicdirector Johannes Debus the following year. Together they representthe wunderkind generation who are the new movers and shakers inthe arts.We three met in Neef’s office for a wide-ranging conversation aboutthe COC in particular, the arts in general, and, of course, living inToronto. Debus came across as an idealist, Neef as a realist.Alexander, how did you end up at the COC?Neef: I didn’t apply for the position. I was first approached by thesearch committee. There were four days of interviews. It was animportant decision for me. Running a company would allow me totake a major career step out of artistic administration, but it had tobe the right company. At the same time as the COC came calling, Iwas offered a “B” company in Germany, but I knew I wouldn’t be ableto attract the same quality of artists as the COC. It was an easy decisionto say no, even if the German company had a bigger budget.The COC is a big international company with high standards. It isalso a complete package because it has its own house. Top artistslike Susan Graham and Sondra Radvanofsky want to come to aquality environment.How did you two meet?Debus: After Richard Bradshaw died suddenly, I was one of theconductors brought in to replace him. It was October, 2008, at arehearsal for Prokofiev’s War and Peace at the Four Seasons Centre.Neef: We had to find a music director, but we were going to spendtwo or three seasons inviting people to conduct. I was sitting at theWar and Peace rehearsal and I felt the strong connection betweenJohannes and the orchestra. His conducting debut got rave reviews.I thought, why put him on a list and wait? He might move on. I’m8 | April 1 – May 7, 2014 thewholenote.com

nes Debusder NeefBY PAULA CITRONJohannes Debusa decisive person. We met for a brief lunch and I asked him, “Howdo you feel about becoming music director?” The interesting thingis, no one thought I was crazy because Johannes had made such agreat impression.Debus: I was shocked, but in a positive way. It was something thatI had never imagined. Conducting War and Peace was the best timeof my life. The whole thing was like a fairytale. I haven’t regrettedcoming to the COC for one second.Neef: We haven’t had our epic fight yet.How does your relationship work?Neef: It’s an inspiring relationship. We don’t play games. We haveno factions, because neither of us is a politician. When we have to talkabout things, we do. We never let things go.Debus: Alexander is a general director with passion and knowledge.He has good taste and a strong eye. He’s willing to take certain risksand avoid falling into the trap of routine. I’m involved in the decisionmakingabout putting together a production team – choosing artistswho have something to say about an opera and the composer. Theyhave to have an affinity for the piece. I’m also learning so much fromAlexander about how the art form works. We have a strong team.Alexander, working at the COC must have been a big change fromthe Paris Opera.Neef: The Paris Opera puts on around 20 operas a year. Five couldbe happening at the same time. You tend to go where there are problemsand stay away when things are going well. No conflict meansno reason to go. In Paris you never drop in on rehearsals for pleasure.At the COC, I can take personal care of all the operas, attend all therehearsals, go to concept meetings and spend time with Johannes. Ican have a direct communication with what’s happening on stage,and keep a close connection with everything else. It’s an enjoyableexperience. I’m also here in the off-season, overseeing administrativework like preparing budgets, and doing social stuff in the community.thewholenote.com April 1 – May 7, 2014 | 9

Volume 26 (2020- )

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