Stage Door News

Toronto: Total ticket sales for the Canadian Opera Company in 2018/19 down 5.5%

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Canadian Opera Company’s 2018/2019 season saw the company connect with new arts and culture lovers through a bold line-up of mainstage programming, which included the highly anticipated world premiere of Hadrian, a new COC commission from Rufus Wainwright and Daniel MacIvor. The organization’s multi-year strategic vision, COC365, also continued to inform the company’s innovative programming, with a deepened commitment to long-term audience development and a robust array of community-oriented, accessible arts initiatives, as reported today at the COC’s Annual General Meeting by COC Board Chair Justin Linden and COC General Director Alexander Neef. The meeting also marked the official start of term for long-serving COC Board member, Jonathan Morgan, as incoming Board Chair for 2019/2020.

Over the past season, the COC has continued on its path of artistic excellence and community outreach,” says COC Board Chair Justin Linden. “I am particularly proud of the company’s comprehensive outreach and mentoring programs that have allowed us to engage with local area schools, as well as our ongoing weekday concert series that opens up the Four Seasons Centre and opera community to wider audiences. I would also like to congratulate Alexander Neef on his recent appointment to Opéra National de Pariswhich clearly speaks to the impressive achievements of the Canadian Opera Company.”

In total, 82,199 tickets were sold for 48 performances, setting attendance at 86% for the 18/19 season. Subscription-holders accounted for 48,214 of tickets sold, with an additional 33,985 purchased by single ticket buyers, reflecting a 12% increase in single ticket sales. Of note, the 18/19 season saw a 56% increase in new patrons over last season with 7,569 people buying their first ticket to a COC production this past season, effectively reversing a three-year decline in first-time ticket buyers.

“We know that lasting success can only come from creating sustainable, long-term relationships with our audiences,” says COC General Director Alexander Neef. “The COC is continuing to implement a multi-year, strategic plan to achieve that goal – and we are grateful for our passionate supporters and partners, and especially the Canadian Opera Company Foundation, for empowering us to stay the course as we proactively adapt to a changing cultural landscape.” 

“Canadians need to feel seen and heard at the opera house,” adds Neef. “Through advisory groups such as our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee, as well as our Circle of Artists, which boosts the voices of Indigenous artists through ongoing consultations with company leadership, we are focused on building meaningful company engagement. This important work not only helps us to better connect with new and existing audiences, it also asks us all to reimagine what opera can be today and in the future.”

With this forward-looking mandate, the company has seen a significant increase in the number of younger people attending the opera in 18/19, headlined by a 34% increase over last season in tickets purchased through the COC’s Opera Under 30 program, which offers affordable $22 and $35 ticket options to those between the age of 16 and 29; nearly 5,700 tickets were sold through the program. 

The end of the 18/19 season testified to the growth of the COC’s reputation in the global opera industry with General Director Alexander Neef recruited to lead Opéra national de Paris as its next general director. With the support of the COC’s Board of Directors, Neef accepted the role in July 2019 and will remain in his current position as General Director of the COC through to the close of the 2020/2021 season. Having begun his career as a casting director with the historic and prestigious opera house, Neef’s return to Paris in 2021 will mark a remarkable next step, after more than a decade of leading the COC to its current standing at the centre of international attention and acclaim.

“This appointment directly reflects the impressive calibre of work that the Canadian Opera Company is doing,” says Neef. “I’m moved by the continued messages of support and am deeply appreciative of everyone’s kind words. This appointment is a reminder that the COC’s community of artists, supporters, and patrons has transformed this company into one of the most exciting performing arts organizations not only in Canada but on the world stage.” 

It was a year of celebration as well for COC Music Director Johannes Debus who marked his 10th year at the podium with the celebrated Canadian Opera Company Orchestra. Since joining the company at the start of its 2009/2010 season, Debus has led the COC Orchestra to “almost otherworldly perfection” (The Globe and Mail) in 45 productions that include two world premiere operas. He also conducted Salome (2016) and The Tales of Hoffmann (2017) at the Metropolitan Opera and counts appearances at the BBC Proms, the Tanglewood Festival, and Bayerische Staatsoper among his many credits.

Mainstage in Review

The 2018/2019 season kicked off with the lush and boundary-pushing world premiere of the COC-commissioned Hadrian, composed by Rufus Wainwright with libretto by Daniel MacIvor. The opera, based on the staggering grief of real-life emperor Hadrian over the loss of his beloved was called “A gay love story that speaks to our time” by The New York Times and earned a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Opera, as well as a nomination for Best World Premiere at the 2019 International Opera Awards. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin marked a triumphant Canadian homecoming and debut for the striking Robert Carsen production, which took home five Dora Awards, including Best Production. 

Mozart’s Così fan tutte chased off some of the winter blues; its gorgeous score, coupled with director Atom Egoyan’s “eye-popping” (Toronto Star) production was a welcome reprieve for snow-weary Torontonians. Meanwhile, powerhouse soprano Christine Goerke has called the title role in R. Strauss’ Elektra “the gift of [her] career” (The Globe and Mail) and audiences seemed to agree, rising to their feet, night after night, in praise of her nerve-rattling performance.  

And love was in the air when Puccini’s La Bohème returned the COC this past spring; the perpetual crowd favourite sold out two performances and moved many in the house to tears, elevated by an all-star cast that included American soprano Angel Blue and American baritone Lucas Meachem. The season drew to a dramatic close with Verdi’s psychological thriller, Otello, which saw American tenor Russell Thomas bring nuance and depth to the title role, opposite Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, in a new production that The Wall Street Journal called “revolutionary.”

Revenue and Support

The COC’s operating expenses were $42,520,000 in 2018/2019, with revenues of $42,526,000, bringing the company to a stable $6,000 surplus. These expenses and revenues are a consolidated presentation of the financial results of the COC and its controlled affiliate, the Canadian Opera House Corporation, a charitable organization that owns and operates the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. 

Total fundraising, both operating and endowment, over the season brought in $11.7 milliontoward the creation and support of Canadian opera. Individual gifts accounted for approximately 85% of that total, underscoring the deep personal connections between the COC and its loyal audiences. 

The value of the Canadian Opera Foundation’s endowment remains strong at $39.8 million as of December 31, 2018. During the Foundation’s fiscal year ending December 31, 2018, the Foundation made grants to the Canadian Opera Company and individual performing artists totaling $3.4 million and received a total of $1,074,386 in donations and bequests. (An additional $659,575 was received as part of the matching endowment program under the Canada Cultural Investment Fund).

Government grants, including operating and special projects, in the 18/19 season totaled $6.14 million with Canada Council support accounting for $2.04 million, Ontario Arts Council providing nearly $2.3 million, and the municipal government providing $1.5 million in support. 

In spring 2019, the Digital Strategy Fund also contributed nearly $230,000 toward the Digital Stage initiative. Spearheaded by the COC, and in collaboration with the National Ballet of Canada and Sheridan College’s Screen Industries and Research and Training Centre, the multi-phase project will research best technological advances being used across the performing arts sector, test the most promising innovations in real-time settings and conditions, and develop a set of proposed next practices for the Canadian performing arts sector in the digital age. An additional $45,000 was contributed in support of an internal digital strategy project aimed at modernizing and streamlining the COC’s administrative and production workflow. Both digital initiatives have been generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts.

Opera Access Initiatives

New this year, the COC launched Opera for Toronto, an ambitious free programming initiative meant specifically to introduce new audiences to the art form. Through winter and spring of 2019, the company hosted three free performances featuring artists of current mainstage productions as well as young artists of the COC Ensemble Studio, accompanied by the COC Orchestra. All guests were invited through a number of community groups, educational organizations, and civic partnerships, with a special focus on opening up the COC’s operations and rehearsal space, the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre at 227 Front St. E., to neighbouring communities.

 In two events on Front Street East, audience members were treated to memorable excerpts from Così fan tutte and La Bohème in a casual, intimate environment. A special Opera for Toronto event featured a fully-staged performance of Puccini’s La Bohème at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, entirely cast by current and former Ensemble Studio members; in total, more than 2,200 free tickets were given away through these arts awareness and community-building performances. 

Opera for Toronto is part of the Canadian Opera Company’s commitment to re-animating its space on Front Street East as a culture hub that responds to and serves the company’s surrounding neighbourhoods.

The COC also remains a proud participant in the Institute for Canadian Citizenship’s Cultural Access Pass initiative. Over the course of the program’s history, the COC has made nearly a thousand free opera tickets available to new Canadian citizens.

In the Community

As some of our most active and visible ambassadors of the company, the COC Ensemble Studio helped bring performance out of the opera house and into the city, celebrating the power of music to move, to uplift, and to unite.  

A fall performance in the park outside The 519 community centre attracted the rapt attention of enthusiastic passersby, while patients at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre were treated to a winter concert as part of the hospital’s Music in the Atrium series. Commuters at bustling Union Station had a chance to pause and unwind with three performances throughout the year in the Great Hall, including special kid-friendly March Break programming and an on-the-go version of La Bohème

In a new collaboration, the COC curated programming for the Royal Ontario Museum’s “Friday Night Live: Vox” event, featuring a colourful, high-energy set from Ensemble Studio members. Finally, the COC returned to Toronto Pride in June, with Ensemble Studio graduates Lauren Eberwein and Stéphane Mayer opening a special Pride Week concert in Barbara Hall Park for an audience of nearly 5,000. More than 50 company members also made our marching debut in the Pride Parade, as well as hosted an interactive booth at the Community Streetfair that weekend. 

1,000 Free Concerts and Counting

The Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, presented by TD Bank Group, has been a favourite with culture-lovers for years, with the Toronto Star calling it “an example to the world of the very best kind of sharing between the arts and its surrounding community” and Vogue declaring it “one of the most accessible venues in the city.” This year the program celebrated its 1000th concert on February 19, 2019 with a concert by soprano Susan Bullock accompanied by pianist Liz Upchurch, Head of the Ensemble Studio. 

13,879 people took in one of the season’s 74 free concerts. An incredible 387 artists were featured in an array of classical, jazz, dance, and world music performances. Of these, 25 concerts featured COC artists, 16 concerts featured members of the COC Ensemble Studio, and six concerts featured a world premiere in front of a Free Concert Series audience.

Special highlights from the season include Songs in the Key of Cree with Tomson Highway, Patricia Cano, and Marcus Ali, as well as a special preview of who we are in the dark, a blend of daring contemporary dance and supercharged music presented by acclaimed Canadian dance artist Peggy Baker and Jeremy Gara and Sarah Neufeld of Grammy Award-winning Canadian rock band Arcade Fire.

Promoting Musical Education

In total, 32,589 people participated in one of the COC’s Education and Outreach programming initiatives. Of these, over 14,500 patrons attended the company’s popular pre-opera chats offered before each mainstage performance and nearly 850 people took part in free Opera Insights events that use lectures, demonstrations, panel chats, and performance to illuminate and engage while sparking and sustaining appreciation for the art.

1,797 students attended one of the season’s six dress rehearsals and 926 people participated in our popular After School Opera Program, presented by Scotiabank. 75 young peoplesigned up for the COC’s Summer Camps, with 280 family and community members attending their final performances. The company’s youth-oriented programming is specifically tailored to meet a diverse range of musical familiarity and thoughtfully designed to help foster early love and appreciation for the art form.

An additional 60 elementary school students took part in the COC’s unique Opera Creation program. In 2018/2019, the in-school residency operated out of Scarborough’s Silver Springs Public School and Chester Le Junior Public School, providing grade 5 and 6 students with an immersive opera experience to boost arts appreciation as well as confidence and morale, through a collaborative process guided by each classroom’s teacher and COC’s Teaching Artists.

This year’s Opera for Young Audiences (OYA) production, WOW Factor: A Cinderella Story, proved a tremendous success with local schools and families. The familiar Cinderella story, set in a modern-day middle school with candy-coloured costumes and graphic set design, brought in a total of 1,519 audience members through a public dress rehearsal, four public performances, and four school group performances. As part of the COC’s commitment to opera accessibility, one of OYA’s public shows was designated a relaxed performance, creating a welcoming and supportive environment for anyone who might benefit from a more relaxed sensory experience. 

Some very young opera patrons and their caregivers were treated to a daytime serenade and opera house tour in collaboration with Toronto’s Art Strollers group; the new Opera for Babies initiative gives new parents a chance to hear live opera in a relaxed, baby-friendly environment while exposing their young ones to the sound of classical music.

The COC Academy

The COC Academy is home to a new wave of opera creators and an incubator for the future of the art form; in 2018, it grew with the announcement of new Composer-in-Residence Ian Cusson. As part of this two-year, part-time artistic development opportunity, Cusson will be offered work space, training, and hands-on mentorship, as well as time to work with individual singers and instrumentalists, participation in coachings and masterclasses, and the chance to attend artistic and administrative meetings. During this time, the COC has commissioned a new work from him and award-winning Canadian playwright and librettist Colleen Murphy. The opera, to be performed in a future season, is being developed with families and young people in mind.

The company also celebrated a special anniversary for Liz Upchuch, Head of the COC Ensemble Studio, as she marked 20 years of training the best and brightest opera singers in the country. Since joining the COC, Upchurch has helped build the Ensemble Studio into one of the industry’s most innovative and comprehensive opera training programs, leading an entire generation of singers and coaches to international mainstage success. Recently, Upchurch was announced as one of three recipients of the 2019 Opera Canada Awards for exemplary contributions to the industry.

Photo: Isaiah Bell as Antinous and Thomas Hampson as Hadrian in Hadrian. © 2018 Michael Cooper.