Preview: Centre Stage, Ensemble Studio Competition Gala (Canadian Opera Company)

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Discover up and coming opera talent at the Centre Stage Competition at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre

If you’re prepared to accept on principle that there’s some way, however small, in which General Director Alexander Neef  is like Simon Cowell then the new – and frankly quite exciting – Centre Stage event at Canadian Opera Company on November 26 might be called a rarified version of American Idol. Nine young, talented, Canadian opera singers from across the country will battle it out live onstage for cash, glory, and – though it will be announced after appropriately more complex deliberations – possible invitations to join COC’s famed Ensemble Studio.

Canadian Opera Company, like nearly all opera companies in North America, has started strategizing about ways to build a younger audience of opera appreciators, now that some of opera’s high-culture-for-the-sake-of-being-seen shine has dimmed. Rather than lower the standard of performance or curtail the season, as some companies have been forced to do, COC has thrown itself into the task of cultivating a younger group of opera fans – cheap tickets for the under 30 set to get patrons hooked while they’re young, programming at least one very popular and very accessible opera every year, and now the Centre Stage Gala where, for a $100 ticket, you can enjoy a fancy opera-house cocktail, then cheer your favorites from the batch of 9 and vote for the Audience Choice award, as well.

If you’re voting a local allegiance, Kitchener seems to be an operatic powerhouse this year (!), yielding a tenor (Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure) and a mezzo-soprano (Emma Char). The group’s hometown allegiances stretch from PEI to British Columbia this year, comprises five women and four men, and appears – if publicity photos can be believed – to include two redheads. 155 young singers vied for the 9 slots at auditions across the country, so we can feel certain that these nine have some chops and will be bringing them. Though the singers are young, they are not untried: several have already notched significant roles in performances at smaller companies across the EU and in Quebec.

Neef, whose tenure at COC has included some very exciting work, comes from a festival background at the sprawling and prestigious RuhrTrienniale, and seems to be prepared to work at keeping excitement about the opera high. Collaborations with popular musicians (this gala will be hosted by Rufus Wainwright; the last one featured Sam Roberts Band), filmmakers, fashion designers and chefs. His comfort in embracing the new while valuing the timeless is a significant book to the organization.

His innovation is also a boon in a new way to opera fans, who with the introduction of the Centre Stage event will get to enjoy a phase of the process that’s typically closed to outsiders. Imagine the pleasure of saying, while standing in the lobby of the Four Seasons Centre in a few decades: “I’ve been watching Iain MacNeil since he was practically in short pants. It’s so exciting to see how well he’s grown up.” The excitement of the first look, of early discovery, is available to all this year.

The Centre Stage, Ensemble Studio Competition Gala will be presented at the Four Seasons Center on Tuesday, 26 November beginning at 6:30pm, with the cocktail hour starting at 5:30. Tickets are $100, can can be purchased online, by phone at 416-363-8231, or at the COC Box Office.