The International Language of Music - Interview with COC Music Director Johannes Debus

COC Music Director Johannes Debus Enlarge image COC Music Director Johannes Debus (© Michael Cooper) Johannes Debus is the German-born Music Director at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. After having worked at the Frankfurt Opera for 10 years, the 39-year-old from Speyer was offered the opportunity to conduct at the Canadian Opera Company in the fall of 2008. Only a few months later, in January 2009, he was appointed Music Director, joining another German, the COC’s general director Alexander Neef, as the head of Canada’s biggest opera house. Debus speaks passionately about music and his several international engagements that take him to collaborate with orchestras and opera companies in San Francisco, Berlin and Munich. We met up with Johannes Debus in his COC-office on Front Street to talk about music, his life as a global citizen and about being German in Canada.

How did it feel to leave Germany and start a new job in Canada?
Johannes Debus: It seems like a huge step but actually it wasn't. I never shied away from travelling, discovering different countries, facing new people and cultures. Thanks to the international language par excellence, the music, you always find like-minded people. In Toronto I right away found a lot of people with whom I was on the same page. That's why I've never felt homesick: Toronto has become my home.

You have been living in Toronto for five years now. What are the big differences between Germany and Canada in regards to people's lifestyle?
JD: I remember one day at the supermarket, the cashier noticed my accent and wanted to know where I was from – he was interested in my history, in my past, in my particular story. Canadians are very open-minded, they show honest interest in foreigners and most importantly, they are not afraid of you. Instead, they interact with you. I appreciate Toronto's colourfulness, its variety of different cultures. I find it very impressive that everyone living in Toronto brought his very own cultural identity. It's remarkable how all these different ethnic groups and cultures are integrated in the Canadian society. The multicultural society in Canada should be a role model for Germany.


COC Music Director Johannes Debus Enlarge image COC Music Director Johannes Debus (© German Consulate General, Viktoria Wachter) What does the German audience set apart from the Canadian?
JD: Canadians don't show their disapproval. In the concert hall, they stand up more frequently than Germans do and often give roaring standing ovations. Germans, on the other hand, tend to give less exuberant, but rather long applause. Generally, the Canadians are a very attentive, affectionate and benevolent audience.

The title of  our interview-series is "I am German". Can you identify with that?
JD: Absolutely. Germany is the country where I grew up, where I have spent most of my life. German is my native language and I feel connected to the German culture. There is and there always will be an emotional link between me and Germany.

Europe is known as centre of culture, arts and music, and Germany is the home of many well-known composers. Is Europe being regarded as a cultural seal of quality in Toronto?
For sure. The COC has been highly influenced by Europeans, their music and culture. German-born Herman Geiger-Torel founded the Royal Conservatory Opera Company in 1950.  Richard Bradshaw, former chief conductor, Artistic Director and General Director at the COC was British. He obtained his artistic education at the University of London and developed his musical talent in England. Thus, the COC is based on European expertise. As classic Western European music is known all over the world as high quality music, it has definitely its own seal of quality. 

Which is your favourite cultural hotspot in Toronto?
JD: My insider tip is Gallery 345 in Toronto's West End. I know the owner Edward Epstein very well. The gallery hosts and records small ensemble performances and concerts of all different music genres. Apart from that, it also houses changing art exhibitions. I enjoy the cosy atmosphere, the paintings on the walls. I simply love to sit in the gallery, enjoying the music with a glass of wine.


Picture Gallery Johannes Debus