On November 30, 2020, we announced Perryn Leech as the next COC General Director, after a year-long, international search. Perryn is currently the Managing Director at Houston Grand Opera and will be stepping into his new role as leader of the Canadian Opera Company on March 1, 2021.
Ahead of his official start date, Perryn shared some candid thoughts on his first impressions of Toronto, about the opera that made him love the art form, and the story behind an unusual playlist find.
What did you want to be growing up?
Something in sports. I love sports and had thought it would be great to become a sports journalist—once I realized I had limited ability as an actual player! Cricket, rugby, soccer…I love it all.
What is your favourite word?
What’s the worst job you ever had?
A “hygiene consultant” at a bakery. That’s to say…I was a cleaner. And it was less a bakery in the conventional sense than it was a mass production facility. I was living with my parents at the time and I remember leaving at four in the morning and coming home just covered in flour and bits of moldy dough. If I sneezed it was like a Canadian snowstorm of flour. I think I only made it two weeks in that job! Didn’t eat baked goods for another two months after, easily.
What is your most treasured possession?
I’m not really big on physical material possessions. I love building up memories over a lifetime but I can’t really say that I have many possessions that I truly treasure.
How do you relax?
First, let me think back to when I was 18 and had time to relax! [laughs] In more typical times, I love to travel. Playing or watching sports is always in the mix; I’ve been playing more golf lately, particularly because it’s not a team sport and is easier to do with all the current regulations around distancing. Family time is great for unwinding and I also just love hanging out with our dog.
What’s the first thing you do when you get to a new city?
I like to drop my bags, stretch my legs, and go for a long walk. Some people prefer taking cabs in a new place, to make sure they don’t get lost, but you find out so much more when you walk; you get more of the flavour and smells of the place…a better sense of the character of a city. Growing up in Europe, I’m also very big on public transit.
What was your first impression of Toronto?
It was cold! I think it was January or February and there was that moment where [I thought], “Oh, hello. This is new.” And there’s that sudden realization of how thin your blood has gotten since living in Texas! I do remember walking about and getting a good vibe. People were friendly, there was a Tim Horton’s on every corner, instead of a Starbucks. When we came back, as a family, we did more entertainment-type activities like checking out some comedy clubs. I could tell it was a city with a real heart to it—I liked being there.
What are you most looking forward to doing once you’re here in Toronto?
Definitely exploring the city, getting to know the pockets of areas, and living on water again. Houston is an hour away from the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s all a bit muddy and not quite as refreshing as the bluer waters I remembered here. I’m also looking forward to finding out more about your sports teams and seeing how they stack up, but also looking into how we can forge connections there too. Opera, sports…we seem different, but we’re all part of the same larger community.
What was the first opera you saw?
The Coronation of Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi. Technically, I didn’t see it from an audience member perspective; I was working on the production through a secondment to the Royal Academy of Music. But it was the first time I’d heard opera, let alone seen it. My family grew up on a lot of musical theatre, my mum was big on Andrew Lloyd Webber. And this was early music, very different from anything I’d ever heard. It was actually from this job that I landed my next one working at the Glyndebourne Festival—and that’s when the different scale and breadth that opera was really kicked in. We did six operas in that season and by the end of it, I realized this was an art form that I loved and that I wanted to work in.
What is your favourite opera?
More often than not, it’s the one I’m working on at that moment. Whatever gets your juices flowing that week!
Which opera made you fall in love with the art form?
Carmen at Glyndebourne. Peter Hall was directing and just the sheer scale, the brilliance of it all…I was like a kid in the candy store. Again, I was working backstage, for this and not watching from the audience, but it was still totally spellbinding. I know it sounds almost too easy, but that was the one where it felt like, “Ok. I get why people love it.”
What’s one thing you wish more people knew about the opera experience?
How immediate it is. People have this perception of “opera people” being all straight-laced and the experience feeling cool and far-removed. But there’s something about the immediacy of the audience reacting from their own perspective, from their own lens…it’s incredible. That’s also true in musical theatre or straight drama, but it’s heightened in opera because it’s made up of so many art forms; someone might be reacting to a line of flute, someone else to a bit of dance choreography, and someone else to the vocalist on-stage. It’s all so individual and it’s fascinating to experience so immediately, with others.
What’s one thing you would change about the opera experience?
The idea that certain behaviours have to be met. Opera was essentially mass-produced 400 years ago—some were great, some were terrible, but the main auditorium was filled with people who had paid just a few coins to get in. That’s the feeling we need to have again. Of course, opera ticket prices have naturally had to increase with changing times, labour improvements, and necessary production costs. But we need to keep breaking down these barriers because they are artificial barriers.
What attracted you to this role at the COC?
Everything! It’s a national company that is renowned on the world stage and has an amazing reputation for doing wonderful work. Houston is a fantastic city as well, so there were not many jobs that I thought could convince me to leave Houston. But the COC is one of those. I’ve been to Toronto, I’ve seen COC productions here…and so when I heard about the opportunity, my immediate thought was "YES”. I have to find out more.”
How would you describe your leadership style in one word?
Which living person do you most admire and why?
This might be a bit obscure for some, but there is a manager, Arsène Wenger, who used to be the manager of my football club, Arsenal. I’ve read both his books and he has this highly principled way of managing an organization that I really admire. He has beliefs and he sticks to them, even when things aren’t going according to plan and he’s being questioned about it. He knows how to stay a course and how to acknowledge when results aren’t what he was hoping for, but he is also able to explain himself and stick to his values in response to people who just want to see instant results.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Personally, I have three unbelievable kids and I am extraordinarily proud of the people they have become. Professionally...HGO didn’t miss a single performance in 2017 when the hurricane hit. It’s a highlight that I can’t imagine many other companies could claim and so there is a good amount of pride in that, as well.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Never give up.
Is there something on your playlists—or in your record collection—people might be surprised to know you like/listen to?
I think it might be “Golden Brown” by the Stranglers. They’re a punk group I followed when I was younger; lots of protest songs, etc. It starts with this beautiful harpsichord intro that was absolutely mesmerizing. I was 16 or so at the time and remember my ear being drawn to the song. It was the first time I’d heard the harpsichord in a song and, interestingly enough, it was three years later when I heard the harpsichord used again as a classical instrument in Poppea. I grew up on punk and early ska music, some Clash and other punk, so I suppose you could say that my eclectic taste in music continues. Plus, after having kids and going to a lot of Taylor Swift concerts, I realized that there are so many facets to musical performance that interest me; if I end up at a concert and don’t really care for the style of music, I might become engrossed in studying the production value or lighting. I’ll never tire of live concerts! If you’ve ever heard of Desert Island Discs (where you pick eight records you’d happily be stranded on an island with), I think the early ones would be quite mixed and then the later ones would be opera.