• Farewell to Nina Draganić

    By Dorian Cox

    Nina Draganić introduces a performance in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, photo: Heather Lewis 2009

    Next month one of the COC’s longest-serving team members, Nina Draganić, will be embarking on a new chapter and moving on from her role as Director of the COC Academy. In celebrating her leadership, we wanted to specifically highlight the incredible work and passion she has brought to launching and growing an extraordinary arts initiative, the Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.

    A true visionary, Nina established the series from almost nothing. In 2006, prior to completion of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, a large spiral staircase planned for the middle of the lobby was reconceived by then COC General Director Richard Bradshaw and Lead Architect Jack Diamond. In the new plan, a linear staircase-amphitheatre hybrid would now connect the third and fourth rings, provide seating capacity for 100 patrons, and offer a venue for more informal performances. Nina was tasked with programming a lunchtime lobby performance series, equipped with only a computer rendering of what this space would eventually look like.

    Pre-construction artist rendering of the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, photo: Diamond Schmitt Architects; Post-construction photo of the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, photo: COC Staff

    Her vision for the series was to ensure that the Four Seasons Centre would not only be a space where everyone in the city would feel welcome, but also where they could see their own stories and communities reflected on the RBA stage. This kind of free programming has become more prevalent in recent years as arts organizations shift their mandates to focus on community outreach, but 15 years ago, it was incredibly ground-breaking.

    Newton Moraes Dance Theatre perform in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre in 2015, photo: Kevin Lloyd

    Nina used her connections within the local arts community (and her astute musical ear) to assemble a wide range of artists across genres and disciplines. This ranged from students enrolled in nearby music programs to some of the biggest opera stars on the international stage. From the series’ very first season, Nina’s curatorial efforts were met with universal acclaim. The Globe and Mail stated that the “COC's Free Concert Series [is] a runaway success” and the Toronto Star recognized the series as “an example to the world of the very best kind of sharing between the arts and its surrounding community”. Ludwig Van Toronto gave praise to Nina’s brilliant work behind the scenes, calling her “the most significant concert presenter in this city outside the Toronto Symphony Orchestra”. And other organizations took note of this success—now, near carbon copies of the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre can be found across the world, from the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to the Mariinsky Theatre Second Stage in Russia. 

    National Arts Centre in Ottawa and Mariinsky Theatre Second Stage Stravinsky Foyer in Saint Petersburg, Russia, photos: COC Staff

    Over the many years that Nina served as Director of Programming for the Free Concert Series, she has presented an awe-inspiring list of artists. Notable opera luminaries include: Sondra Radvanovsky, Adrianne Pieczonka, Russell Braun, Michael Schade, and Sir Thomas Allen. From the jazz world she drew in such legends as Don Thompson, Guido Basso, Jane Bunnett, Hilario Durán, and Robi Botos. Her programming also brought in renowned world music and dance groups such as Ballet Creole, Nagata Shachu, COBA (Collective of Black Artists), Peggy Baker Dance Projects, and Ballet Jörgen.

    Hilario Durán and Robi Botos perform in the Free Concert Series in 2014, photo: Kevin Lloyd

    It’s easy to see from these examples how Nina’s guiding hand and hard work transformed a community-based lunchtime series into one of the most prominent presenting series in the city, if not the country. It’s also difficult to overstate the tremendous impact that Nina has had on the thousands of artists she gave a platform to, and the tens of thousands of audience members who she welcomed to the Four Seasons Centre.

    In 2015, Nina presented her final concert at the Free Concert Series to take on a new role at the COC as Director of the Ensemble Studio, Canada’s premier training program for young opera professionals. Over the years, her portfolio in this role expanded to take on a broader umbrella of training and collaboration called the COC Academy, which has included a Company-in-Residence (Against the Grain Theatre), Composer-in-Residence (Ian Cusson), Director/Dramaturg-in-Residence (Julie McIsaac), and currently Disruptor-in-Residence (Amplified Opera).

    Nina Draganić watches COC Ensemble Studio members Lauren Eberwein and Rachael Kerr perform in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre in 2019, photo: Karen E. Reeves

    As ever, Nina has dedicated herself tirelessly to her portfolio, this time in supporting the next generation of opera professionals. The virtuosity of these artists on stage is matched, behind the scenes, with Nina’s own sort of virtuosity. She speaks and writes fluently in six languages and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the operatic and art song repertoire. You can imagine how daunting it might be to maintain the high standards that she has set! And yet, when I became manager of the Free Concert Series in 2016, Nina was (and continues to be) a wonderful mentor. It has been an enormous privilege to carry on her legacy and I am constantly reminded that the work I do each day rests on a foundation that she built over many years.

    On behalf of all of the artists, staff, volunteers, audience members, and greater community – thank you Nina and all the best with your new chapter in life! We will miss you at the COC and look forward to welcoming you back into our space as an audience member with the same warmth and generosity that you have given to us.

    All my best,

    Dorian Cox
    Manager, Free Concert Series

    Since 2018, TD Bank Group has been the Presenting Sponsor of the Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.

    Posted in COC News


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