Canada finally has a national opera house, complete with private boxes that will be the talk of society,

BARBARA AMIEL June 12 2006


Canada finally has a national opera house, complete with private boxes that will be the talk of society,

BARBARA AMIEL June 12 2006


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Canada finally has a national opera house, complete with private boxes that will be the talk of society,



Just 139 years after Confederation, Canada will open its first national opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, in Toronto on June 14—in spite of all Canadian cultural policy initiatives. Finland beat us by 13 years. War-torn Vietnam reopened its magnificent French-built opera house in 1997 (and by 1999 had mounted a production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice—sung in Vietnamese). Even Iceland, population 296,737, has a dedicated home for its opera. In the civilized world, Canada is one of the last coun-

tries—if not the last—to create a home for its opera company, a dubious distinction.

Opera rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Perhaps there is something intrinsically unCanadian about it—though opera on ice is a thought. “Opera,” said U.S. humorist Robert Benchley, “is when a guy gets stabbed in the back, and instead of bleeding, he sings.” Opera is characters with impossible names—Nilakantha, Helmwige, Klytemnestra, King Ouf 1, Baron Tabasco and his private secretary Tapioca—in situations that beggar the imagination, singing words that cannot possibly be understood, with seats costing the earth.

Rather odd then that Ben Heppner, Richard Margison and Michael Schade, arguably the world’s best Wagner, Verdi and Mozart tenors,

all call Canada home. Or that the opera world thinks of Canada the way the baseball world thinks of the Dominican Republic: overflowing with new talent like soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian (who also holds a University of Toronto honours degree in biomedical engineering), Adrianne Pieczonka, who will debut at Bayreuth this summer, and New Brunswick’s stunning Measha Brueggergosman, ebonyskinned, sometimes pink-haired, and touted as the next Jessye Norman. Or that Toronto, a city imbued with a musical tradition of over 100 years of symphonic and choral work, was content to do without an opera house for so long. No law says a civilized city must have an opera house, but even so, the term has become a euphemism for a city having reached a level of cultural maturity.

Few people are neutral about opera. For opera lovers, the combination of orchestra and voice, when done well, evokes such shivering pleasure, such ecstasy and joy, that no vocabulary is available to explain it. For an opera hater, those suffering husbands dragged to performances for the social convenience of their wives, or teenagers forced to listen for their betterment, no vocabulary is sufficient to describe the agony.

In the bad old days, opera in Canada was relegated to hockey arenas. When New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera came to Toronto in the 1950s, it played at Maple Leaf Gardens, a venue that could seat 15,000 people. I had seat number 14,999—the singers could have been hockey pucks for all I could see and hear. Later on, opera came to the O’Keefe Centre, 3,200 seats, and if you were once again in the cheap seats and watching Maureen Forrester wearing her Valkyrie outfit in Wagner’s Die Walküre, all you could see, as she ascended to Valhalla, home of the gods, were her thighs. They were as formidable as her voice, but singing thighs are distracting.

Opera fans grumbled. Committees were formed to build a real opera house, usually with Toronto financier and philanthropist Hal Jackman heading them. In 1984, Ontario premier William G. Davis gave the COC some land in the heart of Toronto at Bay and Wellesley. Premier succeeded premier, political party succeeded political party. Nothing happened.

Meanwhile, in a little Valhalla of their

own, situated somewhere between Toronto’s Rosedale and Forest Hill, the opera committees, encouraged by one or two politicians who hummed Verdi in the shower, were spreading ambitious wings. They hired architect Moshe Safdie, who came up with a project costed at about $300 million (in 1989 dollars). The plans were marvellous, the Bay and Wellesley site was great, the parking would have been terrific and even the National Ballet of Canada—a company known for its pickiness—would have had enough rehearsal rooms to satisfy their needs. Unfortunately, in 1990, NDP premier Bob Rae, who had not yet become a Liberal, demanded impossible cuts.

Enter Richard Bradshaw, 62, the general director of the Canadian Opera Company. Difficult to miss him, if you go to the opera. The man has the requisite Franz Liszt mane of hair, suits as impeccably cut as those of former La Scala musical director Riccardo Muti, and a presence that dwarfs his divas. If he isn’t conducting, he’s watching the performance gimlet-eyed from the sidelines.

Bradshaw has been a master strategist behind the creation of the Four Seasons Centre. Schmooze, seduce, grovel, bully, whatever the situation called for short of extortion and murder, Bradshaw has done it if a donation was in sight.

He arrived in Toronto in 1989, just in time to watch the fall of the opera house project. Born in Britain, he attended the mandatory first opera or concert that changes one’s life: in Bradshaw’s case, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro when he was eight years old. He had his first musical job as a preteen—organ playing at the local church. After the Glyndebourne Opera Festival job every aspiring British musician needs, he received an offer from San Francisco in 1977 to be resident conductor. Bradshaw brought his new wife, Diana, to the New World.

The air is thin at the top of the conducting world. Ambitious, highly talented young conductors like Bradshaw look around and gauge what might be available: how old is the conductor of the symphony orchestra in Cleveland, Munich, Los Angeles, Berlin, New York, London? When the podiums are taken by relatively young men or held by musical giants, you are fortunate to get an offer like that of San Francisco. Fortune struck twice. In 1989, Brian Dickie, general director of the COC, who as general administrator of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera had offered Bradshaw

the job there, now invited him to Toronto to be conductor of the COC orchestra.

Bradshaw’s task was twofold. As conductor, he had to pull the orchestra together. Just how a conductor brings an orchestra to the world-class level that the COC orchestra has reached today—“triumph... spectacular... Richard Bradshaw conducts a taut, sinewy performance” raved the London Times when it played in 2002 at the Edinburgh International Festival—is one of those mysteries that reminds me of Rose Kennedy’s answer to the question put to her in 1964 of what made her sons so charismatic. “If I knew,” she said, a mite sarcastically, “I’d bottle it and sell it.”

The relationship between Bradshaw and his orchestras is symbiotic. His unabashed championing of his players is mirrored by the support and protectiveness they have given him during those dark moments almost all great musicians have. Berlioz called them his “black philosophy,” and Mahler, Chopin and many others have battled the exaltation and depression that seem to affect those people whom music takes to so high a point that coming down is a steep descent.

Meanwhile, Carmen may be great and Pavarotti made Puccini’s Turandot famous with his 1990 recording of Nessim dorma, but in 1993, Bradshaw gambled on younger audiences responding to more cutting-edge stuff. He commissioned librettos from Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood. Film directors Atom Egoyan and François Girard were given productions. It worked. François Girard’s production of Oedipus Rex with Symphony of Psalms, designed by Michael Levine and presented at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival in 2002, was pronounced “dazzlingly spectacular,” and the orchestra hailed by the Independent as “gold-standard.” Levine, a graduate of the Ontario College of Art & Design, is now one of the world’s most soughtafter opera designers. He will design and direct Das Rheingold for the COC’s Ring Cycle this autumn.

In 1994, when Bradshaw took over as artistic director, the COC was in long-term care if not the intensive care unit. “Opera,” explains John Fraser, master of Massey College, “was the dog in the Toronto scene. For years the symphony had been the focus of attention, from the glory days of Sir Ernest MacMillan [193156], through conductors Walter Susskind, Seiji Ozawa and Karel Ancerl. Then the emergence of prima ballerina Karen Kain, who in 1972 danced with Rudolf Nureyev in Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, and the sensational 1974 defection of Kirov Ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov in Toronto put ballet back on the agenda. The opera just crawled along.”

The COC still had no home. All that remained of the debacle of the 1989 opera house were some condos at Bay and Wellesley mockingly called “Opera Place.” But by the late nineties the mood was changing and Bradshaw was there—to be one of those “tipping” people Malcolm Gladwell describes in his best-selling book. Toronto had its SkyDome, its convention centres, Roy Thomson Hall. The time was right to push for an opera house again. In 2002, the provincial government donated land on Queen Street, the federal government gave a grant of $25 million, and the COC board committed a further $13 million. That left more than $100 million to be raised.

Bradshaw planned his assault. The Canada to which he had arrived was still reaping

the whirlwind of the sixties. The heady days of hippiedom led to the egalitarian vocabulary of the ’70s and then to theories of political correctness that became the mother’s milk of the nineties. “Diversity” was more than a descriptive noun—it was a shibboleth. Elitism was akin to Satanism in the minds of the guardians of Canadian culture. None of this would have been immediately apparent in 2002 to Bradshaw, who simply thought it was time Toronto had an opera house.

Bradshaw had been nurtured in the European arts scene where governments funded opera as a matter of course—and for reasons of political survival. Let La Scala or the Munich opera house die and a government might as well resign. In a speech in October 2004 in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre, Bradshaw listed some of the statistics. “The Danish state subsidy to the arts is six times that of the federal subsidy in Canada. The

annual subsidy in Berlin to opera alone will be $215 million plus an immediate $40-million lifeline. The Canada Council’s budgets for all the arts in Canada was $142 million in 2002-03—little more than half of what is being invested in opera alone in Berlin.”

But Ottawa felt its largesse was amply demonstrated with its one-time gift of $25 million. The government funds the arts through the Heritage Ministry. The arts policy of Canadian Heritage emphasizes “Excellence and diversity in creativity” as its first goal with “specific priorities,” namely “aboriginal artists and arts organizations... artists and arts organizations from diverse regions, culturally diverse communities” and other politically correct notions having little to do with the arts. These objectives are more

or less echoed by the Canada Council. When the council announced a bonus of more than $550 million to the arts in 2004, scarcely a penny of it found its way to the opera. Bradshaw fought back: “You certainly won’t build a cultural renaissance by being cravenly politically correct,” he told the Canadian Club in 2004-

An unsympathetic attitude to the opera is not a monopoly of the Liberals and the NDP. If those two are tangled up in the cult of multicult and PC, the Conservatives have their own pinched approach. Heritage Minister Bev Oda displayed a big dose of it in the 2006 budget debate: “Spending on arts and culture,” she said, “must be focused and generate clear results.” Unfortunately, unlike household or business budgets, the arts rarely produce “clear results.” The day after the budget, Bradshaw was in a slough of despond. When told that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in fact something of an intellectual, he looked fractionally cheered. “But does he understand the role of culture in the spirit and life of a country?” he asked.

The big beef against opera is that it is elitist (which may explain why the left-wing Toronto city council has not offered the new opera house one penny). But elitist in what sense? Opera lovers in Canada cut across all ages, incomes, creeds, ethnicities and races. Graduates of the COC’s Ensemble Studio include young Canadian singers not only from Europe but Russia, Lebanon, Israel, Korea, Hong Kong and South America. Under Bradshaw, the percentage of young people attending has sharply increased. Forty per cent of his non-subscription audience for Atom Egoyam’s Salome was under 30; 48 per cent for the 2003-04 production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes-, 39 per cent for Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.

• The current model for fund-

ing the arts in Canada reflects the view of the “Canadian equity worker/academic” (whatever such a unicorn may be) quoted in a paper delivered to the 2003 Canadian Heritage Forum on diversity and culture: “I pay taxes and I do not go to see cultural productions at Roy Thomson Hall or the Canadian Opera Company, yet they receive tax money and grants and those productions I prefer to see get minimal if any support through tax dollars... our sense of Canadian culture must change and not rely upon the clear assumption that it is an Anglo/Euro-centric value system and hierarchy.” An opera-supporting taxpayer could, of course, have responded that modern life


is so arranged that we all end up subsidizing the policies we are passionately against— such as forums on diversity and culture. That’s our system.

With the land and federal funding in hand, the next question was the opera house design. Ten architects submitted proposals: the choice fell to the Toronto firm of Diamond + Schmitt.

No single art form in the last decade has gripped the popular imagination as intensely as architecture. Architecture is what caused Italy’s Vittorio Sgarbi, a former deputy minister of culture, to reportedly threaten to dynamite Richard Meier’s new pavilion in Rome last April, when it opened to house Augustus’s 2,000-year-old “altar of peace.” Rather than blow up the building, the ex-minister had to settle for simply setting fire to an effigy of it. In 1984, Prince Charles called a proposed development in the heart of the City of London “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.” All the arguments about traditionalism versus modernism dating back to the Bauhaus battles of the 1920s are with us again.

Jack Diamond is an erudite and cultivated man who obtained an Oxford graduate degree in politics, philosophy and economics.

His twin passions are music and architecture. He has little patience with what he describes as “the superficial novelty of so-called iconic or trophy architecture” (read Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind) and has a deep commitment to the “social, physical, political and economic” aspects of a project. The outside walls of the opera house whose white and iridescent black palette was chosen, he explains, “to pick up the environment,” change from white to silver to gold as they pick up reflected light.

Diamond’s architecture is marked by its lack of flamboyance. For him, function takes precedence over form—following in the tradition of Bauhaus modernism. “Architecture,” says his website, “shaped by the life within it and by the life around it.” His Four Seasons opera house makes performers and audience the stars of the building rather than the building

itself. Sheets of absolutely transparent

and completely soundproof low-iron glass dominate two sides of the building, including the City Room where audiences will mingle at intermissions. The effect is spectacular as the lit exterior reveals the play of figures moving through the rooms and going up and down the glass staircase floating between floors. To create such an effect on both so small a budget and footprint is an architectural miracle.

Still, critics of the opera house find the plainness of the exterior unexciting, even grim. They see the flatness of the roofline as the ugly side of modernism. There are no sexy curves to the building. The auditorium is a horseshoe in the tradition of all great European opera houses, with a grand tier made up of individual boxes, some having private foyers where coats can be hung, but that is where the resemblance to the opera houses of Vienna, London and Milan ends. There is no velvet or gilt. Even the hooks for coats are stainless steel pegs rather than voluptuous curves.

The triumph of the house is Diamond’s deep-honey-coloured auditorium with its

superb acoustics and sightlines. Though it is directly next to a subway line and busy city traffic, the auditorium is a completely independent structure, ingeniously buffered from noise by a rim of steel and almost 500 shockabsorbent rubber pads. The highest row in the house has a perfect view of the stage. “Audiences will have to re-educate themselves,” said Matthew Leila of Diamond’s firm. “The total silence means the turning of a program page makes a noise.”

The campaign kickoff came from Toronto’s Isadore Sharp, who in 2003 promised $20 million to have the house named after his luxury Four Seasons Hotels chain. His 2003 agreement was for the naming opportunity only. The tree logo of the Four Seasons would go on the donor board inside the house. But by 2006, Sharp had a rethink and wanted more for his shareholders. “Who knows what the Lincoln Center commemorates,” he said. He told the COC he wanted the Four Seasons tree logo placed high up on three sides of the building.

Jack Diamond was strongly opposed, if not apoplectic. The notion of the house as a corporate brand—probr ably the first branded opera house in the world—was not a first either he or Bradshaw wanted. Others murmured about the gods in Wagner’s Ring Cycle moving into a Four Seasons hotel instead of Valhalla, with Brünnhilde confined to a one-bedroom junior suite. Sharp wanted maximum value for his $20 million, and had the blunt weapon of his pledge of instalments to be completed after the opening of the house. He settled good-naturedly on a compromise of one illuminated tree on the outside front wall of the house only.

After Sharp’s jump-start, the remainder of the money had to be raised. The fundraisers turned beagle eyes on the house for naming opportunities. A seat—$10,000. Getting your name on the donor wall—$25,000 and up. A box—$1 million. The President’s Council and Sponsor’s Lounge went to Hal Jackman for $5 million. The Royal Box on the Grand Ring in the R. Fraser Elliott Hall went for $7 million after a combined donation from the Meighen Foundation and the late Mrs. E. Louise Morgan. Seasoned philanthropists were courted: Labatts, Rotmans and Tanenbaums, who responded with seven-figureplus donations. The Leslie Dans gave $2 million, the Milton Harrises $2.5 million. The COC staff and artists passed the hat and donated more than $208,000. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE)

local 58 donated $50,000. Even the COC board of directors upped its original pledge of $13 million to $22.6 million. “We didn’t originally have the washrooms on the naming list,” explained Wendy McDowell, the capital campaign director, “but people kept asking about it.” The washrooms went for $50,000-$100,000, the first one being snapped up by an opera lover who has been unwell. “Two friends” sponsored the ladies’ on the Grand Ring floor. The Ellen Jean Hellyer Powder Room was named in honour of the late Mrs. Hellyer by her family. No plans to name each toilet, but one sensed that if need be...

Philanthropy aside, opera still has the social oomph of no other enterprise—strange, since opera has never been exclusive. When real opera emerged in the 17th century, it was popular recreation and Mozart was definitely for the masses. Still, the notion of the best people being “seen” at the opera has always stuck.

Contemporary theatres in Canada like Roy Thomson Hall carefully shied away from private boxes in favour of mass seating. It was baseball’s SkyDome, for heaven’s sake, that imitated Europe’s opera boxes. Now, in that endearing Canadian manner, our opera is imitating baseball and the ubiquitous and expensive European box is back.

What this will do to Toronto’s social scene is no mystery. Box seats will be, unambiguously, the place to be seen. Culture will make it okay to display the pecking order so antithetical to the Canadian way of things—but oh so very human. Boxes go from B to X, with the Royal Box (N) as the numero uno in terms of prestige: while its 12 seats will be on public sale, donors like Izzy Sharp will have a ration of tickets for themselves.

Richard Bradshaw’s box (F) will have a special éclat for music lovers and, after a while, Torontonians will become familiar with whose name is attached to which box. For starters, box G is music philanthropist Roger D. Moore, with the Dans in E and Masonite International Corp. in U. Couples in love will adore boxes W and C, which hold only two people. The sound is probably better higher up and orchestra seats are better for close viewing, but for socialites it will be no contest. The blessed quality of the box is that the seats are movable for the long-legged, while bored husbands can slip away after the curtain goes up or have a double whisky in the box’s vestibule and sleep through the whole evening.

When the ribbon is cut on June 11 and the fundraising gala concert held, the less glam work of getting more money for operating costs will continue. With characteristic brava-

do, Bradshaw has chosen to open the new house with a complete production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (followed by a full season of Verdi, Strauss and Mozart). The four separate operas are performed on sequential nights: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung—three of which are over four hours long plus intermissions. For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, based on Nordic legends, a description of the relationship of its hero, Siegfried, to other characters in the operas may be instructive. Richard Wagner’s great-grand-daughter, Nike Wagner,

quotes an earnest critic writing in 1920 in Berlin’s theatre journal Die Schaunbiihne: “Siegfried is the son of his uncle and the nephew of his mother. He is his own cousin, as the nephew and son of his aunt. He is the nephew of his wife, and therefore his own uncle and his own nephew by marriage. He is nephew and uncle in one. He is the son-inlaw of his grandfather Wotan, the brotherin-law of his aunt, who is at the same time his mother. Siegmund is the father-in-law of his sister Brünnhilde and the brother-in-law of his son. He is the husband of his sister

and the father-in-law of the woman whose father is the father-in-law of his son. Brünnhilde is the daughter-in-law...” Incest is complicated.

Wagner lovers will travel anywhere for a new Ring. Wagner’s own opera house, the Festspiele in Bayreuth, received 492,000 ticket requests this year, nine times the 53,900 seats available. Eventually, Bradshaw hopes to make the Four Seasons Centre one of the must houses both for singers and Wagner lovers. Meanwhile, the singers who can perform Wagner are few in number and command high fees.

But as the opening notes of Wagner’s score resonate in the Four Seasons’ auditorium this autumn, that Dionysian music of so passionate an intensity that one’s very essence is laid bare and vulnerable to the gods, Canada will add more than a notch to its stature. The Four Seasons Centreall its glass and brick and wood—may not last over hundreds of years, but its “being” will.

The culture of a country, after all, outlives buildings and the people in them. Ozymandian forces reduce everything to dust except the spirit and values that infuse a civilization. On June 14, Canadian opera star Ben Heppner will perform at the opening concert. The crowds in their long dresses in the new opera house, and the masses of people outside in Nathan Phillips Square listening and watching the concert for free on a huge screen erected for the occasion, will be as one, beginning a new chapter in Canada’s cultural legacy. “This is how Canada can be,” said Bradshaw. After the performance, Bradshaw, Heppner, Pieczonka and others will go over to Nathan Phillips Square to join the party. It took an Englishman to create this dream. It will take Canadians— and their government—to keep it alive. M