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2006 06 16
A House For Everyone

I went to the gala launch of the Canadian Opera Company's new home Wednesday night. Here is the quick architectural review: The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts gives Toronto one of the world's great opera houses.


Serious opera fans and strident architectural critics can turn the page now or risk offence. If, to the horror of purists, Bugs Bunny cartoons introduce generations of kids to the pleasures of opera, a baseball team might just be the vehicle needed to provide insight into why, in spite of some faults, the Four Seasons Centre is a successful building.

A few years back, the Oakland A's were perennial losers. They did not have the money to compete for high-priced talent. The team had no stars. Conventional thinkers said they belonged in baseball's backwater. Then the A's hired a manager who changed the way the team thought about talent. The team found good, solid players whose stats said they could perform, and built a team without stars. Guess what? They won, and changed the game while they were at it.

Sound familiar? When the COC secured a corner site at one of the city's premier intersections, many thought superstar architect Frank Gehry should design an iconic opera house there to rival Sydney's. That would have been wonderful. The COC did not have much of a budget for the building. $150-million was it. High-priced home run hitter Gehry got pulled.

COC conductor and general director, Richard Bradshaw, and the COC board decided Canada had the cultural talent to make an internationally successful opera centre in spite of a minimal budget. They commissioned Toronto architecture firm Diamond and Schmidt to design and build a house as good as any in the world. Not that the architects are without accomplishments --they do exceptional work -- it is just that many thought Toronto needed more money and superstars to take on New York's Met.

Wednesday night's opening proved doubters wrong.

The designers built an opera house for both performers and audiences. Even from my slightly awkward perch on the upper side of the auditorium, the sight lines were good. The sound was better. The performers had me with O Canada. By the time the encore Beethoven's 9th finished, the audience and the performers knew they had all shared in a special moment.

Diamond and Schmidt architects, theatre designers Fischer Dachs, and acoustician Bob Essert made their collaboration work. The place does its job. Toronto is now an opera destination thanks to their teamwork.

What about the rest of the building? Some complain it is not as iconic as the ROM's Libeskind Crystal or Gehry's AGO. That is true. This building is quiet. The Four Seasons Centre may owe its genesis to a Scandinavian design notion that insists the people who use a building should give it its outward life. Without people, the glass-enclosed circulation spaces are too sparse, even brittle feeling. Some details could have used a bigger budget. There is no doubt about it.

However, as Wednesday's gala illustrated, people breathe life into the place. In fact, the building has two audiences: those who attend the performance and those who walk or drive by. That was the designers' intention.

Passersby on Queen and University experience a spectacle of movement and colour when audiences flood the building's reception areas. Inside, on the other hand, patrons can indulge in the centuries-old act of promenading. Did you see what Lady Black was wearing? Was that Margaret Atwood?

Diamond's glass staircase is the architectural device orchestrating the audience's performance. An engineering achievement, it becomes a transitory stage when crowds of people use it to move down the atrium from one level to another.

For the first time in Toronto's performance history, we have a major social space that elevates the audience to the level of players. That alone is worth the price of admission. It is so damn democratic too - Oh Canada.

There are design problems that critics are right to point out. For the budget, though, this building, Richard Bradshaw insists, takes Toronto to the top of the opera big leagues. That, as is said in the game, ''ain't bad.''

This story also appears in today's National Post
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 06/16 at 10:59 AM

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