NAC

Ottawa Magazine - - THIS CITY - The Cur­tain Rises Again BY PAUL GES­SELL

SOME WERE JUST PLAIN CU­RI­OUS. Oth­ers were ju­bi­lant. They were the 40,000 Ot­tawans who toured the Na­tional Arts Cen­tre when it opened May 31, 1969. Cul­ture, with a cap­i­tal C, had fi­nally ar­rived in By­town, al­beit a cen­ten­nial project two years late with a price tag that had bal­looned from $9 mil­lion to $46 mil­lion.

The first per­for­mance was June 2, 1969. Pierre Trudeau, still the bach­e­lor prime min­is­ter, ar­rived with the glam­ourous Car­leton aca­demic Madeleine Gobeil. The Na­tional Bal­let of Canada per­formed Kraan­erg, an avant-garde con­coc­tion of de­lib­er­ately dis­cor­dant mu­sic. Bal­le­rina Veron­ica Ten­nant com­pared the ex­pe­ri­ence to “be­ing in Star Trek.” Re­views were mixed.

Much more came that year: Gor­don Light­foot, The Ec­stasy of Rita Joe, Duke Elling­ton, Count Basie, Joan Suther­land, Harry Be­la­fonte, and even Mar­lene Di­et­rich. Later came opera and sum­mer fes­ti­vals. The New York Times raved. It was Ar­ca­dia on the Rideau Canal.

Ot­tawa fell in love with the NAC’s of­fer­ings. But not so much with the bru­tal­ist ar­chi­tec­ture, a ce­ment back turned dif­fi­dently to El­gin Street. As the years pro­gressed, the hexag­o­nal mod­ules seemed a build­ing only its ar­chi­tect, Fred Leben­sold, could love. Still, the NAC be­came a favoured spot for grad­u­a­tion, wed­ding, and cor­po­rate ban­quets.

In­side, the ini­tial $500,000 art bud­get gave us many jew­els, in­clud­ing the stun­ning sculp­ture The Three Graces by Parisian artist Os­sip Zad­kine. It still sits in the main foyer. Nearby is a gi­ant ab­stract ta­pes­try by France’s Al­fred Manessier. The most spec­tac­u­lar art­work came from Que­bec’s Miche­line Beau­chemin. Thou­sands of looped fi­bres, mainly in red, formed a tex­tured stage cur­tain in The Opera, re­named Southam Hall in 2000 — a trib­ute to Hamil­ton Southam, who guided the NAC in its first decade.

Alas, Beau­chemin’s cur­tain has be­come em­blem­atic of the seem­ingly good ideas that did not al­ways work at the NAC. The cur­tain was soon deemed too un­wieldy and is rarely used any­more. In-house theatre troupes and sum­mer fes­ti­vals have pe­ri­od­i­cally come and gone. Opera has all but dis­ap­peared. Pub­lic ex­cite­ment dwin­dled dur­ing the ’80s and ’90s, with de­bates over fund­ing and pop­u­lar-ver­sus-elite pro­gram­ming. A few sup­pos­edly vi­sion­ary di­rec­tors were shown the door. Le Restau­rant was closed and Le Café teetered. The whole she­bang was al­most pri­va­tized by Brian Mul­roney and then re­ha­bil­i­tated by his suc­ces­sors and, since 1999, pop­u­lar CEO Peter Her­rn­dorf.

Now, the NAC is get­ting a facelift for Con­fed­er­a­tion’s 150th birth­day. Out­side, there will be a glass fa­cade en­clos­ing new, wel­com­ing spa­ces un­of­fi­cially branded “Ot­tawa’s liv­ing room.” That is to cost $100.5 mil­lion plus another $114 mil­lion for a re­fit­ted Southam Hall, with two new cen­tre aisles.

The of­fi­cial re­open­ing is July 1, 2017, but the fes­tiv­i­ties re­ally be­gan June 15 with the mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary Canada Scene, a six-week­long fes­ti­val open­ing with the opera Louis Riel, first per­formed by Toronto’s Cana­dian Opera Com­pany as a cen­ten­nial project.

The NAC was not yet built for the Riel’s 1967 tour. This time, it prom­ises to be ready.

The New Southam Hall The bal­cony of the per­for­mance space, look­ing bare prior to the re­place­ment of floor­ing and seats

New En­trance on El­gin An artist’s ren­der­ing of the fu­ture El­gin Street fa­cade, which in­cludes a three-storey tower

The Opera Emerges The NAC Opera (now Southam Hall) un­der con­struc­tion in 1966

The Old Front Door A bird’s-eye view of the de­mo­li­tion of the Panorama room, which faces the Rideau Canal

Miche­line Beau­chemin The artist who cre­ated the gi­ant ta­pes­try cur­tain is shown here in Ky­oto, Ja­pan, dur­ing its cre­ation

Con­struc­tion of the NAC An ae­rial view of the Na­tional Arts Cen­tre con­struc­tion site in 1966

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