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