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Theatre & Performance 25 things you didn’t know (or had forgotten) about the National Arts Centre

The build was first estimated to be $9-million.

NAC Archives

1. The National Arts Centre Act was proclaimed on July 14, 1966, too late for the centre to open in Canada’s centennial year as initially hoped. The NAC was to “develop the performing arts in the National Capital Region … and to assist the Canada Council for the Arts in the development of the performing arts elsewhere in Canada.” The Canada Council wasn’t impressed. Assistant director Peter Dwyer even said that “Ottawa has nothing of quality to offer” in the performing arts, and that the money would be better spent supporting artists.

2. Two private-member amendments to the NAC Act proposed that appointment of NAC directors should mirror “the linguistic and cultural plurality” or “linguistic duality” of Canada. Both amendments failed after heated debate. Two decades later, in 1988, an NAC board member’s push for a francophone director-general was denounced as “racism” by a Progressive Conservative MP.

3. The first building estimate was $9-million. After $25-million had disappeared in excavation and foundation work (Sarah Jennings writes in her book Art and Politics: The History of the National Arts Centre), thought was given to putting sod over the underground parking lot and finishing the rest later. G. Hamilton Southam, the well-connected former diplomat who drove the local campaign for the NAC, said he couldn’t believe the government would want “a silent, grass-covered slope covering the empty tomb of its own centennial project.”

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Artists were commissioned to provide $500,000 in visual art.

NAC Archives

4. The centre’s final price tag was $46.4-million, which architect Fred Lebensold called “a bargain.” Opposition MPs called it “squandermania.”

5. Southam, who became the NAC’s first chairman, said in early 1968 that Ottawa would have “the first real opera house in Canada,” with a stage “large enough to produce Aida with real elephants among a cast of thousands.” The final act of a 1971 production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro featured an onstage pond stocked with real swans, but elephants have never appeared at the NAC.

6. Artists were commissioned to provide $500,000 in visual art for the centre. When a Brandon MP scolded Southam for not including any Indigenous art, he replied that aboriginal artists weren’t working on the large scale required. He seemed to have forgotten about totem poles.

The NAC opened with a performance by the National Ballet of Canada.

John Evans Photography/NAC Archives

7. Before it was finished, and for decades after, debate raged as to whether the NAC should be a showplace, or an engine for new work. Performing-arts companies outside Ottawa feared that talent and resources would be siphoned away. The argument’s first round was won by NAC Theatre director Jean Gascon, who said “the centre must have a heart that beats. … Without resident companies, the building will be misbegotten.”

8. A February, 1969, report in The Globe and Mail remarked on a “sharp underlying disagreement” about the nature of the NAC. Exhibit A was Parliament’s $2.5-million subsidy for the first year, which some saw as a regional-level sum for a national institution. Southam and others aimed at international renown, predicting the NAC would become the “Edinburgh [Festival] on the Rideau.”

9. The NAC opened on June 2, 1969, with a performance by the National Ballet of Canada. The main work was a 75-minute ballet by a French choreographer (Roland Petit) and a Greek composer (Iannis Xenakis) called Kraanerg. A performance the next night, of South African choreographer John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, was halted temporarily when a hydraulic malfunction raised the pit orchestra above stage level.

By 1973, French and English theatre at the NAC scored average attendance rates above 90 per cent.

Canadian Press/NAC Archives

10. To avoid friction with full-sized orchestras in Montreal and Toronto, the NAC auditioned young players for a mid-sized ensemble, with the hope that fees from weekly CBC broadcasts would help pay the players. The average age of the 43 players who performed the first concert on Oct. 7, 1969, was 26. They began their first tour less than a month later.

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11. When Mario Bernardi, of London’s Sadler’s Wells Opera, was named NAC Orchestra music director, an opposition MP demanded to know why no Canadian had been offered the job. He was gleefully informed that Bernardi was born in Kirkland Lake, Ont.

12. French and English theatre at the NAC got off to a tumultuous start, although by 1973, both scored average attendance rates above 90 per cent. On the French side, a petition was raised against a possible NAC production of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-soeurs. Apparently, some found the play’s revolutionary use of joual too coarse for a high-class theatre.

The NAC ran two satellite theatre facilities: an atelier in an old furniture factory and a stone warehouse on an island in the Ottawa River.

NAC Archives

13. In the late 1970s, with fear of Quebec separatism in the air, the NAC pushed the idea that the arts, and especially theatre, were “a force of unity cementing the country,” as Gascon put it. A proposal to cabinet for a single theatre ensemble performing in both official languages received $1-million from the newly created National Unity Fund. Theatre companies outside Ottawa reacted with surprise and fury.

14. Opera was done in lavish style in the early years, before government cuts made it too costly to continue in “the first real opera house in Canada.” The last big hurrah came in 1983, with an NAC production of Handel’s Rinaldo, starring Marilyn Horne, which was later presented at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The battle scenes were performed by a team of acrobats, who did a unison backflip for their curtain call.

15. Over the years, the NAC ran two satellite theatre facilities: an atelier in an old furniture factory, for workshops and intimate performances; and a stone warehouse on an island in the Ottawa River, where Robert Lepage’s Tectonic Plates premiered in 1988. The centre also had lots of unheralded success beyond its walls with L’Hexagone, a company of young performers who, during a tour in 1978, played Marcel Dubé’s Un simple soldat to 150,000 people in francophone communities across Canada.

In 1995, the NAC kept the orchestra as the only resident ensemble, called for a single artistic director for everything else and eliminated subscription sales.

JOHN McNEILL/The Globe and Mail

16. Ottawa’s deficit-cutting mood from the early 1980s was hard on the NAC, which in 1986 halted the NAC Orchestra season for seven weeks owing to lack of cash. A report to the Mulroney government proposed privatizing NAC operations and transferring the building to the National Capital Commission. A similar idea took wing a decade later, and got as far as a sales pitch to Toronto impresario David Mirvish. He called it “the most ludicrous idea imaginable.”

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17. Another federal report in the late 1980s said that “electronic touring is the pre-eminent tool through which the Centre can fulfill its national mandate.” Yvon DesRochers, director-general from 1988, made deep cuts as federal funds continued to shrink, programmed touring megamusicals to help pay the bills and spent $445,000 on a proposal for a specialty HDTV licence. That irked the CBC, which also wanted an arts specialty channel. Both lost out in 1993 to CHUM TV’s Bravo!

18. In 1995, the NAC adopted a plan called Setting the Stage, which kept the orchestra as the only resident ensemble, called for a single artistic director for everything else and eliminated subscription sales. But after a year of turmoil in upper management, Southam told a public meeting: “This place is leaderless; it’s adrift.”

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, accompanied by Madeleine Gobeil, arrives for the opening night performance of the ballet Kraanerg at Ottawa's National Arts Centre. Ms. Gobeil, an asistant professor at Carleton University at the time, was also a member of the centre's board of trustees.

PETER BREGG/The Canadian Press

19. John Cripton, a veteran impresario who became managing director in August, 1996, hired violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman to bring star power to the orchestra’s podium. Cripton also coaxed a $1-million pledge from the Ottawa Senators centre Alexei Yashin, but the gift vanished when the NAC declined to transfer $85,000 of the money to Yashin’s parents for “consulting” services. The community rallied to the NAC, and a Challenge Fund quickly raised $2.1-million.

20. The NAC Act says nothing about education, but Zukerman pushed for a summer music institute that began in 1999. He also belittled colleagues who didn’t share his strong opinions, said period performance was “disgusting” and disdained most Canadian music not written by his father-in-law, Malcolm Forsyth.

21. In December, 2005, Zukerman abruptly declared he would skip the rest of the NAC Orchestra season, then complained to a U.S. newspaper about the orchestra’s “rotten apples.” By season’s end, average concert attendance had slumped to 65 per cent, but the NAC renewed Zukerman’s contract for another five years.

For Canada’s 150th birthday, the NAC launched a $110-million building renovation that relocated the entrance.

The Photographers/NAC Archives

22. During the 2008 election campaign, then Conservative leader Stephen Harper said that “ordinary people” couldn’t identify with those who whine about declining arts subsidies at “a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers.” The comment hurt him in culture-proud Quebec, and possibly at home: His wife, Laureen, was honorary chair of that year’s NAC gala.

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23. The NAC’s standing dilemma – how to be national, and yet connect with every region – found a solution in 2003 with the first of its “Scene” festivals, which focused on a particular region or province every two years. Plans for 2005’s Alberta Scene so impressed the Alberta government that it contributed $500,000 to help fund the affair.

24. For Canada’s 150th birthday, the NAC launched a $110-million building renovation that relocated the entrance, which formerly faced the Rideau Canal, as if Ottawa were Canada’s Venice. You can now enter from streetside, and once inside the “mausoleum” (as Cripton called it), can see actual daylight – a rare feature in the original brutalist design.

In 2016, the NAC launched its $23-million National Creation Fund, which has invested in 25 projects: three in Alberta, four in British Columbia, six in Ontario and 12 in Quebec.

FRED CATTROLL/NAC Archives

25. In 2016, the NAC launched its $23-million National Creation Fund, which spends up to $3-million a year supporting strong works-in-progress anywhere in Canada, whether or not they came to the NAC. To date, the fund has invested in 25 projects: three in Alberta, four in British Columbia, six in Ontario and 12 in Quebec.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect first name for Marcel Dubé. This version has been corrected.

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