Citation for Excellence
The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the new home of the Canadian Opera Company (COC), is Canada’s first purpose-built opera house. The company had dreamed for decades of building its own venue, so when the opportunity arose, every measure was taken to outdo the old rented performance space. Canadian Opera Company general director Richard Bradshaw worked with Diamond and Schmitt Architects to create a welcoming opera house with exceptional acoustics.
Occupying a full block in downtown Toronto, the Four Seasons Centre attempts to blur the boundary between the city and the opera house. The entrance is a four-story, transparent social space called the “City Room,” which runs more than 50 yards along University Avenue. Utilizing structural glazing with low-iron glass, the entire facade hangs from the roof on 1⁄2-inch-diameter stainless-steel rods and is tied back to columns. Horizontal glass girders provide an inconspicuous way to transfer wind load to the structure. The effect is a crystalline openness that, in the words of COC marketing director Jeremy Elbourne, “helps to break down the intimidation factor of attending an evening at the opera.” Elbourne also recognizes it as “a wonderful advertisement for that experience.” Revealing the activity of the audience inside cultivates a new audience outside.
In its first year of operation, COC made sure that plenty of activity within its glass walls would be visible. From the outside, what appears to be a large stair between the third and fourth levels is in fact a 200-seat amphitheater, which hosted a series of 90 free concerts during last year’s inaugural season. Running behind it, stretching from ground level to the fourth floor, is the world’s longest-spanning structural glass staircase.
A slatted steamed-beech screen hangs as an intermediary between the transparency of the City Room and the solid walls of Canada’s first structurally isolated performance hall. The five-tiered, European-style, horseshoe-shaped auditorium has been lauded by opera critics around the globe as an outstanding acoustical space. Diamond and Schmitt intended to mold the acoustical and theatrical requirements of the COC into an architectural aesthetic. They managed to create a space that is simultaneously elegant and straightforward. The theater’s curving plaster shell, its layered ceiling, and frameless proscenium arch create an unpretentious but visually sophisticated setting for the live performances.
Constrained by limited backstage space in its previous venue, the opera company hoped to expand its offerings in number and in repertory. In the new Four Seasons Centre, full rear and side stages along with a 112-foot fly tower and ample wardrobe and storage allow the company to produce several operas playing in repertory. A flexible orchestra pit can accommodate intimate chamber pieces and massive, 100-musician orchestras like those required for Wagner’s Ring, a monumental four-opera cycle that opened the hall’s inaugural season. The improved facilities prevent the company from having to dismantle and store set pieces off-site, reducing changeover time and production expenses.
The COC’s first season in the new opera house played to 99 percent of capacity. “From sight lines to acoustics to the openness and welcoming nature of the lobby spaces … the quality of the experience in the building has meant that we have been able to increase our average ticket price by 15 percent,” notes Elbourne. Increased subscription sales signify that the new building not only entices people to come see an opera production, it provides an experience worth returning for.