Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Grand Opening of Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts

When I did a tour of Holy Trinity Catholic High School a couple of months ago many things impressed me, but there is no doubt that the new theatre inside the school is a kind of crowning jewel. When I walked into it I was awe-struck by the space, a beautiful theatre by any measure, but even more astounding when you learn how versatile the space is, able to accommodate any event from weddings to stage productions to film festivals to zumba classes. It was designed this way, to be a space that could be modified and adjusted for maximum usage by not only the school, but by the community - because this theatre is meant to be a part of the community, and not just the school. Last night I gathered with other members of our community and we welcomed the new theatre - and, people, what an evening it was.

I had been the told the evening would be a "red carpet" affair, and I thought this was meant as a metaphor - but when I stepped out of my car I realized it had been quite literal. A red carpet stretched from the front doors of Holy Trinity to the parking lot, and Fort Mac residents were, quite literally, walking the red carpet. There, in front of the doors, were photographers, taking photos in the best paparazzi style. I must admit I tried to avoid them, attempting to duck behind posts and others on their way in, but they caught me as all true paparazzi do, and I probably have a very similar expression to celebrities who are caught unaware.

When I got inside it was yet another event in Fort Mac style, with residents wearing fine suits and cocktail dresses. It's funny as I have on occasion complained in this blog about how people dress here, and yet when the occasion calls for it we, as the saying goes, "clean up very well". There was time before the opening of the theatre doors to mingle and chat, and I ran into all the usual suspects, as I have begun to refer to those you see often at events such as these.

Finally the moment arrived and Holy Trinity principal Lucy Moore ushered us into the theatre ( I'd seen her moments before, working in the coat check - she is a hands-on principal, people, and quite admittedly one of the favourite people I've met while writing this blog). We walked in and once again I was stunned by the beauty of the theatre, the simple beauty of a space dedicated to the arts.

I was with two friends, the friend who had invited me, and one of her friends as well, and we snuck up high into the theatre, almost to the the very back. This pleased me as I wanted to get a sense of the theatre from that vantage point, to see if it was visually and acoustically pleasing even from these seats - and it was.

There were the usual speeches, from our MLA and mayor, from individuals representing the Catholic School Board - and then there were what I had really been anticipating - the performances.

Before the first performer, a pianist, came out, a little story was told about his arrival here. You see, Simon-Marc de Freitas grew up in Fort McMurray but now lives in Edmonton. Yesterday morning he boarded a plane to fly here for the grand opening, and the flight left Edmonton as scheduled. When it arrived in the skies above Fort Mac, though, the pilot made a decision. The high winds made landing here precarious. He made the decision to turn the plane around and fly straight back to Edmonton, carrying Simon-Marc with it. This left a quandary for Simon-Marc. What to do? Well, people, in the true resourceful style of those who have lived in this city he left the airport, hopped in his car, and drove the 4 and 1/2 hours to get here. I will say I am profoundly grateful he did, because his presence at the opening was integral, and to be able to hear him play was inspiring. It was inspiring not just because he is a magnificent pianist, although he is. It was inspiring because he came from Fort Mac, and because this city is where he began to pursue the dream he now follows.

A variety of acts took the stage last night, featuring dance, violin, piano, and voice. I must admit there were several moments that took my breath away, in particular the pieces of opera that were sung by Cara Brown and Sarah Neiman. I have always been intrigued by opera, but more so in recent years due to the influence of two friends. The first is the friend who actually suggested I begin to write this blog, and he has been a fan of opera for years. It has been through him that I became interested in opera at all, although I will never claim to have his understanding of the stories or the nuances of the art. The second is a friend who grew up surrounded by opera as his mother was a German opera singer. These two influences have combined and left me with a taste for opera, perhaps an unusual desire in this city, and yet last night I think every person in the theatre was, just for a moment perhaps, an opera fan, too.

There was also a performance from local teachers Kimerica and Michael Parr that took me back to a time in my past. You see, they chose to perform some selections from the musical "The Phantom of the Opera", and this has always been a favourite of mine. I know there are those who deride this musical as cheesy or overwrought, but I have a very special attachment to it. I was living in Toronto when they renovated the Pantages Theatre on Yonge Street, and that is where the first performances of Phantom were played in Canada. I was among one of the first Canadian audiences to see this musical so many years ago, and so last night to hear Michael and Kimerica's beautiful soaring voices brought me back to a time in my life when I was so much younger but still so much in love with the arts.

There were also two announcements made last night, and I still can't decide which excites me more, or which I am more passionate about. The first is that this spring Fort Mac will see it's very first TEDx conference, a conference that is built around the concept of "ideas worth spreading". It's hard to describe a TEDx event, but all I can say is that it will be a special memory for all who choose to be involved in whatever way. The second announcement may not excite everyone but it actually brought me to tears. On occasion you may have seen ads at the theatre promoting "Live from the Met", or live HD broadcasts of opera from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. I've always despised these ads, considering throwing popcorn at the screen, not because I hate opera but because I hate being teased by things I cannot have. They run the ads here, but not the operas - but that, people, is about to change. In spring the Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts will host it's first "Live from the Met" event, and I will be first in line to purchase tickets. I cannot wait to sit in our beautiful new theatre and be surrounded by the sights and sounds of some of the finest operatic offerings in the world. I admit it. TEDx and live opera might seem like polar opposites in terms of what they bring, but both of them will enrich my life, and for that reason alone I am profoundly grateful to those who made this theatre a reality. I don't think I'll be alone in that gratitude, either.

After the music ended there was wine, and food, good friends and good conversation. When I finally left, putting on my warm coat to head into the dark night, and an entry now thankfully devoid of photographers (I am camera shy, people), I thought a lot about what the performing arts mean to a community. They mean so many different things to different people, a night out for some, and a chance to relax for others. For some they are a passion, or even a career. For some they are an escape. For me, though, they are a link to my past. When I listened to the songs from Phantom of the Opera last night I recalled that evening decades ago in Toronto when I sat in the Pantages and marvelled at the beauty that unfolded before me. It made me think of who I was back then, and of how I had changed over the years. I realized that I still knew the words to those songs, and that the melodies caught me just as much now as they had many years ago. The performing arts - whether it is music, or song, or dance - are part of the fabric of who we are as humans. We have been singing and dancing and making rhythms for thousands of years, people. The performing arts aren't an "option", and they aren't a "bonus". They are integral to who we are as human beings. They are how we tell stories, how we share special moments, they tie us to our pasts, and they bring us into the future.

I welcome the Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts to our community. I was profoundly grateful for the opportunity to participate in the grand opening, to see the performing arts unfold on that stage, to hear the speeches and the announcements - and to see how this facility will enrich the fabric of our community. I thank Suncor Energy, the Catholic School Board, and the RMWB for making it happen, and for bringing to us this wonderful new centre. I cannot wait to attend another event in it - and Fort Mac, I not only hope, but expect, to see you there!

"Music of the Night", Phantom of the Opera,
Pantages Theatre, Los Angeles

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