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Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Photo by Sam Javanrouh

Style & Fashion in Downtown Toronto

© by Mike Keenan

The Fairview Mall GO bus signals its destinations - "Grimsby, Stoney Creek, Union Station" and "Go Jays Go" in that order. Delighted with the minimal cost - $8.15 for seniors - I am ferried to Toronto with ample leisure reading time, while others navigate the tangled traffic tango.

This trip is all the more merrier with tickets to watch the opening night performance of La Traviata (the fallen woman) inside the gorgeous Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, home to the Canadian Opera Company. Adding sparkle to the visit is an invitation to stay in a Hilton hotel suite next door to the COC on the 32nd floor, with supper at their Tundra restaurant.

During a mere 15-second walk from the Hilton across Richmond Street to the opera, I watch fans in Blue Jays' jerseys with their favourite player's names and numbers printed on their backs. They slouch along University Avenue, the team having lost their home opener with Texas. Fashion and attire are a recurrent motif during our visit.

Hilton Toronto  Margery Steele Suite view, photo by Mike Keenan

For example, we are housed in Hilton's Margery Steele suite. She was director of the prestigious St. Regis Room, first at Simpson's then Hbc's the Bay flagship store, a haute couture buyer who expertly dressed Toronto's business and social elite.

Festooned in a black, white and gold colour scheme, the Art Deco-inspired 800 square foot suite boasts a fully mirrored dressing room, complete with vintage lighting and a mirrored built-in dresser. The lavish bathroom offers a double vanity and a deep soaker tub. I'm more excited by the sumptuous sitting area with a flat screen TV on a revolving stand such that I can watch the next Jays' game from the comfy sofa or the king-sized bed.

From our top floor vantage point and during breakfast in the executive lounge across the hall, the view of the Toronto skyline is impressive. Alsop Architects' elevated "table top" extension to the Ontario College of Art and Design, boasts striking black and white pixilated skin and 12 multi-colored legs. The once distinctive Canada Life building, a fifteen-floor Beaux Arts edifice built by Sproatt & Rolph with its weather beacon is now dwarfed by neighbouring towers. The Adam Beck Memorial in the landscaped median south of Queen Street West looks quite tiny. The square at City Hall with Henry Moore's Three Way Piece No.2: Archer circa 1964 is equipped with a giant screen for the aforementioned baseball fanatics.

The costumes in the $1 million production of La Traviata are exquisite. Sandra Corazza, Canadian Opera Company Costume Supervisor is a graduate of Niagara College's Technical Theatre program from where she fast-tracked to the Stratford Festival, the Banff Centre, back to Stratford, and she ended up with the COC.

She informs me that natural wool, cotton and silk fabrics are preferred in opera wardrobes because they move better, feel better and look better under the lights. The COC frequents New York City's garment district and stores there that cater to theatre, and because Toronto's garment area has declined, the COC often employs European sources as well.

Opera companies often share wardrobes and sets; thus La Traviata's garb arrived in boxes from the Lyric Opera in Chicago and after Toronto, Houston is up next, so eventually there might be 3 or 4 wardrobes of each major character arriving in a box with local craftspeople making alterations or often, creating newly tailored outfits for the cast.

Overseeing a wardrobe staff of 22 people including sewers, cutters, fitters etc., Sandra says that the COC employs a costume collection in storage like Stratford but it is not available to the public nor do they rent out as at Stratford. Asked how costumes affect opera singing, she explains that some singers like their clothes tight fitting and others, loose. As a precaution, she employs large hems with extra fabric for alterations.

We sit in the third tier of the packed Four Seasons designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects. The striking facility never fails to impress me with its immense western wall of see-through glass fronting Toronto's University Avenue, augmented with glass staircases, allowing patrons (much like at Roy Thomson Hall) to create form and colour.

New York theatre director Arin Arbus and conductor Marco Guidarini work well together to depict the epic story of loyalty, sacrifice and heart break in 1850s Parisian society. Billed as one of opera's greatest romances, La Traviata scandalized Venetians in 1853 when it premiered because it featured a Parisian courtesan, aka high-class prostitute, in love with a nobleman.

The singing in Verdi's tale by the three principals, the husband and wife team of American tenor Charles Castronovo as Alfredo and Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina as Violetta as well as American baritone Quinn Kelsey as Alfredo's father - is superb.

Another star performer is visual artist and designer Cait O'Connor. Her sumptuous costumes are amazing to behold, particularly in the two salon scenes with the chorus filling the stage with colour, the men impeccable in their tails with contrasting white gloves and vests and the women outfitted in lavish ball gowns, a sea of hydrangeas on steroids. The sets are crème coloured in Act 1 and red in Act 2, scene 2, the Gypsy party. O'Connor is aided and abetted by set designer Riccardo Hernandez, Marcus Doshi's lighting and choreography by Austin McCormick.

Back at Tundra, sous chef, Anthony Davis, provides us with a five-course meal starting with myriad morsels featured on their small plate menu - pickled Ontario summer cherries, toasted walnuts, lentils, puffed amaranth, goat cheese mousse, beets, pumpkin humus, pickled foraged mushrooms, an assortment of local cured meats, and cider glazed Nova Scotia scallops - each course accompanied by a complementary wine chosen by the sommelier, a knowledgeable chap named Uriah. Three wines are from Niagara vintners - Foreign Affair, Angels Gate and Henry of Pelham. The main course is braised Ontario wild boar with roasted Brussels sprouts and smoked sturgeon with a poached free range duck egg. Anthony's homemade bread and butter are delicious.

He informs us that they employ local ingredients as well as specialty items such as mushrooms foraged throughout Ontario and Quebec. They use an in-house smoker and pickle many items such as the appetizers that we enjoyed. They also devise unique menus to supplement specific COC shows. Toronto native and executive chef, Kevin Prendergast, explains that from the design to the décor to the menu, Tundra was conceived to evoke the image, texture and taste of Canada. Indeed, the Canadian Shield is reflected in bare concrete and wood, and all that is missing from the Hilton's main floor is a large Inuit carving of Arctic muskoxen!

Neaz, our sociable and efficient waiter, was a Bangladesh cricket pro as a mere teenager, and he is a wealth of information about the menu, wine and clientele. We sit only two tables away from Karen Kain's table, a regular at Tundra with the National Ballet also housed at the Four Seasons. Neaz reports that like my spouse, the former prima ballerina favours Sauvignon Blanc with her meals.

At $8.15 for transportation, Toronto, alias the Big Smoke, is well worth a trip from Niagara and where one can then splurge on entertainment, food and accommodations. In that respect, it doesn't get much better than combining the COC and the adjoining Hilton.


For more pictures, go to:
https://www.pinterest.com/mustang6648/toronto-opera/ and

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Mike Keenan writes for Postmedia Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune, Niagara Falls Review and Seniors Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.

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Mike Keenan

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