Magazine article Opera Canada

William Littler on an Industrialist's Extravagant Gift to the Nation

Magazine article Opera Canada

William Littler on an Industrialist's Extravagant Gift to the Nation

Article excerpt

TRAIN-SPOTTING TRAVELLERS WITH AN EYE FOR PASSING box cars or long-distance vans will probably recognize the name Maersk, even without knowing it is the Christian name of Denmark's richest shipping magnate and, more recently, Danish opera's greatest benefactor. Alberto Villar may have spread his money across more stages, but Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller actually built one and presented it on October 1, 2004, as an outright gift to his fellow citizens. Given the costs of construction, the gift was worth about $460-million.

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Operaen (the Opera), as he calls it, sits in glass-sheathed glory on the Copenhagen waterfront, directly across from the Amalienborg Palace complex, the residence of Queen Margrethe II, on property formerly owned by the Royal Danish Navy. Critics of the project, and they appear to be few, have accused Mc-Kinney Moller of situating and building his own palace to rival the queen's. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine a more striking or appropriate site for what is, at least until the opening of Oslo's similarly wave-lapped new house, the finest and architecturally most distinctive home for opera in any of the high northern countries, Canada certainly included.

True, Operaen is currently a little awkward to reach, located as it is just outside the historic heart of the Danish capital. The most glamorous approach is by shuttle ferry, in the manner of the gondolas of Venice, a trip of only a few minutes. Building the house more centrally would have required massive civic reconstruction. As it is, the building contains 41,000 square metres distributed on 14 floors, five of them subterranean. There are more than 1,000 rooms.

The structure dwarfs Toronto's new Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. And yet, the Toronto house, in the typical North American manner, seats more people: 2,000 compared with 1,444 (using the full pit) or 1,569 (using the smallest pit configuration) in Copenhagen.

North American visitors continue to be surprised by the intimate auditoria typically housed in huge buildings in Europe, the Paris Opera's Salle Garnier being a typical 19th-century example. The buildings tend to be large in order to accommodate a wide range of shops, rehearsal studios and administrative offices, for ballet as well as opera, whereas the auditorium size reflects both historical tradition and the size of the population being served. The British lifestyle magazine, Wallpaper, may have numbered Copenhagen among the "coolest" cities in the world, but the entire population of Denmark numbers only five million, and with generous state subsidies to support it, Operaen can afford the luxury of intimacy. …

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