By Robert K Stephen (CSW)
(TORONTO, ON) – A night at the opera? After having read too much 19th century Russian literature, I have visions of aristocrats wearing fine gowns and tuxedos adorned with jewels, smoking the finest Turkish cigarettes, and drinking the finest champagne at the opera in Saint Petersburg.
This is not the case at The Canadian Opera Company (“COC”) in downtown Toronto.
It’s a smart casual crowd, generally speaking, with only a few scruffy low brows wearing faded jeans and ill fitting shirts. In fact, there is often a bit of an exciting, eccentric, well dressed element on Saturday night at the “opera house” in Toronto. But, I have yet to see gowns, tuxedos, and extravagant jewels.
The COC performs in the airy and beautifully designed Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts in downtown Toronto. What a wonderful venue from a technical perspective of sound, but architecture as well. The designers of the building, Diamond Schmitt Architects, did a fabulous design job for the Centre which opened its doors in 2006.
I admire its openness and huge windows facing Queen Street, University Avenue, and Richmond Street. The sparkling lights of the City of Toronto captivate to the extent you’ll forget the shenanigans of Mayor Rob Ford, whose sweaty shirt profile I have yet to see waddling around the Four Seasons Centre.
The floating staircases glowing with blue under lighting contrast with the deep and rich wood hues throughout the exterior of the actual R Fraser Elliot Hall, where the performances occur.
There are five levels at the Four Seasons Centre, with numerous bars to accommodate thirsty drinkers. I was originally going to title this article “Libations at the Opera,” which sounds a bit more dignified than its current title, until I saw the second act of Mozart’s Cosí Fan Tutte, where Dorabella and Fiordilgi get hammered and fall down drunk!
The booziest opera scene I have ever seen.
Mozart lives up to his lively reputation indeed, yet according to the COC the most popular drinks served at their bar stations are coffee and water. This is not what I see but, then again, I am a Saturday patron of the COC where the next day is not a working day, and what I see on Saturday is lots of wine. Understandable, I suppose.
Atmosphere has an important part in consumption of alcoholic beverages and different atmospheres for drinking are at the Four Seasons Centre. If you are looking for the largest bar and area to consume a beverage, the bar at the Orchestra Level absolutely hums with its large square footage and number of imbibers. Take your drink at intermission and stroll over to the COC gift shop, or just people watch.
There are a few tables to place drinks on, but most carry drinks in hand and chat until the next act.
You’ll usually have one intermission but, for the longer operas, you have two. The Orchestra level bar, despite being very open is enveloped in a fuzzy feeling of warmth with its cream coffee tiles, muted beiges, wooden slat wall behind the bar, and the wooden staircase leading up to the Grand Ring.
The bar in the Grand Ring Level is very much smaller than that at the Orchestra level, but here you will find a list of “Martini Cocktails” with a few tables and chairs. I rather picture this as a more romantic place to enjoy a glass of champagne and lean over and look deep into the eyes of your sweetie pie. And there are premium spirits to be found here.
While there is no bar in the nosebleed 5th Ring, there are two bars on the 4th Ring. There is also a bar on the Third Ring.
How to pay? The Orchestra Bar accepts Visa and debit cards otherwise its cash, which is a good thing as it expedites service. Of course, you know that twit at Starbucks using his credit card for a $5 coffee syndrome.
Compared to bars in 5-star hotels I have reviewed in North America and Europe, the sum total of offerings appears to me to be somewhat particularly sparse, on a per bar station basis but, given the unique nature of the demand for drinks primarily concentrated in a short intermission period, we need to take matters into context. In sum total, the COC bars adequately manage patron expectations.
“Efficiency of service is paramount and by having a finite selection of beverages available we’re able to accelerate the delivery of service to our patrons within the narrow windows of time allowed pre-performance and during intermission,” explained a COC spokesperson. “Consider for a moment that intermission is often less than 25 minutes and that the main level of the Four Seasons Centre alone can seat up to 900 patrons. You need to deliver a certain standard of service so that patrons can make the most of their time during that break in the performance. “
“To that end, arranging it so that patrons can pre-order their intermission beverages is something we’ve brought to the Four Seasons Centre to maximize service efficiencies,” he concluded.
The drink menu is not as limited as it may appear. There are about two dozen spirits/liquors that patrons can choose from, an offering from Mill Street Brewery, and a selection of Trius wines (red, white, brut, and ice wine), as well as Veuve Clicquot. This is on top of a wide-ranging non-alcoholic beverage menu.
If you are hungry, there are also sandwiches available and decadent Hagen Daas bars.
You can pre-order drinks for intermission by paying in advance, receiving a numbered chit which you present at intermission, and pick up your drink thus avoiding the long line-ups.
The severs are personable and, if you are a regular, greet you with a bit more of a twinkle in their eyes. They know their stuff for sure and, while having no training from suppliers, the servers I talked too could certainly charm you with a description of what you were thinking of ordering.
“Wine service is part of the training program for the serving staff and each bar has tasting notes on hand to refresh anyone’s memory. The serving staff hasn’t been trained by the suppliers, but yes, they can quickly describe the characteristics of the wines being served.”
All wines are Hillebrand wines under the Trius label. You know the wines you might see in a supermarket wine store and, perhaps incorrectly, quickly flee from. The red and white costs you $6 for three ounces and $12 for 5 ounces. So why are Trius wines chosen?
“We are purposefully serving Canadian wines,” said the spokesperson. “We promote Canadian artists and we promote Canadian wine. After many tastings of wines from the Niagara region, we chose the one we wanted to serve at the Four Seasons Centre.”
And is there a wad of sponsorship money flowing to the COC from wine and spirit producers to get their product on the shelves? The COC is a bit coy on that point and does not answer what it would take to get my product on the menu.
“Not unlike any other establishment serving beverages, it comes down to what meets our needs as a business and, most importantly, what product will meet the expectations of our patrons in terms of what they will want to have as part of their experience at the Four Seasons Centre.”
Equally coy the COC refuses to explain what percentage of revenue is derived from bar sales.
“While food and drink sales are a source of revenue, they aren’t a large one. We also don’t offer food and drink with that intention. We do it as a customer service and to fulfil an expectation of what one’s experience will be.”
It’s a bit of a shame the festivities end after the last intermission and the bar closes up so quickly. The Four Seasons Centre is such a great venue for a nightcap but, alas, this is not the case.
“Unfortunately, the night at the opera has to come to an end at some point,” he told me. “There also isn’t the same level of demand for bar service post-performance as there is before or during intermission. We’ve found that the majority of our patrons like to carry on with their plans once a performance is over, whether that be heading home or continuing the evening’s festivities at one of the neighbouring restaurants or bars.”
THE RED WINE:
The red wine is Trius Red 2011. Served in a very dark green bottle with an elongated neck the COC maintains a Canadian streak with this wine from Niagara. It has a ruby colour and it aromatics of sweet red Ontario cherries, chocolate, smoke, tobacco and beets. Cabernet Franc really makes the Cabernet Sauvignon in this wine be a real understudy.
The supporting Merlot adds a touch of smoothness too. Cheerful cherry streak on the palate puts a smile on your face. Not like some complicated operatic plot but more like the cheerful and light hearted story behind Mozart’s opera Cosí Fan Tutte.
It’s a bit thin on the midpalate and has a short and tartish finish but who wants a complicated wine at intermission. It’s light and cheerful. Perfect for an “intermission wine”. Good choice!
(Trius 2011 Red, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Trius Winery, Niagara-on-the-Lake, 750 mL, 13.1%, LCBO #00303800, $22.95, Square Media Group Rating 89/100).
A very satisfying and skillful blend and popular with the opera crowd. At home serve with a pasta loaded with a rich tomato sauce or even a pizza or bruschetta. Pop on a Verdi Opera CD while you are at it. A favourite amongst the patrons as far as I can see.
THE WHITE WINE:
The white wine is Trius 2011 Chardonnay. This is a screw top Chardonnay; a crowd pleaser and non-threatening wine. It’s a pale gold colour loaded with pear, white peach and marzipan aromatics in a distinguished and very solid format.
Solidity continues on the palate with lime, apple custard flavours, and a slightly creamy texture and a medium finish.
Entirely respectable and approachable, yet not overly familiar. Neither is it over oaked and boorish for being so. So serious, it deserves some Wagner on the turntable.
(Trius 2012 Chardonnay, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Trius Winery, Niagara-on-the-Lake, 750 mL, 13.5%, LCBO #00497248, $13.95, Square Media Group Rating 89/100).
THE SPARKLING WHITE:
The sparkler is Trius Brut (Non Vintage). It ain’t champagne because it’s not made in that designated area of France, but it’s made in exactly the same way.
Andy Warhol white with a pinkish hue and lots of bubbles. But, I have seen more bubbles in higher priced champers than I see here. Popeye chicken biscuit aromas and golden delicious apples jump out at the nose with loads of apple crisp.
On the palate, a very clean acidic bite to clear any bad memories of Act 1 or to celebrate its brilliance. Solid and stubborn acidity with some power and finesse. Extra dry and perfect to settle into the next act or clean the senses for the opening act.
Five ounces will cost you $12 and that’s a great deal.
(Trius Brut (NV), VQA Niagara Peninsula, Trius Winery, Niagara-on-the-Lake, 750 mL, 12%, LCBO #00284539, $24.95. Square Media Group Rating 89/100).
Unfortunately no grape composition is indicated on the label but I am guessing some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Come on now, it’s the opera, have a glass of bubbly.
The stemware is Arcoroc and certainly palatable, unlike the plastic and or thick and clumsy glass stemware I have seen at many a venue.
In conclusion, the COC bar service is excellent, though the choice, for pragmatic and completely understandable reasons, is just a bit limited, but indeed adequate. Suits me.
In any case, focus on the performance and the atmosphere of which the beverage is just a part.