All female opera singers are technically divas but, as Renée Fleming proved last night, not all come with prima donna attitudes.
The American soprano captivated her audience as the headlining artist for the 25th anniversary of the NAC Gala, which raised more than $500,000 for the National Youth and Education Trust to support the NAC’s artistic and educational programs across Canada.
She teamed up with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, led by maestro and music director Alexander Shelley, for a concert dedicated to Toronto’s Earle and Janice O’Born for their tremendous contributions to arts and culture.
You would be hard-pressed to find someone living in Ottawa who hasn’t had a slice of Gabriel Pizza. Served up in 42 restaurants in Ontario and Quebec, at events including
Yves Tremblay and Sylvie Villeneuve have an extensive history of philanthropy and community involvement in Ottawa. It’s clear that being generous and making an impact have long been important to
Fleming, 64, delighted and moved her audience with a program that ranged from arias to classical songs to show tunes. She performed a tongue-in-cheek number about divas “of an undetermined age” that she first sang with Vanessa Williams at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts a few years back.
She insisted that the audience participate for a portion of I Could Have Danced All Night, from the musical My Fair Lady. The collective singing was magical to hear. As far as wardrobe changes go, she switched gowns once.
The gala was a debut of sorts for Juniper Locilento, the new CEO of the NAC Foundation. She took over in August from powerhouse Jayne Watson, who decided to retire this past spring.
Locilento had a lot to be excited about, from being involved with her first NAC Gala to that evening’s live performance. “Renée Fleming is a personal hero of mine,” Locilento, who studied opera when she was younger, told OBJ.social.
She still remembers, in fact, the feeling she got listening to Fleming sing more than 20 years ago at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, when she gave a seven-encore concert. “It was one of the most memorable performances I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
Fleming kept it down to two encores last night (it was ‘a school night’, after all). She followed up with one of the loveliest opera arias of all time, Puccini’s O mio babbino caro, and a Canadian song that she described as one of the great anthems, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
The show was “beyond my expectations,” Ottawa lawyer Ted Mann, who studied music before going into law, told OBJ.social immediately after the concert. He wasn’t surprised about the audience involvement. “She brings all her music down to a very human level, from my perspective. That’s what’s so appealing about her. She doesn’t see herself as a layer above the rest of us, she sees herself as being with us, and bringing us along on the journey.”
Fleming, a five-time Grammy Award winner, is the first opera star to ever sing the national anthem at a Super Bowl, by the way.
To date, the NAC Gala has raised $15 million for the NAC’s efforts to champion the next generation of Canadian artists.
Other guest artists over the years have included Sarah McLachlan, Jann Arden, Diana Ross, Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Paul Anka and the late Tony Bennett, to name a few.
“Philanthropy is a huge part of what makes the NAC what it is today,” Locilento told OBJ.social. “We have supporters here tonight from across the country. The fact that the gala has historically, as well as tonight, supported arts education is so important because it’s really about seeding the future, for not just future performers but future arts lovers, future audience members.”
It’s especially exciting to think, she added, that the funds from the NAC’s first gala in 1997 supported burgeoning artists who could be performing on our stages today.
Gala-goers had the option of buying tickets to attend receptions held before and after the concert. The after-party, featuring curated dessert stations, special cocktails and a DJ, was spectacular. How satisfying it was to see the O’Borns mingling in the very room that bears their name. It was named after the donors prior to them making the largest single gift to the NAC of $10 million, announced in 2019.
The O’Born Room is one of the most beautiful venues in Ottawa, with floor-to-ceiling windows that feature splendid views of the downtown. Janice O’Born, former chair of the NAC Foundation, told OBJ.social that she always feels proud when she’s visiting the space. “I just think, whether it’s a wedding or corporate event, we’re showing Ottawa at its best.”
Added Earle: “I love coming here because it takes me right back to the moment that we made the decision to want to do this,” he said, referring to their transformational gift. “That was a great feeling. Every time I walk into the room, I feel it.”
He adored the concert, particularly two of the songs that “struck me right in my heart”. They were: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s You’ll Never Walk Alone (a tune he used to sing to himself as a working-class youngster pulling night shifts), and Hallelujah, which his “darling wife” arranged to have sung to him on his 80th birthday by k.d. lang, who’s another former NAC Gala special performer, incidentally.
While it’s been tradition for corporate sponsors of the gala to dine together on the Southam Hall stage after the concert, this year’s dinner was instead held prior to the show, in the Canada Room. The change allowed guests to have their meal at a more reasonable hour while enjoying an after-party that offered fun and social vibes. “I like this much better, actually,” opined gala-goer Kathleen Faulkner.
On hand that night were NAC president and CEO Christopher Deacon and his board of trustees chair, Guy Pratte, senior counsel at BLG, as well as Susan Glass, chair of the NAC Foundation board. Also seen was Michelle Chawla, the new CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts. Jayne Watson was out to support both the cause and the O’Borns, as well as Locilento and her former NAC Foundation team members. It was the first time Watson was able to totally relax at a NAC Gala. She even got to finish her entire dinner. “I’ve never done that before because I was always running around,” she said in her usual good-humoured way.