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Sacre bleu! Toronto rocks!

Richard Burnett
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Richard Burnett

It’s that time of year again, when Montrealers get a little restless and need some fun down time away from home. A weekend in Toronto is always a good bet, with plenty of fine restaurants, museums, accommodations, vibrant LGBT nightlife and – my favourites – plenty of opera and big-league sports teams.


The Canadian Opera Company – the biggest and most important opera company in Canada – opened its 2015/2016 season with Giuseppe Verdi’s classic La Traviata.
 
La Traviata is one of opera’s greatest romances but it scandalized Venetians at its 1853 premiere Richard Burnettwith its unsentimental depiction of a Parisian courtesan in love. A year later, La Traviata was restaged and triumphed, quickly growing in popularity and today it remains one of the most performed operas in the world. 
 
I attended the COC opening night of La Traviata and, as usual, was blown away by the production’s stellar cast – notably internationally-acclaimed American baritone Quinn Kelsey as Germont, Alfredo’s disapproving father – and eye-popping high production values.
Plus, a night out at the opera in Toronto is really fun: opera lovers here like to dress up, and the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Richard BurnettArts is without question the finest opera house in the land, on par with the great opera houses of Europe. Not to mention there isn’t a bad seat in the entire house.  
 
The COC productions of La Traviata and the Canadian world premiere of Pyramus and Thisbe (starring the wonderful and handsome Phillip Addis as Pyramus) have wound down, but the COC season continues with much-anticipated productions of Seigfried (runs January 23 to February 14), The Marriage of Figaro (February 4 to 27), Carmen (April  12 to May 15), and Maometto II (April 29 to May 14). Tickets are available online at coc.ca, by calling 416-363-8231, or in person at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts Box Office (145 Queen St. W.). 
 
Meanwhile, over at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, do not miss the must-see exhibition Andy Warhol: Stars of the Silver Screen, organized by The Andy Warhol Museum and presented in collaboration with TIFF.
 
Richard Burnett“We hope that visitors will more fully understand Warhol’s own fame as it relates to his seemingly unquenchable desire to collect the trappings of Hollywood in the form of the varied objects included in the show,” says Eric Shiner, director of The Andy Warhol Museum. “Fame fueled Warhol in so many ways, and his work became a generator of fame, just as it recorded and documented it at the same time.”
 
The exhibition includes archival materials such as Warhol’s childhood scrapbook; his meticulously collected photographs of screen icons Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo and Kim Novak, among others; some of his earliest Pop drawings, and experiments with rubberstamp multiples that were precursors to his most famous works; prints, Polaroids and silkscreens of celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Farrah Fawcett, Liza Minnelli, Grace Jones and Arnold Schwarzenegger; as well as film and video works.
 
The exhibition will be accompanied by film programmes, special guests, contemporary artworks staged throughout TIFF Bell Lightbox, and a Screen Test Machine (with a re-fitted Bolex camera like the one Warhol used to shoot his films) that will allow visitors to film themselves. The exhibition continues at TIFF until January 24, 2016. 
 
I was also in Toronto to attend the 519 Church Street Community Centre’s annual 519 Gala, this year held on October 19, and billed as “Salah Bachir Presents An Exceptional Evening with k.d. lang.” Other musical guests were out performer Theo Tam (winner of season six of Canadian Idol) and Molly Johnson.
 
I was a guest of Nada Ristich, Director of Corporate Donations for the BMO Financial Group, the gala’s presenting sponsor. As Nada once told me, “I love gay men because they love me! That’s because I’ve always had gay friends since I was a teenager, and that’s going back a long time!”
 
Nada added, “The LGBT community is very important to the bank – that is reflected in our LGBT affinity group and providing a safe work environment. Personally I love to support the gay community because I lost so many friends during the early says of the AIDS epidemic, and we were among the first corporations to step forward to support causes established around HIV/AIDS. It was the right thing to do and we needed to do it.”
 
Richard BurnettThis year the 519 Gala raised $414,000 through ticket sales, private donations and corporate sponsorships. Celebrity sightings included broadcaster Valerie Pringle, pop star Nelly Furtado, U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman, Benoit-Louis Vuitton (the great-great-great grandson of Louis Vuitton), one-time federal Liberal minister Bill Graham, former Conservative minister John Baird, and Canada’s first openly lesbian senator Nancy Ruth (yes, the same pol who infamously quipped that airline breakfasts are “ice-cold camembert with broken crackers”).
 
As for lang, who performed a six-song set – including her definitive version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah – she did not pose for any photographs. But a few years ago she told me in a rare one-on-one interview all about the famous and historic August 1993 Vanity Fair cover shot of bathing-suit beauty Cindy Crawford giving the suit-clad lang a shave. That one snapshot launched the 1990s lesbian-chic era. “I’m very proud of that picture,” lang told me. “It stands the test of time.”
 
I then told lang I remembered her accepting the 1985 Juno Award for Most Promising Female Vocalist – wearing a wedding dress! Lang smiled and said, “I think being queer was an asset. Being very alternative was my secret weapon prior to coming out.”
 
Toronto has become Canada’s top destination for LGBT tourists, but lang’s performance at the 519 Gala was the icing on the cake. For more on travelling to Toronto, visit www.seetorontonow.com.
 
HOW TO GET THERE 
Via Rail – which links 450 communities across Canada with its 12,500-kilometre route network and transports over four million passengers annually – is also a partner of nine LGBT Pride festivals across Canada. The VIA Rail Panorama Lounge at Toronto’s Union Station features a complimentary snack bar and business centre. Rail travel to Toronto is not only relaxing but a terrific green option. There are always last-minute deals on Discount Tuesdays: www.viarail.ca
 
WHERE TO STAY 
The Intercontinental Toronto Centre is a glorious throwback to when grand hotels had big, spacey rooms. This AAA Four Diamond hotel merges affordable luxury, ideal location, state of the art technology, meeting facilities and personalised customer service. Located at 225 Front Street West and attached to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the hotel features 586 spacious guestrooms and suites, exclusive Club InterContinental floors, the Azure Restaurant & Bar, and Spa InterContinental. Reservations: 416-597-8146 or www.intercontinental.com
 
The boutique Hotel Le Germain MLS (30 Mercer Street) is strategically located in the heart of Toronto’s entertainment district, and features 24-hour fitness facility with state-of-the-art equipment, 24-hour valet service, free wireless Internet access throughout the hotel, and meals made with seasonal produce at the Victor Restaurant and Lounge. Reservations: 800-916-4339 or www.legermainhotels.com.
Both hotels are just a few minutes walk away from Union Station.
 
WHERE TO EAT 
Céilí Cottage (1301 Queen Street E.) is one of my fave restaurants in Toronto in the heart of Leslieville: This Irish pub boasts a wide range of Irish and Canadian premium craft beers, whiskies and spirits, fresh oysters, and quality homemade food. And it oozes atmosphere. The place is run by restaurateur and champion oyster shucker Patrick McMurray, who has made Céilí Cottage a must for locals and visitors alike. Reservations recommended: 416-406-1301 or www.ceilicottage.com.
 
Another must is restaurateur David Lee’s The Carbon Bar (99 Queen Street E.), a smart, good-looking and lively barbecue restaurant and bar with a down-home menu that features pork and beans, collard greens, a superb Wild Shrimp Salad and an oyster bar. The service was excellent. Reservations recommended: 416-947-7000 or thecarbonbar.ca
 
 
Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette at 
 
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.