“Sacre bleu! Toronto rocks!” That pretty much sums up how I feel about Canada’s Queen City.
A weekend getaway in Toronto is a sure bet, with fine restaurants and fab shopping, museums, top accommodations, vibrant LGBTQ nightlife and – my favourites – plenty of opera and big-league sports teams year-round.
On this trip I returned to Toronto with my mom Diamond Lil: We were invited by our BFF Louis-Michel Taillefer to attend the Canadian Opera Company world premiere of Montreal homeboy Rufus Wainwright’s sophomore opera, the much-anticipated Hadrian, starring two opera legends making their company debuts: American baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role and Grammy-winning Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as former Roman empress Plotina.
The opera recounts the epic love story of Roman Emperor Hadrian and his young lover, Antinous, portrayed by rising Canadian-American tenor Isaiah Bell. Hadrian is devastated when Antinous drowns in the River Nile. Erased by history, their story is reclaimed for the 21st century by the opera’s creators – composer Rufus Wainwright and librettist Daniel MacIvor – in a star-studded production from renowned Canadian director Peter Hinton.
“What I love about my project is that it is very much rooted in the tradition of grand opera,” Rufus told me a couple of years ago. “Big sweeping romantic statements and larger-than-life characters who ruled the world. It’s my Antony and Cleopatra moment – Hadrian and Antinous and the Roman Empire.”
The cast was rounded out by legendary Canadian tenor Ben Heppner who came out of retirement to make a cameo appearance as Dinarchus, and another legendary Canadian tenor, John Mac Master, portrayed Fabius. John, I am happy to say, is an old family friend who conquered the opera world following his debut at the Met in 2005. As Fabius in Hadrian, John was in exquisite voice.
For the uninitiated, a night at the opera in Toronto is delightful fun: opera lovers here really do enjoy dressing up smartly, and the Four Seasons Centre is hands-down 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, even the cheap seats. Not a one.
Diamond Lil and I were guests at COC season-sponsor BMO’s reception where we were greeted by host and good friend, BMO Financial Group Director of Corporate Donations Nada Ristich, as well as Hadrian librettist Daniel MacIvor.
When it comes to Hadrian, I look at Wainwright, MacIvor and Hinton as an operatic gay trifecta. But reviews of the opera were mixed at best, and the opera’s final act could have – to quote The Globe and Mail – “ended at least three times before it actually did.”
When the cast kept singing the line “Is this the end?” – notably soprano Karita Mattila as Plotina – many opera queens in the audience muttered, “Bitch, I wish it was!” Still, hats off to the COC for commissioning the new opera, and an unapologetically queer one at that.
The rest of the 2018-2019 COC season looks excellent, notably their productions of Elektra by Richard Strauss (for eight performances, from Jan. 26 to Feb. 22, 2019), Otello by Guiseppe Verdi (eight performances from April 27 to May 21) and Giacomo Puccini’s monumental La Boheme (11 performances from April 17 to May 22) to close the season.
While in Toronto, when Diamond Lil went shopping, I visited The Bentway, a unique and innovative public space that transforms 1.75km underneath Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway into a new gathering place for the city’s growing population. The Bentway knits together seven local neighbourhoods with over 70,000 residents, and offers year-round activities and events, including gardens, recreational amenities, public markets, public art, special exhibitions, festivals, theatre and musical performances, and their pretty awesome Bentway Skate Trail which officially opens to the public on Dec. 21. Bring your own skates or rent skates on-site. For more info, visit thebentway.ca.
No trip to Toronto during the holidays is complete without a visit to the Toronto Christmas Market. Inspired by the European Christkindlmarkt that originated in Germany in the 1400s, this event celebrates the sounds, sights and scents of Christmas. Set in the Victorian-era, cobblestone-lined Distillery Historic District, the Market brings together local craftspeople, artisanal food-makers and spectacular light displays for a truly festive experience. Free admission Tuesday to Friday and $6.00 admission Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday. Closed Mondays. Runs to Dec. 23.
Meanwhile, The National Ballet of Canada stages the beloved two-act ballet The Nutcracker – Tchaikovsky’s famous adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original tale – at the glorious Four Seasons Centre from Dec. 8 to 30.
On this trip, I also spent several hours visiting The Hockey Hall of Fame. It is easy to lose oneself in this incredible museum where Montreal’s hockey legacy looms large. The hall’s centrepiece is an exact replica of the Canadiens’ old Montreal Forum dressing room, complete with jerseys, skates, pads and other equipment worn by the team’s legendary superstars.
This was the fourth time I visit The Hockey Hall of Fame and it never gets tired. Au contraire, in Toronto, especially here at the hockey hall, Montrealers will feel at home.
HOW TO GET THERE
For many years I’ve happily travelled with environmentally-friendly Via Rail who are also a partner of LGBTQ Pride festivals across Canada. The VIA Rail Business 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. VIA Rail also offers free Wi-Fi. To book a fare, visit viarail.ca
WHERE TO STAY
I have stayed at countless hotels in Toronto over the years, but none of them have the Old-World comfort and style of the Omni King Edward Hotel, Toronto’s first luxury hotel, built in 1903. Elegant and timeless, with Afternoon Tea served in Victoria’s Restaurant, superb Sunday brunch served in the gorgeous Sovereign Ballroom and cocktails in the aristocratic wood-paneled Consort Bar. The rooms are spacious, as are their spa-like marble bathrooms. The King Eddy also restored and re-opened its famous rooftop Crystal Ballroom after an extensive $6.5 million renovation in spring 2017. I love everything about this classy hotel, centrally located (37 King Street East) in the financial, entertainment and shopping districts. For reservations, visit omnihotels.com
WHERE TO EAT
The historic and trendy Distillery District east of downtown Toronto is home to some 100 shops, boutiques and restaurants, including the new Madrina Bar y Tapas (2 Trinity Street). The Catalan tapas restaurant’s menu and design don’t disappoint. Sitting in a historic cornerstone of the Distillery District’s main square, the restaurant fuses old and new by making good use of the century-old Victorian building that once housed Tappo Wine Bar. The food and service was excellent. Reservations: 416-548-8055 or visit madrinatapas.com. A two-minute walk from our Omni King Edward Hotel, Don Alfonso 1890 (19 Toronto Street) is the first restaurant in North America from Michelin Star Chefs Alfonso and Ernesto Iaccarino serving a menu of Amalfi coast flavours in an interior accented by priceless art. Tasting menus interpret Italian ingredients through molecular gastronomy, plated in vessels custom-designed for each specific dish. The service and food were flawless. Reservations: 416-214-5888 or visit donalfonsotoronto.com
While the Church-Wellesley Village remains the focal point of LGBTQ nightlife, queer-owned and queer-friendly establishments can be found throughout the Queen City, notably in the west end, where the affectionately named “Queer West Village” – centred around Queen Street West between Trinity Bellwoods Park and Roncesvalles Avenue – has become an alternative to the Church Street scene. For all you need to know about Toronto, visit seetorontonow.com
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at bugsburnett