TORONTO - The temporary bleachers have long since been cleared away but Torontonians who attended the opening of the Royal Ontario Museum's (ROM) new addition last Saturday night are still trying to forget. It was an occasion to delight those who despise the pretensions of Toronto. No doubt they will savour, till their dying days, how dreadful it was. But we who love Toronto hope we can (as mourners are advised to do) put it behind us and move on. Still, it's better at the beginning to talk than suffer in silence.
Imagine, then, this spectacle: Like Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984, the face of William Thorsell, director of the ROM, suddenly loomed several stories high over Bloor Street, projected onto the museum's new cladding. It was realistic enough to be terrifying. And it spoke! It said, of course, that this was a great moment, but the disembodied god-like presence left us trembling.
Thorsell and several others, magically revealed by celestial technology, turned out to be the show's highlight. Most of the evening was dead ordinary, but the Big Brother imagery at least delivered an element of primitive horror. And its spiritual implications fit the evening's theme.
We were there to celebrate Toronto's devotion to a quasi-religious belief in art, progress and imagination. First, though, it was a festival of thanking. At openings of cultural buildings, we give ritual thanks to donors, from whom all blessings flow. We do it as often as religious people thank the deity. Managers of these buildings must believe that donors suffer from a terrible thirst for gratitude, and they could be right. In any case, the thanking at the ROM reached previously unimagined levels of unction.
The performances filling most of the evening were also worked into the religious theme: In between acts, Paul Gross, our host, conducted an argument with a booming voice (Gordon Pinsent's) that claimed to belong to Time. We all realized that Time represented God, who would have come Himself if He hadn't been made illegal.
Time turned out to be just as pushy as the God of Genesis, though less interesting. He said all civilizations die and our time had come. He was "pulling the plug" this very night because we were growing less creative and polluting the earth.
In our defence, Gross offered the show we were watching (rap singers, Celtic dancers, an opera star, native drummers, whatever) as proof of our creativity. Time seemed unimpressed (and nobody would blame him). Besides, that still left Earth-despoiling. What could we say about that?
At this point the producers wheeled out David Suzuki, that national menace, to declare that the world is reforming itself by going green. As an example he cited some young girls who saved some old horses. He mentioned "my friend Al Gore."
Eventually some of us began pawing through the program to learn who conceived this twaddle. It said "Writer: Bernard Rothman." He's a TV guy from Montreal who has spent the last 35 years in Los Angeles, accumulating a modest list of credits (wrote for My Three Sons, produced a George Burns special, etc.).
I phoned him and asked if the Time vs. Paul Gross idea was his. He said he wished it was but the credit goes to the producer, Mark Shekter, another TV guy. "It came from Mark and then we all jumped in," Rothman said. He did write the ending, in which Pinsent, as Time, gives Earth another chance, since we've promised to improve.
David Foster wrote the closing anthem for the occasion. On stage, various dignitaries danced along while it was sung. Among them was Governor-General Michaelle Jean, reinforcing her reputation as the first cute G-G in the history of Canada. Musically, Foster's piece resembled an Andrew Lloyd Webber reject. Its words, however, filled us with hope, mainly that the show would soon end.
This hodgepodge of a production had a name, A World of Possibilities. The ROM loves Tony names. The renovation is a Renaissance. The addition is the Crystal. Especially designed chairs are Spirit House Chairs. The stairwell isn't a stairwell, it's the Stair of Wonders (where wonders include Hal Jackman's collection of toy soldiers).
And the architecture, the work of Daniel Libeskind? Pretty nice. No one knows how it will work as a museum, since the exhibits won't be completely installed for many months. Externally, though, it's fine. Once you accept the bizarre level of self-assertion and the flagrant attempt at aesthetically colonizing the whole district, it's an elegant piece of Cubist sculpture.