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Where memories (and legends) are made

UBC Old Auditorium

When the Old Auditorium was slated to be demolished nearly a decade ago, a voice and opera student was compelled to take action. He called CBC to cover the story.

“I was adamant that this building shouldn’t be torn down,” says Hussein Janmohamed (BMus ‘96, MMus ‘98), a Vancouver-based community music educator, composer, and co-founder of the Vancouver and Canadian Ismaili Muslim Youth Choirs.

Janmohamed fondly recalls spending the majority of his student life in the Old Auditorium rehearsing, taking master classes, performing with the choir, and eating at Yum Yum’s. He has since performed with the Ismaili Muslim youth choirs for His Highness the Aga Khan and collaborated on a choral piece for the Dalai Lama.

“History has happened in this building. We often forget that buildings carry cultural memories which in turn can inform and shape our society.”

Janmohamed’s passion for the theatre and concert hall echoed the sentiments of countless others including Nancy Hermiston, Director of the Voice and Opera program.

“There was no way I was going to stand by while they destroyed this remarkable theatre,” says Hermiston who spearheaded the project. “The extraordinary amount of work that has gone into renovating this beloved UBC landmark will enable students to develop professionally for generations to come.”

After 10 years of planning and two years of renovations, the Old Auditorium will reopen its doors to students, faculty and the community on October 12, 2010.

From basic renovations to technically advanced upgrades, the revitalized Old Auditorium will provide students with an exclusive training and performance facility. The proscenium theatre boasts a 60-person orchestra pit with mechanical lift, a 2000 sq. ft. costume shop, a fly tower, two rehearsal halls, and a green room.

“We’re absolutely thrilled to have this remarkable space,” says Professor Richard Kurth, Director of the School of Music. “With its new orchestra pit, lighting, and stage equipment, this facility will allow much more elaborate opera productions, and be more versatile and appealing as an opera and concert venue than ever before. It’s now one of the most attractive and multi-faceted music theatres in the city, very modern in functionality, but with its historical charm beautifully revived.”

On sitting in one of the 535 plush red velvet seats, an accomplished alumna reflects on seeing current students perform on stage.

“It was just surreal,” says soprano Rhoslyn Jones (BMus ’02, MMus ‘04), who has performed major roles with the San Francisco Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, and Vancouver Opera, to name a few. “To me it still feels like home. It’s where I learned how to sing and it feels very comforting and welcoming.”

Having performed around the world, Jones believes there is something truly special about the Old Auditorium.

“The Old Aud allows for a greater flexibility of dynamics and a more intimate experience with the audience,” she says of the mid-sized European style opera house and concert hall. “It’s a new era of opera for the School of Music and Nancy [Hermiston]. It was her dream to rebuild the Old Aud and have a real opera theatre.”

The Old Auditorium is one of UBC’s oldest buildings and with that comes a plethora of memories. From large Psychology 100 classes to alumni couples who first met on the steps of the building, the Old Auditorium houses over 80 years of history. The stage witnessed the rise of stars such as dramatic tenor Ben Heppner (BMus ’79, LLD ‘97), legendary mezzo-soprano Judith Forst (BMus ’65, DLitt ‘91), and distinguished theatre and film actress Nicola Cavendish (BA ’77). It also welcomed a range of speakers from noted scientists to a young John Diefenbaker.

“The revitalization of one of UBC’s oldest buildings represents the university’s living history,” says Kurth. “I extend a warm invitation to all alumni who have memories of the Old Auditorium to come and see it in its new glory.”

The renewal of this facility will enable the UBC Opera Ensemble to produce three operas every year, two in the Old Auditorium and one in the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. In addition to being used for the school’s solo, chamber, and ensemble performances, Kurth also hopes that performing organizations from Vancouver and beyond will use the Old Auditorium to create a thriving community of students and professional artists.

Janmohamed believes that professional training and performance spaces are essential for the development of young artists and community groups.

“A classroom is one thing,” notes Janmohamed. “But a theatre like this is a space where the learning intersects with socio-cultural interactions among artists, audiences and community, enriching the classroom experience.”

“The theatre becomes a memorable place of encounter, discovery, dialogue, and cultural exchange.”

The Old Auditorium renewal project was made possible through the generous support of many individuals and organizations including the Province of British Columbia, University of British Columbia, and its donors.

Article appeared in High Notes (Winter 10/11), October 15, 2010

[Photo by Brian Hawkes]

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