UCC Abroad: Music to My Ears, A profile of the new Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and its Canadian connection

By: Conor Healy

The Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg

The Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg

The past few years – and particularly the past few months – have seen a tumultuous period of social change internally and strife externally for our neighbors at the North Pole – the Russian Federation. With Sochi 2014 around the corner, they have been conspicuously in the news and, for the most part, it’s not good press. However, negatives and politics aside, May 2013 heralded a major Russian coup in the international musical community with the grand opening of the Mariinsky II ballet and opera theatre. Located in Russia’s “cultural capital” St. Petersburg, this venue was built as a second home – hence the “II” – for the world-famous Mariinsky ballet company and is located beside the also-world-famous Mariinsky theatre. It is believed to be among the most expensive cultural creations in history with a price tag of $700 million USD. Even so, the project has easily lived up to the costs by garnering international attention for its design. President Vladimir Putin, whose native city is St. Petersburg, is known to have been a patron and believes that it has “everything you need for a theatre”. Over the summer, I was able to experience this country, this city and this particular venue first hand. Along the way, I discovered a fascinating connection between Mariinsky II and a UCC Old Boy.

On the white night of June 27th, while visiting St. Petersburg with family friends (Russians conveniently), we set out to attend a performance at the old Mariinsky theatre – a remnant of an imperial age long past. Dinner came first. We ate at a somewhat chic Russian restaurant, notable for two things: first, the spectacularly unique, large chandeliers fashioned from real red roses; second, our waiter’s dual capability of serving dinner and performing classical baritone (apparently these sorts of musical performances at restaurants are common – I am somewhat skeptical…). The performance, at 8pm, was a ballet interpretation of Miguel de Cervante’s Don Quixote. It was fantastic and, I hate to say, superior to anything I’ve seen with our national ballet.

The interior of the Mariinsky

The interior of the Mariinsky

My run-in with the new Mariinsky Theatre came after the performance. I had heard about this ballet/opera monument both in the Globe and Mail and on CBC some months prior, but our exit from the theatre was my first real look at the building – at 10pm, that far north, it was still broad daylight. Mariinsky II had also just held a performance and also was de-housing. You can imagine the scene: two theaters with a collective capacity of about 4,000 people (and on that night, as on most nights, filled completely to the brim) emptying their inhabitants simultaneously into a relatively narrow Russian street in a country with, in the understated words of our airport driver, “very bad driving culture”. It was tempestuous. Nonetheless, I became determined to get a look inside. I pushed through the horde, like a fish swimming upstream, and made it to the doors of the venue, where I fibbed to an employee that I’d left an item on my seat. I entered the theater – specular on the inside as well as on the outside – taking multitudes of pictures along the way.

UCC Connection

How could Mariinsky II, 5215 miles away according to my Aeroplan account, possibly contain any connection to UCC? A Google search and a chance encounter with an online profile of the theatre led me to the information that Mariinsky II was designed by Toronto-based firm Diamond and Schmitt Architects. And it happens that Old Boy Tateo Nakajima (class of ’88), a musician, conductor and designer of acoustics was enlisted as a consultant for the work on the hall’s interior. With the help of the UCC Old Boys network, I was able to contact Mr. Nakajima for an interview over the phone to discuss his involvement with the theatre and his career in the musical world. Tateo Nakajima’s education and professional life are a story in themselves. A talented musician, Mr. Nakajima left UCC with an offer from Harvard University to pursue studies in the violin. However, after a week of classes, Nakajima decided that the American world of academics was not for him. He left Harvard and boarded a plane for France, where he intended to play and work with orchestras. Within years, Nakajima’s career developed into conducting and he found himself playing various roles, one of which was as the conductor of the Vienna State Opera.

Tateo Nakajima: UCC Old Boy

Tateo Nakajima: UCC Old Boy

At the end of the 90s, Nakajima went through a period of unemployment during which he struggled to find work in Europe. He found a niche in 1999 when he met the owner of the American acoustics company Arup Consultants Inc. They needed help with some of their designs, so it was arranged for Nakajima to be introduced to conductors (with whom he could find employment) in exchange for listening to halls. In the end, he was hired by Arup. Nakajima moved to New York City about four months before 9/ 11, where he would spend the next few years designing concert-hall acoustics. When the owner died in the mid-2000s, Nakajima became a part-owner of the company. He was an integral part of building the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s new venue – the Maison symphonique – and has worked on numerous other projects. Currently he has work going on in France, Moscow, Poland, Jordan, Morocco, Poland and several other regions.

Nakajima described the Mariinsky II design as “a complicated project”. It involved an entirely different concept of what space was needed – with the Russian opera companies, the theaters are also their base and home. His work was mostly “predesign”. Nakajima says that Mariinsky II ran into a lot of problems after the pre-design stage, when the Russian clients decided to switch from a French design firm to the Canadian one. This, as well as certain political considerations, meant that Nakajima was unable to stay with the project to its completion. However, his role was largely in pre-design and his contribution is notable.

Over the phone, Tateo Nakajima also discussed his experience at UCC. He believes that the teaching and mentorship he received at the College had an “extraordinarily large influence” on his success. “The basis of my language abilities and my career came from UCC”, he said. In general, Nakajima’s memories of UCC are fond and he looks forward to visiting soon.

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