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In 1963, in the midst of the Quiet Revolution, the province’s premier wanted the capital to have a large performance venue. The project ended in 1971 as Grand Théâtre opened its doors, ready to play a starring role in developing the city’s artistic talent. But Jordi Bonet’s enormous mural in the main lobby would be the object of much controversy.
In the early 1960s the province of Québec was a hive of activity. The capital was following in the footsteps of Montréal, where Place des Arts—the province’s first big concert hall—would soon be ready. Québec City’s Grand Théâtre would be the second in a new network of first-rate performance venues. As one of the new facilities, it would have a big role to play in the city’s newfound cultural vitality.
Following a design competition, a jury of international experts chose the project submitted by Victor Prus, a Montréal architect of Polish origin who designed buildings that were both functional and stylish. His plans stood out by successfully working two performance venues and a conservatory into very little space, in a part of Québec City that people were keen to modernize.
The main auditorium could seat over 1,800 and took up the upper floor, while another venue seated 500 more in the basement. The conservatory would be beside the auditoriums and split over two underground floors surrounding a steep-sided courtyard. Finally the building would be plain on the outside, with four identical façades in reinforced concrete and large glass walls.
Construction began in 1967 and ended in 1971.
The visual arts and literature were also included in the project. Poems from the young Claude Péloquin were part of a huge mural that covered three walls of the main lobby from floor to ceiling. A Québec artist with Catalan roots, Jordi Bonet, worked intensively on the piece for three months with no sketches or studies—only inspiration.
Figurative and abstract elements—some engraved, others in low or high relief—make up the triptych exploring death, space, and freedom. There is no angle from which visitors can see the work in its entirety and instead must explore its multiple facets by strolling around the lobby. Guests at the inauguration were blown away by this powerful piece of wall art.
Part of the mural immediately sparked controversy: “Vous êtes pas écœurés de mourir, bande de caves? C’est assez!” (“Aren’t you sick of dying, you bunch of morons? That’s enough!”) This cri de cœur in favour of life at a time of idealistic demands from Québec’s youth immediately raised hackles. A petition with 8,000 signatures was sent to the culture minister, who had tried—in vain—to have the words removed before the inauguration. The affair sparked a lively public debate on freedom of expression in the arts, with Jordi Bonet and Claude Péloquin eventually coming out on top: the piece remains unchanged to this day.
Grand Théâtre would fulfill its mission and then some. It raised the profile of the performing arts in Québec City and boosted the arts across the province. A new theatre company, Le Trident, moved into the smaller Octave-Crémazie venue, where it has performed classic plays and original creations ever since. Orchestre symphonique de Québec also took up home in the building as soon as it opened, performing in the larger Louis-Fréchette auditorium. Club musical and then Opéra de Québec followed suit.
Close to 300 shows are held at Grand Théâtre each year, from classical music, rock, jazz, and pop to comedy, magic shows, plays, and special events. The conservatory is also still going strong, and students continue to study music there in great numbers.
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