Toronto International Festival: a holiday of the arts

For the rest of this month, the world's eyes and ears should be on Toronto. In hopes of establishing itself as a major world cultural center, this sprawling, lively city is presenting the Toronto International Festival (through June 30), a once-in-a-lifetime event featuring a total of 185 different performances of music and dance from around the globe.

The festival opened aptly - two weekends ago - simultaneously in two locations. At Ontario Place - sort of a culturally oriented amusement park - a massed choir of almost 1,000 voices joined contralto Maureen Forrester in vocal celebration, and audience spirits soared as a cloud of festive balloons were released into the sky.

In renovated downtown Toronto on the shores of Lake Ontario, about 40,000 people gathered to listen to reggae, jazz, and rock ensembles and see the skies illuminated by a magnificent fireworks display.

The performances that have been following - by internationally acclaimed artists and ensembles - range from the classical style of the Metropolitan Opera and the National Ballet of Canada to the traditional expressions of India's Kathakali dancers to leading avant-garde troupes - including Japan's surrealistic Sankai Hjuku Dance Theatre and West Germany's highly dramatic and controversial Tanztheater Wupperthal under the direction of Pina Bausch. Fans of popular entertainments may enjoy performances by Bobby Short, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and the Canadian Brass.

In all, the festival has engaged over 3,500 singers, dancers, and musicians from 16 countries, including Holland, Italy, France, South Korea, Ghana, and China as well as the United States and Canada. To be sure, the festival promises a sampling of the world's finest achievements in music and dance.

Performances will spill over from Toronto's premier performance halls - including the O'Keefe Center and Massey Hall - to popular amusement areas such as Ontario Place and the Harbourfront, and into churches, synagogues, and school auditoriums.

Festival director Muriel Sherrin, who has been planning the event since 1981, said, ''The Salzburg Festival has Mozart, Bayreuth has Wagner. But the Toronto International Festival has really got something of everything in music and dance.''

The festival is intended to mark the 150th anniversary of Toronto's founding and the 200th year of the Province of Ontario's existence as a political entity.

And so far, the people of Toronto have embraced the festival wholeheartedly. Hundreds have volunteered to escort visiting artists around town and man information booths, and they have been supporting the event through contributions and, most important, by buying tickets.

In addition to box-office income, another one-third of the festival's funding has come from Canadian government agencies, including the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Culture, which provided a grant of $1.5 million.

Susan Fish, head of the ministry, said the Ontario government has, in general , a progressive attitude toward funding the arts. ''We believe entirely in private enterprise in the arts, as in everything else. But we realize that our population is too small and spread over too great an amount of land for individual initiatives to cover some areas of endeavor necessary to the public good. Along with basic services and health care, water, and electricity, we consider the arts to be vital to our quality of life and they need nurturing through public support,'' she said.

The remaining third of the festival's budget has been donated by corporations and private citizens.

Among the most sought-after tickets have been those for the Metropolitan Opera's performances at the O'Keefe Center. The Met, playing Toronto after a 23 -year hiatus, is presenting quite a sampling of its repertoire - Placido Domingo and Renato Scotto in ''Francesca di Rimini,'' Jon Vickers and Johanna Meier in ''Peter Grimes,'' Marilyn Horne in ''Rinaldo,'' and others.

The cost of tickets to the Met and some other performances, as high as $85 each, led to accusations from some that the festival is elitist, slanted toward Toronto's wealthy citizens. However, festival statistics show that of the 185 scheduled events, 20 are free concerts, and 44 street events are also free. According to Citizenship and Culture Minister Fish, ''The festival has more than lived up to our stipulation that a broad spectrum of events be presented free of charge. Bookings such as the Metropolitan Opera are extremely costly and so ticket prices must be high.''

The festival's Canadian content has been, in general, a major consideration for festival organizers, who reflect English-speaking Canada's concern that its cultural identity and achievements not be overshadowed by that of the United States and Britain.

In support of home-country artists, the festival has commissioned two new productions by Canadian companies: The National Ballet of Canada premiered its festival-sponsored production of John Cranko's ''Onegin'' last night, and the Canadian Opera Company will debut its festival-sponsored production of Benjamin Britten's ''Death in Venice'' on June 24.

Festival schedules and further information may be obtained from the festival office at 598 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario M5V 2V3, Canada; telephone ( 416) 362-0682.

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