- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

There’s a new reason to go to Miami, and it has nothing to do with the beach.

Just as there is, frankly, no bad time to go to South Beach, there is no off-season in Miami’s new Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, the largest arts complex to open in the United States since Washington’s Kennedy Center in 1971.

It also is the largest public-private partnership in South Florida’s history, and even before its doors opened, the center began revitalizing the arts and entertainment district on the edge of downtown Miami with new shops, restaurants, clubs and residential high-rises.

After its grand opening in the fall, this home for the best of the performing arts in Miami finds itself among the city’s finest arts treasures: an architectural wonder designed by Cesar Pelli, a trio of major theaters with a glorious outdoor plaza, an exuberant collection of commissioned artworks, the community’s new entertainment nexus and a convenient base from which to explore the giddy multicultural faces of this youthful, magic city at the crossroads of the Americas.

It is as impressive as it is lovely. Glimpsed at sunset from Biscayne Bay, Miami’s resplendent entry into the 21st century’s architectural major leagues easily could be mistaken for one more majestic ship setting off on a cruise — a fortuitous association, given that the Miami-based Carnival Corp. secured the naming rights for the new performing arts complex shortly before the opening with a $20 million gift.

On street level, at Biscayne Boulevard between 13th and 14th streets, the atmosphere is frankly welcoming as the architecture’s neo-cubist rush of forms in all directions articulates the vibrancy of a city on the move. It is difficult to tell which is the front of the Knight Concert Hall or the Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House, both buildings that seem to have no bad side and where no two walls are alike.

The variety of the architecture is rich, from the old octagonal 1929 art-deco Sears Tower Mr. Pelli incorporated into his design to each house’s leaning glass curtains and gentle stone hills that embrace the Plaza for the Arts. Mr. Pelli’s achievement in Miami is to have made sense of the disparate elements at the heart of the city, bringing them together in a celebration of urban life.

The old neighborhood is suddenly seductive. Art lovers on their way to the galleries in Miami’s funky Design District just north of the center may well get waylaid here, where much of the commissioned site-specific new work is fascinating.

Art was integral to the Carnival Center plans from the start. “Collaboration is necessary in architecture,” Mr. Pelli says. “In Miami, it was wonderful.”

The results are never merely decorative but rather organically of a piece with the architecture. Legendary Cuban artists Cundo Bermudez and Jose Bedia, along with Americans Gary L. Moore, Anna Valentina Murch and Robert Rahway Zakanitch all created the Carnival Center’s sensual textures. Unique benches and fountains are Miss Murch’s design. A jazzy ground mural by Mr. Moore, inspired by Miles Davis, greets visitors to the Ziff Opera House. Mr. Bermudez’s monumental yet playful glass-tile mural, called “Ways of Performing,” for the intimate Studio Theater celebrates the sheer joy of performance and also subtly recalls Havana’s lost glamour. An extravagant feast of flowers by Mr. Zakanitch fills the Ziff Opera House curtain. Terrazzo floors by Mr. Bedia for the Concert Hall and the Opera House lobbies suggest huge hands lifted in ecstatic applause.

It is a polyphony of artistic voices, each as distinct as Miami’s many accents and each also very much at home.

The Carnival Center, of course, is above all a home for the performing arts — with a Miami twist.

How Miami is it? Even fundraisers, stuffy affairs in many performing arts centers, are not what you might expect: The first couple of high-ticket parties after the grand opening began at midnight, lasted well into the morning and included transforming the Studio Theater and Opera House rehearsal hall into South Beach-style dance clubs complete with seriously hip DJs, laser lights and the sort of trendy young crowds for which symphony and opera companies around the country pine.

“This will be an international cultural center,” says Michael C. Hardy, the Carnival Center’s president and chief executive, “one that reflects and celebrates the cultures of so many different peoples who either live here or just come here on vacation. That is a tremendous variety of peoples, a tremendous variety of cultures.”

Like Washington’s Kennedy Center, Miami’s Carnival Center promises a year-round festival in the truest sense — and maybe even one with something for every taste.

The opening extravaganza in October, which ran over four nights plus a free all-day open house, boasted not just the usual classical and Broadway suspects — “La Boheme,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” Harvey Fierstein re-creating his Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof” and Bernadette Peters vamping atop a piano — but also some decidedly Miami fare. Favorite local son Andy Garcia proved his bongo credentials jamming with Cuban legends Cachao and Arturo Sandoval; Gloria Estefan sang duets with Jose Carreras; Quincy Jones introduced Latin pop superstars Alejandro Sanz and Carlos Vives.

With surprisingly little fanfare, sunny Miami has become a cultural destination.

For visitors and locals, the Carnival Center counts the Cleveland Orchestra and American Ballet Theatre among the snowbirds it welcomes in winter, and City Theatre’s Summer Shorts festival as one of its few indicators of a change in seasons.

It is the home of the Florida Grand Opera, which in its new theater seems on the verge of the sort of quantum jump that the Washington National Opera has made under Placido Domingo.

Judy Drucker’s Concert Association of Florida, Miami’s equivalent of the Washington Performing Arts Society, has embraced the city’s role as the gateway to Latin America and peppered its tasty musical stew with a Latin all-star lineup including Argentine tenor Jose Cura and Brazil’s Orchestra de Sao Paulo, followed by Mexico’s hot young tenor Rolando Villazon. Christmastime offers not only the expected production of “The Nutcracker,” but also “Navidad Gitana,” a new musical holiday treat from Colombia.

Depending on when you drop in, the Carnival Center repertory can range from Eva Yerbabuena’s flamenco or the American Ballet Theatre’s sumptuous “Swan Lake” to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s news from the frontiers of dance; from Cuban fusion and Brazilian or Israeli pop to the clarinet riffs of Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band or the world-music distillation of devotion that is Oswaldo Golijov’s “St. Matthew Passion.”

Yin-Mei dance from China, South Africa’s Greig Coetzee, Cuba’s Albita, India’s Anoushka Shankar and the all-American Burt Bacharach Orchestra are all at home here.

Singer Andrea Marcovicci opened a series that occasionally turns the Studio Theater into the coolest jazz cabaret in town. Comedy and performance art rub shoulders with bona-fide Broadway hits: The musical “The Light in the Piazza” was the first show at the Ballet Opera House — testing out the state-of-the-art stage just before the official fall inauguration — and a year-round Broadway-in-Miami series keeps that all-American art form close to the center’s heart with hits such as “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Wicked” but also with the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of “King Lear.”

Street performers have begun making themselves at home on the comfortable, sprawling Plaza for the Arts, which may well become Miami’s living room. The user-friendly Web site (www.carnivalcenter.org)is a trip-planning essential as well as a must-read for locals figuring out what to do after the beach.

The Carnival Center’s impact on the quality of life in Miami was impossible to ignore well before the grand opening. Its impact on tourism, on the city’s stature as a cultural destination and on its attractiveness to major national and international business has only just begun.

“Art Basel showed us what was possible,” says Parker Thomson, chairman of the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts Trust, referring to the annual paintings-and-parties extravaganza in South Beach that has turned Miami into the most profitable art market in the Americas. “It was first an experiment; the art world paid attention. And Miami took itself seriously as the international art city it is. The Carnival Center will do that for the performing arts in Miami, and it will do it year-round. I think people will be surprised.”

Certainly surprising is the vertiginous wave of urban renovation radiating from Carnival Center.

There are many examples of cultural centers lifting and revitalizing urban neighborhoods: from the miraculous effect of Lincoln Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, to the Pompidou Center’s exhilarating redefinition of Paris’ Marais and Les Halles quarters. The business of art is good for business, not just for culture. It just seems to be happening faster in Miami.

“Performing arts centers tend to generate growth and transformation in a city, but there is usually a five- or 10-year gap,” says Mr. Hardy, the Carnival Center’s chief executive. “Here it is happening almost simultaneously.”

“Change seems to happen faster in Miami,” he adds. “Miami is a fast, impatient city.”

“The city has gone through enormous changes — and in some way no change at all,” says Michael Tilson Thomas, founder and music director of one of the center’s resident companies, the New World Symphony. “It is still a city of tremendous diversity, of people on the move, of exploding creativity. It is a city of passion and rhythm and soaring spirits. I love Miami.”

Only months into its first season, there are encouraging signs that the Carnival Center is a catalyst for real urban renewal. The once-abandoned downtown is fast becoming a happy jumble of new restaurants, condos, offices and more condos.

“The crane is our new state bird in Florida,” says Judy Drucker, surveying the vast construction site that is today’s Biscayne Boulevard. These developments — along with plans for two neighboring museums as well as the Florida Grand Opera’s new headquarters next door to the Carnival Center — are either in place or in the works. At night, dance clubs are springing up at disco speed.

That is good news for the quality of life downtown, where more and more Miamians and visitors are rediscovering a multiplicity of urban pleasures. Biscayne Boulevard is, after all, Miami’s fancy name for U.S. Route 1, the humble highway that runs from Vermont to the Florida Keys.

For a tiny, colorful stretch, that highway is at the heart of the new Carnival Center. The Plaza for the Arts, with its open embrace to the city and its people, is of a piece with the boulevard. Each theater’s cozy relation to the other, their respective lobbies nodding to each other across the plaza, creates an intimate and urbane atmosphere.

The welcome architectural oddity that there seem to be no back sides or blank walls anywhere in the complex, that each terraced side’s unique juxtaposition of materials within each wall seems designed to surprise, means that “they will be functionally and architecturally activated on all sides,” says Michael Spring, executive director of Miami-Dade County’s Cultural Affairs Council. “It’s a people-friendly place.”

True, it is tough to define the place precisely. In that sense, the Carnival Center is very much like Miami. A short drive away are Little Havana, Little Haiti and Little Buenos Aires. Lincoln Road with its babel of accents is just minutes away.

The sounds of salsa and tango, rap and gospel, danzones, reggaeton and the blues can mingle in improbable harmonies, all to a beat that is never strict but always close to that of the human heart.

Miami is one place that shatters the American myth of the melting pot: This is not a place for any culture to melt away. These are not culture shocks; they are multicultural gifts. This is today’s Miami. This is the home of the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts.

• • •

The Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, FL 33132. For tickets and up-to-date information, call 305/949-6722 or visit www.carnivalcenter.org.

Octavio Roca, former music and dance critic of The Washington Times, is the author of “Prologue to Greatness: The Creation of Carnival Center for the Performing Arts.” He teaches philosophy at Miami Dade College.

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