‘True originals’ awarded honorary doctorates by York

Visionary philanthropist Walter Carsen and his son, internationally renowned stage director Robert Carsen, were awarded honorary doctorates by York University at the convocation ceremony of the Faculty of Fine Arts June 14 in recognition of their extraordinary contributions to the arts. While Walter Carsen works behind the scenes to help others fulfill their dreams, Robert Carsen brings his artistic vision to life upon the stage as a director of opera and theatre.

Right: Patricia Bradshaw, Chair of the York University Senate,  presents Walter Carsen (centre) to York University’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Lorna R. Marsden.

“Walter and Robert Carsen are a formidable duo,” said Phillip Silver, dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts during his introductory remarks. “They are both true originals, ceaselessly creative, passionately committed to the arts. Each in his own way is building a lasting legacy for artists and arts lovers everywhere.”

Walter Carsen attended the ceremony. Robert Carsen was awarded his honorary doctorate in absentia because of a previous production commitment in Europe. He delivered his convocation address via a pre-recorded video.

Walter Carsen

Walter Carsen has become one of the most beloved patrons on the Canadian arts scene today. He has provided more than a quarter-century of loyal and dedicated support of the performing and visual arts in Canada.

“I am very lucky that my parents involved me in my formative years in various art forms including opera, ballet, theatre and the performing arts,” Carsen told the class of 2005. “This made me realize early on the importance of the arts in our daily lives. The arts entertain us, stimulate us and perhaps, most importantly, provide us with an opportunity to pause and reflect on own actions, emotions and our relationship with our world.

“I feel honoured to be one of the first to congratulate you and I wish you every success in the lives you are going to build over the coming years,” said Carsen. “You are now embarking on an amazing journey which will take you in many directions. It is not an easy journey, there will be disappointments, there will be challenges, and there also will be triumphs.

“Do not be afraid to ask questions along the way. What a wonderful trip you have ahead of you now. Bon voyage!” said Carsen.

A passionate advocate for the arts, Carsen has given the Art Gallery of Ontario an outstanding collection of prints, paintings and sculptures, as well as his art library. Students, artists and researchers have found an oasis for study and thought in the Walter Carsen Reading Room in the Gallery’s Reference Library. Carsen’s support also enabled the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake to renovate the heritage Royal George Theatre and build a much-needed training, research and creative development centre in its Festival Theatre.

While he has contributed to most of Toronto’s dance companies, large and small, his gifts to the National Ballet of Canada in particular have supported many signature productions, such as “The Taming of the Shrew”, “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Firebird”, and an artist-in-residence program to advance the education of young dancers at the National Ballet School. The National Ballet’s new state-of-the-art home, The Walter Carsen Centre, is named in his honour.

To ensure appropriate recognition for Canada’s brightest stars in theatre, music and dance, Carsen recently endowed the Canada Council’s Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts. In addition to his artistic philanthropy, he created the Walter Carsen Fund for the Homeless through the United Way, in response to the suffering he saw on the streets of Toronto.

In recognition of his contributions, Carsen has been honoured as an Officer of the Order of Canada and with the Ramon Hnatyshyn Award for Volunteerism in the Performing Arts and the Philanthropic Statement Award from the Montblanc de la Culture in Paris. A few years ago, he was recognized as one of the world’s top philanthropists when the International Society of the Performing Arts Foundation presented him with their Angel Award.

Robert Carsen

A director for opera and theatre who embarked on his career path as a theatre student at York University, Robert Carsen (right)  has built an international reputation for excellence. He is currently in rehearsals for his next production, a new interpretation of the opera Il Trovatore by Verdi set on the world’s largest floating stage at the Bregenz Festival in Austria.

Carsen spoke to York’s class of 2005 from the historic Vienna State Opera in Austria. Standing in one of the few parts of the 19th-century building to escape destruction during World War II, Carsen talked about how he had followed his heart.

“I am delighted to address the graduates of 2005. I am honoured and delighted to receive this honorary doctorate together with my father. York University played a very important part in my life in Toronto when I was a student. I went there and then eventually left the University to continue my studies in England as an actor, before I became a director,” said Carsen. “The pleasure that I am taking in receiving this honorary doctorate is, of course, more than doubled by the fact that I am being awarded this doctorate together with my father. I am very touched by this. My father has been extraordinarily involved in the arts both privately and publicly, since I was a child. In fact, I have been fortunate to have enjoyed incredible support from both my parents for my own career in the arts.

“I would like to encourage the graduating students of the Faculty of Fine Arts to follow their own instincts and their own path. When I left Canada and came to Europe my studies, it was because of an instinctive desire that I had,” said Carsen. “The only person who can really tell you what to do is you and I encourage you as you go forward to remain interested, to remain passionate and inspired. Work in the arts has taught us that maybe everything is possible. You have to search in yourself, find what you want to say and trust in that. Those who dare – win.”

Carsen’s groundbreaking productions have been seen on all the great opera stages of Europe. Last fall, he was honoured by being invited to direct a new production of La Traviata, conducted by Lorin Maazel, for the reopening of Teatro La Fenice, the legendary opera house of Venice.

On this continent, Carsen’s unconventional and daring stagings of both traditional and contemporary operas have enthralled audiences throughout the US. He made Canadian musical history with his world premiere production of “Mario and the Magician” by Harry Somers, presented by the Canadian Opera Company in 1992.

In addition to his opera credits, Carsen has directed many music/theatre productions, including the world premiere of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “The Beautiful Game” in London’s West End, a UK touring production of “Sunset Boulevard”, and a recording of Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale” starring Sting, Vanessa Redgrave and Ian McKellen. He created the solo show “Nomade” for German singer Ute Lemper, and wrote and directed “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” for the 1992 opening of Disneyland Paris, where it is still playing.

Carsen has won many accolades for his work. Among his honours are the Italian, London, Japan, German and French Critics’ Prizes; two Olivier Award nominations; and the Grand Prix de la Presse Musicale Internationale. He was named a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the Government of France in 1996.