A Welsh Dome? Last of the Millennium projects opens in Cardiff to a sceptical public

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Asking the people of Cardiff for directions to their newest public building, the Wales Millennium Centre, is a fraught business.

Asking the people of Cardiff for directions to their newest public building, the Wales Millennium Centre, is a fraught business.

Some look puzzled and point in the direction of the Millennium Stadium, the venue of the FA Cup and football internationals. Others deny all knowledge and suggest a nearby shopping park.

Those who do know its whereabouts, such as Paul Rhys, a 44-year-old trade unionist, cannot resist giving their verdict on the brooding copper-topped structure, glinting in November sunshine, that dominates the skyline of Cardiff Bay.

Nodding towards the £106m building that in 12 days will be revealed as the jewel in Wales' cultural crown, Mr Rhys, Cardiff-born and bred, said: "You mean that new opera house don't you? Lovely looking building, but you wouldn't catch me inside it. Pop songs for posh folk, isn't it."

Such public confusion and ambivalence could presage an uncomfortable birth for the last - and most drawn-out - of Britain's large-scale, lottery-funded Millennium projects to open.

On 26 November, the 20-year dream of providing a showpiece arts venue for the country that counts itself the homeland of song will come to fruition, with a little help from a South African-born millionaire, and all the razzmatazz and celebrity glitz the Welsh nation can muster.

The weekend-long celebration will culminate in a televised royal gala produced by the baritone Bryn Terfel and attended by the Queen, Prince Charles and the cream of the Welsh glitterati. Or at least those who can make it.

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sir Anthony Hopkins are reportedly too busy to come. But those assumed to be making an appearance include Dame Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones and Charlotte Church.

The reason for the party is a building which at first glance looks like an over-grown version of one of the engine houses of the Thames Barrier, a curvi-linear humpback of copper-hued steel panels and glass on a plinth of grey and purple slate and rough-sawn timber.

Billed as the embodiment of the Welsh landscape and designed by the architect Jonathan Adams, it has been variously described as a "steel iceberg" and "a big, bronze helmet stuck on a pile of stones".

Known locally as the Armadillo, it has a spectacular 1,900-seat theatre, rehearsal and performance spaces, a youth hostel and seven dance, opera and theatre companies, including the Welsh National Opera.

Its purpose is to restore Welsh pride by providing Cardiff with a place in the pantheon of national arts complexes alongside London's South Bank or Royal Opera House, and rival the likes of the New York Met or Sydney Opera House in its ability to attract the world's leading performers.

Rhodri Morgan, the first minister of Wales, has come full circle in his opinion of the project, which sits less than 100m from his office in the Welsh National Assembly. After once describing it as a "white elephant with a rapacious appetite for public money", he now says it will be "the greatest performing arts venue in the world".

But, after a long and difficult birth, the centre is being forced to justify its existence on several fronts before the first spectator has walked beneath the towering frontage that carries a vast inscription in Welsh and English.

The English reads: "In these stones/Horizons sing". The Welsh, "Creu gwir/Fel gwydr/ O ffwrnais awen", is translated as: "Creating truth/Like glass/From inspiration's furnace."

Mr Rhys, a Labour activist for 24 years and member of a male-voice choir, said: "I'm all for celebrating Welsh culture but the only furnace this place has come out of is the one that burns public money. People don't know what it's for. What on earth does 'Millennium Centre' mean? They should have had the nous to at least call it a theatre. The man in the street believes this is a very expensive playground for luvvies."

With an opening year that has offerings as diverse as Max Boyce, Winnie the Pooh on Stage, Sleeping Beauty on Ice, the West End musicals Kiss Me Kate and Miss Saigon, Angharad Wynne, the Welsh-speaking head of communications for the centre, says: "Only 10 per cent of the shows will be opera. More than half will be musicals and the list of arts there will be hugely diverse, from jazz to the circus. Now that the building is finished, we will let it speak for itself."

Such apparent nonchalance is misleading. Behind the scenes, managers are sweating to ensure the Millennium Centre is accessible to all.

Two of the resident organisations concentrate on community performances and another, Urdd Gobaith Cymru, is the leading youth organisation in Wales and hopes to attract 10,000 youngsters a year to the centre.

For every performance by the WNO, which begins life in its new home with La Traviata in February, there will be 250 tickets at £5. The most expensive will be £34, compared to £175 at Covent Garden.

Such prices are in part made possible by somewhat unusual sources of funding. The largest private donation was £10m handed over a year ago by Donald Gordon, a naturalised South African who made his fortune building shopping malls, including two in Cardiff. Its inspiration seems slightly eccentric.

Mr Gordon, whose patronage means the centre's main auditorium is named after him, has behind his desk in his London office an oil painting of the battle of Rorke's Drift, the heroic defence by a largely Welsh force that was the basis for his favourite film, Zulu.

But concerns persist that the centre may indeed prove to be a white elephant on the scale of Sheffield's pop music centre or the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Carmarthenshire, which has repeatedly had to be pulled back from bankruptcy with fresh injections of public money.

Some £85.6m of the cost of the Cardiff project has come from public funds, including £31.7m from the lottery-funded Millennium Commission. The largest share, £37m, came from the adjoining Welsh Assembly. Peter Law, the Labour Assembly member for Blaenau Gwent, says: "What we have done is pour a vast sum into a place that will serve only a Cardiff-based minority. The ongoing annual grant of £2m is the same as the capital available each year for the rest of Wales.

"How is that serving the Welsh people? I don't think we will see the day where this centre is self-financing. I can only see its demand for public money increasing."

Since booking lines opened last month, 30,000 tickets have been sold for productions until next August. One of the centre's senior figures said: "We'll win this argument by making this building loved for what happens inside. Come back in a year's time and then ask directions."

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