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  • Laurie Frankel

The AURA light show at Montréal’s Notre-Dame Basilica—to go or not to go?

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

I recently visited Montréal. One of the few “french-speaking” (more on the quotes later) enclaves outside of France, the city is famous for its iconic Olympic Stadium, hockey, bagels (poached in honey water!) poutine (gravy-drenched French fries and cheese...curds,) smoked meat (aka brisket,) hideous winters and its crown jewel, Notre-Dame Basilica.

gravy-drenched French fries and cheese curds Serious Eats / Eric Kleinberg
Can't we just call it cheese...?

While waiting for a walking tour to start, I overheard another participant raving about the AURA laser-light show playing twice nightly to sold-out crowds inside the church.

The last time I went to a laser-light show the band YES was on the soundtrack and my fourteen-year-old sister vomited on a man’s shoes (I, too, vomited on a man’s shoes…in college; apparently, it’s genetic.) So when this woman mentioned the show, my first thought was, maybe skip the poutine. When the tour guide also raved about it (and not because he got a cut) I decided to check it out.

AURA tickets including fees are $34 (buy online in advance,) but thanks to a pathetically weak Canadian dollar (aka the "loonie!") as compared to the US dollar it comes out to only $25+. Imagine going to a place where everything is 25% off—bienvenue au Canada (and a big merci to the Canadian government for its refusal to raise interest rates :) While on the AURA website I learned you must pay to enter the Basilica. In Europe I’m used to walking into churches for free to cool off/experience awe/go to the bathroom. Not so with Montréal’s Notre-Dame. To hell with the discreetly-placed, quietly-pleading donation box, this Basilica is run by La Fabrique de la Paroisse Notre-Dame de Montréal and charges $15 for adults to enter (that’s $12! for Americans) with lower fees for older folks and kids. For those itching to attend mass, it’s free. Are you there, God? It’s heathen Laurie.

Basilica highlights from its wiki page:

• Original construction by James O’Donnell (1824-29.) In order to be buried in his own creation, Protestant O’Donnell had to convert to Catholicism. Luckily he had the foresight to do so when he did because one year after construction was completed God called him home er, to his new home or sort of home. Okay, the crypt.

• Considered among the most dramatic in the world and a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture, the Basilica welcomes more than 11m people every year, only 1m fewer than Notre-Dame de Paris—just saying…

• The stained glass windows along the sanctuary walls are unique in that they depict scenes from Montréal’s religious history. Bible scenes? Feh.

• The Casavant Frères pipe organ fun facts: 4 keyboards, 92 stops and 7000! pipes.

5,998, 5,999, 6000! Oof, I’m exhausted. We done here? Lazy Protestant, 1000 more!

A quick note on those earlier quote marks. Canadian French is spoken with a distinctly different accent and, on occasion, vocabulary than the French spoken in France. My French

Gene Wilder in a purple velvet suit and brown hat

teacher, a native of France, tells a story of ordering at a restaurant with a group of students in Montréal. Neither he nor the waiter could understand each other and each pulled out their English. After 20+years of French, I understood about 60% of the French spoken in Montréal. On the airplane I understood almost nothing and pretended I was en route to a really exotic part of the world.

Entering the Basilica is unexpected and shocking and amazing. Deep blues, vibrant greens and touches of gold leaf decorate the, by definition, uber-ornate neo-gothic architecture.

bright blue interior of a gothic revival Basilica
Altarpiece with Jesus and friends at Notre-Dame Basilica, Montréal.

Given the entry fees, the carved-wood interior (no stone/marble) is exceptionally well-preserved. The altarpiece features Jesus front and center on the cross flanked by Moses, Aaron, Melchizedech (who?) and Abraham (hail hail, most of

drawing of a man with long white beard and turban
Oh, right, now I remember.

the gang’s all here) along with 6 additional niches on the lower level, three on each side. These will become important during the show. Just remember, “niche.”

Show time! As the lights dim an original soundtrack consisting of 30 musicians, 20 choirists and the Basilica’s own organ begins—think Enya meets techno-Armageddon. Rapidly-changing lighting and imagery project onto the walls and ceiling. The most impactful part of the show was when Jesus et al lit up dramatically, the niches glowing a brilliant, blood red.

interior of gothic revival church

I experienced it as a not-so-subtle open call to all infidels (myself included) to get their lapsed/disbelieving asses into (free) mass STAT. But maybe that was just me.

Initially, I was sure interior lighting had been added but how would that work, drilling into the interior of a 19th c. protected historical monument? AURA was developed over the course of a year by Moment Factory whose tagline is, "we do it in public" (wink, wink.) Using 3D scans and intricate projection-mapping technology the company creates immersive sound, light and video experiences. AURA required 21 projectors, 140 lights and 20 mirrors.

a baby crying with a halo
Mary, mom, whatever, get me outta here.

Shortly after the subliminal red-niche proselytizing sequence there was the sound of a crying child. Given the drama of it all, my mind immediately went to baby Jesus and I wondered if it was part of the show which was beginning to feel like a cross between Rodin’s Gates of Hell, Hockney’s iPad landscapes and the 80s movie Tron (“trapped inside an electronic arena where love and escape do not compute”!) except in this case the crier (not baby Jesus but a scared kid) did escape with the help of his mother as she hurried him toward the exit.

According to older blog posts, AURA used to run 45 minutes including a 15 minute “pre-show” where you could walk around a laser-lit interior. Today, AURA runs approximately 20 minutes (no pre-show, just sit your ass down) and filming is strictly prohibited except for those for whom it isn’t like CultureAtz on Youtube who claims to never break the rules except in the name of blogging. Her 7-minute bootleg video doesn’t do AURA justice although one interviewee twice recounted that a tear rolled down her cheek (so really two tears?)

Was AURA worth it? The show was cool...and a bit tacky. I’m sort of glad I went. While it was visually interesting, I couldn’t help but feel a little taken in by the ham-handed drama of it all. If there were any tears on my cheek it was because of this. But if light shows projected onto gorgeous neo-gothic spaces are your thing then AURA is the show for you. Allez-y!

Please note: no shoes were vomited on in the writing of this post.

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