The Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts was conceived as the cultural heart of the San Fernando Valley, a world-class venue to host performances by some of the most talented entertainers in the world.
The Soraya — originally known as the Valley Performing Arts Center — opened its first season on Jan. 29, 2011, with a star-studded lineup of diverse artists that previewed the wide variety of performers who would grace the stage in years to come. Artists at that first show included Distinguished Alumni Award winners opera star Carol Vaness ’76 (Music), Hon. D ’98, comedian Cheech Marin, and conductor Richard Kaufman ’77 (Music); vocalist Monica Mancini; ballet dancers Gillian Murphy and José Manuel Carreño; and actors including Benjamin Bratt, Nancy Cartwright, Keith David and Calista Flockhart.
The Soraya has attracted international acts that connect with the diverse communities in Los Angeles, including mariachi bands, orchestras from around the world and international dance troupes. It has become a place where artists and musical ensembles can create and present original work that might otherwise not find a home.
“The Soraya is a powerful symbol of our academic mission, the advancement of inquiry and discovery, and the pursuit of truth as artists who perform for us advance our curiosity, capture our imagination and illustrate the wonderment of the human experience,” said CSUN President Erika D. Beck. “At this particular moment in time, the gift of these experiences helps to quiet the noise around us to attune our hearts and minds to what really matters, our humanity.”
The Soraya celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a special virtual celebration on Jan. 29. The livestreamed celebration included performances by Soraya favorites such as Broadway stars Lea Salonga (“Once on this Island,” “Mulan,” “Miss Saigon”) and Mandy Gonzalez (“Hamilton,” “In The Heights”) and jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center. Dignitaries such as Beck and new U.S. Senator Alex Padilla paid tribute to The Soraya and its impact over its first decade.
“Celebrating our 10th anniversary online made it a little easier to engage the majority of people who were involved and present ten years ago, even from locations scattered throughout the country,” said Thor Steingraber, executive director of The Soraya. “Constructing and opening a performing arts center in the Valley was a dream that was decades in the making, and required rallying the entire community. I hope that everyone felt the gratitude pouring through their screens.”
The performing arts center was renamed in 2017 in recognition of a $17 million gift from the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation, the philanthropic foundation of Younes and Soraya Sarah Nazarian and their family. The gift is one of the largest in the history of the California State University and the system’s largest single gift to support the arts.
During the virtual celebration, Sharon S. Nazarian, the President of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation, reflected on why The Soraya’s mission was so important to her family, which came to the United States in 1979 to escape the Iranian revolution and found a sense of community in Southern California.
“We were just so enthralled by what you and the staff and the university create for the broader Northridge and Southern California community, to offer the best performing arts the world has to offer to the most deserving community,” Nazarian said. “For us, the idea of family and community is core to who we are. We see that really reflected in every single performance, every single offering that The Soraya has.”
The building, designed by HGA Architects and Engineers with lead design architect Kara Hill, is an architectural and cultural marvel, with a striking, curved-glass exterior. (The Soraya has before-and-after construction photos on its blog.) It is home to a 160-seat Experimental Theatre, a 230-seat lecture hall, and the 88.5 FM radio station studios. The 1,700-seat Great Hall was designed for customizable acoustics and lighting to showcase almost any type of performance.
“The goal for this building really was, first and foremost, it had to be a world-class performing arts center for unamplified music,” said Colin Donahue, CSUN’s vice president for finance and administration and chief financial officer. “But then, on top of that, we had the requirement to do the full range of performance.”
The sweep of the arts presented at The Soraya over the years is breathtaking. Transcendent crossover Broadway stars such Gonzalez, Leslie Odom Jr., Billy Porter and Salonga graced The Soraya stage. So did country stars such as Rosanne Cash, Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers. System of a Down lead singer Serj Tankian ’89 (Marketing) was accompanied by the CSUN Symphony in the North American premiere of his “Elect the Dead” and “Orca” symphonies.
The Soraya also provided a place to see the Russian National Orchestra, the percussive movement and rhythms of Step Afrika!, sociopolitical comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, and humorist David Sedaris.
Aida Cuevas, the “Queen of Ranchera Music,” has performed at The Soraya multiple times, while Aspen Santa Fe Ballet established a long-term residency with performances for five straight years, highlighted by “The Nutcracker” in 2019.
Itzhak Perlman, the most well-known violinist of our time, opened The Soraya’s 2019-20 season with a solo performance, accompanied by pianist and collaborator Rohan De Silva. In one particularly moving moment, he filled the hall with the plaintive strains of his most widely known work: the theme from his collaboration with film score composer John Williams on Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List.” In the sold-out hall, you could hear a pin drop as Perlman played.
The Jan. 29 virtual celebration included a short oral history of the fundraising and construction efforts necessary to bring the vision to fruition during the tenure of former CSUN President Jolene Koester, featuring interviews with many of the supporters, artists and visionaries who brought The Soraya to life.
Reflections from record label executive Mike Curb ’09 (Hon.D.), whose $10 million donation to the university provided key momentum on the project, illustrated how the significance of the venue resonated beyond the Valley.
“I know it meant a lot to Gov. Schwarzenegger because he told me,” Curb said. “He said the fact we’re getting private-sector contributions, which we kicked off, was very significant.”
Steingraber said The Soraya will continue to gather oral histories of The Soraya’s exciting first 10 years.
“While we look forward to returning to live performances and celebrating the anniversary in person, this break in our regular activity has also provided some opportunities, one of which is the time and ability to collect oral histories about our first decade from anyone who has a memory to share,” Steingraber said. “We call these Soraya Stories, and will be collecting them all year.”
Although it is not yet known when The Soraya will return to live performances, Steingraber said that the anniversary celebration will continue then.