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Guelph's Edward Johnson was the Justin Bieber of his day

Public school, University of Guelph hall and University of Toronto music building named for famed tenor

In the opera world of his time, he was a star – the operatic equivalent of a modern-day pop star like Shawn Mendez or Justin Bieber.

In Italy he was known as Edoardo Di Giovanni, one of the greatest tenors ever to perform on the Italian stage. But in his hometown of Guelph, he was Edward Johnson – “Eddie” to family and friends.

Edward Johnson was born in Guelph on Aug. 22, 1878, to James and Margaret (nee Brown) Johnson. (He would later add the name Patrick because he believed “Everyone who’s anyone has a middle name.”)

His father was at various times a hotel proprietor, a bouncer, director of the Guelph Riding and Driving Association, city alderman, and a livestock breeder. He was also a musician who played the clarinet for Guelph’s Royal Opera House Orchestra and in local band concerts. He passed his musical interests on to young Eddie, who learned to play the flute and the piano.

According to Johnson’s biographer Ruby Mercer, author of The Tenor of His Time, Eddie made his debut as a singer at Exhibition Park on an August afternoon in 1885, when his father put him on the bandstand and told him to sing Little Annie Rooney for the crowd of people. The seven-year-old obliged, to cheers and a big round of applause.

However, it would be a long journey from an outdoor stage in a small Ontario city to the opera houses of Padua, Milan and Rome.

As a boy, Eddie sang in the choir of Guelph’s Chalmers Church, as well as for the Guelph Collegiate Society and at social events both locally and in nearby communities. He also sang in Guelph’s opera house.

By the time Eddie was 20, he was singing solo in church and elsewhere. Word about the Guelph youth with the beautiful voice began to spread.

Eddie did well academically, and his father wanted him to be a lawyer. But young Johnson had his heart set on a career in music. His first break came when he was asked to go to London, Ontario, to sing at a church recital with a well-known Canadian contralto named Edith Miller who was the soloist at
St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City.

That led to an invitation to go to New York.

In 1899, against his father’s wishes, Johnson boarded a train for the big city. Johnson was able to get some engagements singing in churches and concert halls. Then he met a voice teacher named Mme von Feilitsch who told him that, with the proper training, he could sing for the opera.

Under von Feilitsch’s tutelage, Johnson improved his voice and learned the languages of opera. He began to get parts in operatic productions that featured the great stars of the day. He traveled around the northeastern United States and the midwest, with the occasional engagement in Canada.

Everywhere Johnson performed, reviewers noted the “gifted young tenor” with the voice that was “unusually strong but remarkably sweet.”

In 1902, Johnson was making the princely sum of $150 a week. In 1904, he made his concert debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

In 1907, he accepted the lead role in the North American premiere of A Waltz Dream, by Oscar Straus. The operetta was staged in Philadelphia and Baltimore before opening on Broadway in January of 1908.

Johnson was a sensation – and now a star.

Later that year, he sailed for Europe.

In Paris, Johnson worked with Riccardo Barthelemy, the repetiteur who had been the accompanist for Enrico Caruso – a.k.a. The Great Caruso – the operatic superstar who was considered the greatest tenor in the world. Johnson met Caruso, and they became friends. Caruso encouraged Johnson
to go to Italy and study under his own mentor, Maestro Vincenzo Lombardi; advice Johnson followed.

When Caruso died suddenly at the age of 48 in 1921, his widow gave Johnson several of his stage costumes.

While Johnson was still in Paris, he met Beatrice d’Arneiro, the daughter of a Portuguese viscount. They were married in London on Aug. 2, 1909, and settled in Florence, Italy. They had one daughter, Fiorenza. She would one day marry George Drew, the future premier of Ontario.

Johnson made his European opera debut on Jan. 10, 1912, at the Teatro Verdi in Padua. It was at that time that he was first billed under the Italian version of his name. He’d been told it would make him more acceptable to Italian audiences who could be resentful of foreigners who dared to sing on their opera stages.

His first aria brought the audience to its feet in applause.

After success in Padua, Johnson moved on to the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, where he reigned as lead tenor for five consecutive seasons.

Then Johnson conquered Rome, spending four seasons at the Teatro Costanzi.

Now the international opera world was clamouring for him. Johnson performed in London, England; in Madrid and in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires.

In November of 1919, Johnson performed for the Chicago Opera. He remained there for three years. Then in 1922 he went to New York to sing in the Metropolitan Opera.

The boy from Guelph was a star at the Met for 13 years. The famous Irish tenor John McCormack said, “The Canadian singer Edward Johnson is the best all-round operatic tenor in the world.”

Johnson made his final appearance at the Met as a singer on March 20, 1935.

That May, he became the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, a position he held for 15 years.

In 1950, Johnson returned to Guelph. He served as chairman of the board of the Toronto Conservatory of Music (later the Royal Conservatory of Music), and helped establish the Edward Johnson Music Foundation, which sponsored the annual Guelph Spring Festival.

On April 20, 1959, while attending a National Ballet recital at Guelph Memorial Gardens, 80-year-old Edward Johnson suffered a fatal heart attack.

The University of Guelph’s Johnson Hall is named in his honour, as is a school in Guelph. The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music building was also named after Johnson.

Any reader who would like to hear Johnson sing can find him on YouTube. If opera isn’t your cup of tea, there are recordings of him singing popular songs of the day. You can even hear a recording of Guelph’s opera star singing O Canada.