Edward Johnson of Guelph was the Justin Bieber of his time

Opera singer

Public School, University of Guelph Hall and University of Toronto Music Building are named after famous tenor

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

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

Edward Johnson was born in Guelph on August 22, 1878 to James and Margaret (née Brown) Johnson. (He would later add the name Patrick because he believed “everyone has a middle name.”)

Her father was a several-time hotel owner, bouncer, director of the Guelph Riding and Driving Association, city councilor and cattle rancher. He was also a musician who played clarinet for the Royal Opera House Orchestra in Guelph and in concerts by local bands. He passed on his musical interests to young Eddie, who learned to play the flute and piano.

According to Johnson’s biographer, Ruby Mercer, author of The tenor of his timeEddie made his debut as a singer at the fairgrounds one afternoon in August 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 accepted, to cheers and a round of applause.

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

As a child, Eddie sang in the choir at Chalmers Church in Guelph, as well as for the Guelph Collegiate Society and at local social events and in nearby communities. He also sang at the Guelph Opera.

By the time Eddie was 20, he was singing solo in church and elsewhere. News of the young Guelph with the beautiful voice began to spread.

Eddie had good grades in school and his father wanted him to be a lawyer. But young Johnson had a career in music at heart. Her first break came when she 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 of
St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York.

This led to an invitation to travel to New York.

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

Under von Feilitsch’s tutelage, Johnson improved his voice and learned the languages ​​of opera. He started getting roles in opera productions featuring the big stars of the day. He traveled throughout the Northeastern United States and the Midwest, with occasional engagements in Canada.

Wherever Johnson performed, critics noted the “gifted young tenor” with an “exceptionally loud yet remarkably smooth” voice.

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

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 1908.

Johnson was a sensation – and now a star.

Later that year he sailed for Europe.

In Paris, Johnson worked with Riccardo Barthelemy, the coach who had been the accompanist of Enrico Caruso – aka The Great Caruso – the opera superstar who was considered the world’s greatest tenor. Johnson met Caruso and they became friends. Caruso encouraged Johnson
to go to Italy and study under his own mentor, Maestro Vincenzo Lombardi; advice followed by Johnson.

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

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

Johnson made his European operatic debut on January 10, 1912 at the Teatro Verdi in Padua. It was during this time that he was first billed under the Italian version of his name. He had been told that this would make him more palatable to Italian audiences who might resent foreigners who dared to sing on their opera stages.

Her first tune had the audience rising to applause.

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

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

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

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

The Guelph boy was a star at the Met for 13 years. Renowned Irish tenor John McCormack said: “Canadian singer Edward Johnson is the world’s finest all-round operatic tenor.

Johnson made his last Met appearance as a singer on March 20, 1935.

In May he became general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, 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 found 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.

Johnson Hall at the University of Guelph is named in his honor, as is a school in Guelph. The Faculty of Music building at the University of Toronto is also named after Johnson.

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