Caruso sang to his fans from Massey Hall fire escape

In 1875 one of 19th century Toronto’s most popular music halls Albert Hall, opened for business. Popular not only for its fine musical and Vaudeville acts but because it was located in what was becoming the new centre of the city at Queen and Yonge.

Albert Hall wasn’t grand by any means, it was a smallish elongated room on the second floor above a men’s closing store but because of its much desired location it had people lined up to get in.

In 1890 Albert Hall closed its doors for a newer, larger and more opulent music hall was being planned just a few doors down.

That same year a symbolic corner stone was laid on Shuter Street by Charles Vincent Massey grandson of industrialist Hart Massey who gave the city $100,000 to build a grand new concert hall to honour the death of his own son Charles..

In 1894 the 3,000 seat Massey Hall a mixture of Moorish and modern design opened with a performance of Handel’s Messiah and for the next 100 plus years Massey Hall would be the focal point of great music making.

From Gordon Lightfoot, to Maria Callas to Joni Mitchell our great hall became one of the worlds great temples to the arts.

In the beginning however it was one performer who would put Massey Hall on the map of becoming one of the worlds greatest concert halls, Enrico Caruso. The Great Caruso was born in Naples on February 25, 1873 and would become the most famous tenor of his generation and still a gold standard by which all other tenors are measured.

His career was meteoric, becoming a singing phenomenon at 22 then cementing his reputation with a sensational debut at La Scala in Milan, Italy’s premier opera house in 1900. In 1903, Caruso left for New York City and a contract with the Metropolitan Opera where he became their leading tenor for the next 18 consecutive seasons. In 1904 he made his first American recordings after signing a highly profitable deal with the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor) becoming the first artist to sell a million copies.

Caruso made his Toronto debut at Massey Hall on May 4, 1908 with tickets an astonishing $2.50 in a time when a regular Vaudeville show was a dime.

The great tenor stayed at the King Edward Hotel on King Street in the same suite the Beatles were to stay in some 40 years later (today suite 869).

Caruso was 35 when he came to Toronto and made $10,000 a week in a time when a decent sized house in the Annex could set you back about $1,500.

The population of Toronto then was around 250,000 mostly of British background and it was into this very English culture that the Italian tenor arrived. Toronto’s Italian population lived very separate lives from their British counterparts, mixing rarely if at all.

However with the arrival of Caruso, both the British High Commissioner and Italian Counselor General went to the King Edward Hotel to meet the great man himself; a small gesture that spoke volumes. Music and opera in particular was the great leveler between these 2 very detached worlds.

Torontonians have loved opera ever since 1825 when its first opera ‘The Mountaineers’ by George Colman was stage here at Franks Hotel (now the site of the Rainbow cinemas in Market Square on Front Street).

In 1890 New York City’s stunning Carnegie Hall opened and Toronto out to show the world we were no longer a backwater colonial outpost decided to do the same in 1894.

By the time of Caruso’s Toronto debut in 1908 Massey Hall was quickly earning a reputation as an auditorium with outstanding acoustics and together became a perfect pairing of a great singer in a great hall; they were made for each other.

At the same time phonograph recordings were becoming extremely popular, so much so that if you couldn’t get a ticket to see the Great Caruso at the upscale Massey Hall, you could buy a cheaper ticket down the street in a smaller venue and listen to one of his recordings from a phonograph placed on the stage.  On Thursday September 30 1920, Enrico Caruso returned to Toronto and set a new box office record for any musical performance in our city’s history up to that time with ticket prices as high as 8 dollars, then an average month’s wage.

Following his full concert, Caruso went out onto the fire escape at Massey Hall to sing an aria for the crowd who could not get or afford a ticket gathered on Shuter Street. Caruso then left Toronto with a promise to return but that was never to be
On August 2, 1921 the Great Caruso died of Peritonitis an inflammation of the abdominal cavity at the age 48.

Today over 100 years after his first recordings, Caruso is still selling with downloads at iTunes of his aria from the opera Pagliacci (the crying clown) inducing goose-bumps just like he did all those years ago on stage at Massey Hall to spellbound audiences. In 2019 Massey Hall will shut its doors for an extensive top to bottom renovation then once again our beloved hall will continue to be home to some of Canada’s and the worlds great artists.

Bruce Bell

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