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ON THE RADAR | The Little Known Story Behind Toronto's Failed Opera House

By Michael Vincent on March 21, 2019

Opera Place: Toronto’s would-be opera house that the Government turned into a condo development.

Opera Place: 887 Bay St.
Opera Place: 887 Bay St.

You can tell a lot about a city by what it builds, but also what it fails to build. “Opera Place” is located at 887 Bay St. and just north of it is its sister building “Allegro at Opera Place”. If you haven’t heard of these opera houses, don’t fret. They have anything to do with Rigoletto or Cosi Fan Tutte. Instead, they are two condo buildings that went up in the memory of plans for what would have been a world-class opera house that Bob Rae’s government killed in the early 1990s.

It all started in 1984 when Ontario Premier Bill Davis promised to transform a plot of provincially-owned land at Bay and Wellesley Streets into an opera house. The property was estimated to be worth $75 million. The province decided to hold a competition for the design of a new opera house — a crown jewel in Toronto’s arts community. They named Moshe Safdie’s postmodern design, the winner. The project was then granted approval in 1988, and the existing government offices and retail store were cleared out to make room for the new ambitious project.

But the fat lady sang in 1990, after the election brought in a new NDP provincial government. They saw the $311 million project as a fiscally irresponsible use of public funds during a recession. They asked the Opera House Corporation to scale the design back. The project stewards refused. The government responded by pulling the funding entirely, which left the would-be opera house without adequate financial backing.

Two years later, the province pulled the plug once and for all, and sold the empty land to condo developers. The lot sat vacant for twenty years until the developers built two Condominium buildings sardonically named after the imperviously dead opera house project.

Of course, Toronto finally got a new world-class Opera House in 2006 with the Four Seasons Centre for The Arts on Queen Street. It was the hard-fought battle led by Richard Bradshaw to get Toronto a space to match the prestige of The Canadian Opera Company and The National Ballet of Canada, but the effort paid off. Bradshaw secured a $20 million donation from the Four Seasons hotel chain in exchange for perpetual naming rights to the complex, and the rest is history.

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing…” Daniel Burnham, architect and city planner, 1846-1912.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

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Michael Vincent
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Michael Vincent

Michael Vincent is the Editor-in-chief Ludwig Van and CEO of Museland Media. He publishes regularly and writes occasionally. He has worked as a senior editor for over fifteen years and is a former freelance classical music critic for the Toronto Star. Michael holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Toronto.
Michael Vincent
Follow me
Michael Vincent
Follow me

Michael Vincent

Michael Vincent is the Editor-in-chief Ludwig Van and CEO of Museland Media. He publishes regularly and writes occasionally. He has worked as a senior editor for over fifteen years and is a former freelance classical music critic for the Toronto Star. Michael holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Toronto.
Michael Vincent
Follow me
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