To Mr. Johnson, of Guelph, has been entrusted the task of sweeping the whiskers out of America's Temple of Musical Art
G. H. LASHMarch151936
A Canadian at the "Met"
To Mr. Johnson, of Guelph, has been entrusted the task of sweeping the whiskers out of America's Temple of Musical Art
G. H. LASH
TO EDWARD JOHNSON, erstwhile tenor of Guelph Ontario, has been entrusted the delicate task of sweeping the whiskers out of America's Temple of Musical Art.
In the parlance of the populace, it is some job.
Among many things, he must modernize the presentation of opera without offending the susceptibilities of those who cling to tradition. He must, all things being equal, give preference to domestic talent; but he must do nothing that will sacrifice the high place which the Metropolitan Opera Company holds among the great musical institutions of the world. He must popularize the classics, but at the same time must retain the respect and financial contributions of the aesthetically elect. All this and more he must do while operating on a comparatively modest budget, and while presiding over the immediate destinies of some 1,000 men and women who comprise the company and the staff.
Under ordinary circumstances, such a task properly could be considered gigantic. But the circumstances under which Edward Johnson became general manager of the Metropolitan Opera Company were not ordinary. Firstly, there was the resignation of Giulio Gatti-Casazza. Secondly, there was the dramatic death of Herbert Witherspoon, who had been chosen to succeed him. Edward Johnson was pitched into power by these two upheavals. Consequently, while he has been long and favorably known to the public as one of the great dramatic tenors of his generation, he has to be accepted on trust as director of the supreme art in music; and this fact, added to the innovations that public opinion expects him to introduce, increases his difficulties.
Demand for Modernization
HP HERE CAN be little doubt that one of Mr. Johnson’s hardest tasks will be to dispose of the Gatti-Casazza tradition. For twenty-seven years this austere old gentleman was the high priest of American opera. He invested opera with a purple majesty behind which few eyes could or dared penetrate. He will be remembered as the genius who gave to American opera an honored place in the world of art, but his phantom cannot be permitted to haunt the opera if it is to be rejuvenated. Opera in America is no longer something to be reserved for the aristocracy,
for there is no longer an aristocracy in America.
Mr. Johnson’s second difficult job probably will be to appease the hunger for nationalism in opera that has become manifest so suddenly in the United States. Perhaps the recent radio appeals of the Metropolitan to the proletariat for financial assistance have been responsible for the widespread interest in its affairs, and for the demand that more American-born singers be added to the company.
There is a definite strengthening of those groups which contend that a voice can be nurtured just as well upon a platter of pancakes as upon a slice of salmis. True, they overlook the fact that the creation of a voice has nothing to do either with pancakes or salmis, but, like all great talents, is an act of God. Few things can be as blind or as heedless as nationalism rampant. This well-meaning but dangerous outbreak of Americanism may prove a serious menace to the position and future of the Metropolitan unless it is controlled. Upon General Manager Johnson rests the responsibility of exercising that control.
Closely allied with the group behind the movement for the Americanization of the Metropolitan Opera Company are those well-intentioned individuals who are petulantly demanding the “jazzing up” of opera. They mean well, of course, and perhaps it is not entirely their fault that they fail to recognize that between opera and other forms of stage expression there exists as wide an artistic difference as between an Old Master and a Christmas card. They have been fed upon the revolving platforms of “The Green Pastures;” the rhythmic elevators of ‘The Great Waltz” and the diurnal pyrotechnics of the Music Hall, until their appetites can be appeased only by the whirring of backstage cogwheels, the mechanical ingenuities of Joe Cook, and the talcumed tummies of an Earl Carroll chorus. General Manager Johnson with an elfin impishness of which few thought him
capable, has made an acknowledging bow to this section of the great American public by permitting Mile. Lily Pons to interpret “Lakme” in a costume which displayed, to whatever advantage you want to make of it, quite a bit of anatomy.
The Rotarian Influence
Y^\F COURSE, Mr. Johnson does not start his managerial career entirely burdened by handicaps. To begin with, he has a building which is gradually undergoing a metamorphosis. It began about a year ago when a mouth-wash company undertook to sponsor the Metropolitan radio broadcasts and, as a preliminary step in its advertising, caused the appearance of halitosis to be removed from the outer walls by vigorous scrubbing of the bricks. As a result the building has emerged like a sort of golden bantam rooster among its surrounding skyscrapers.
That doesn’t make the Metropolitan Opera House an architectural gem. But neither could Covent Garden be described as such, and Toronto’s own Massey Hall could be dumped into the Bay without any serious disruption of the picture postcard industry. Inside, new seats were installed in the Orchestra, and this year the refurbishing is being extended to the Family Circle. Close to the entrance to the Diamond Horseshoe, one of the most ultra-modem bars in New York has been created. This is proving a profitable source of revenue to the institution; a fashionable promenade for jewels and satins between the acts, and a veritable godsend to the jittery business man who feels he can’t endure another whiff of Wagner without a good, stiff hooker of rye.
Having cast an appraising eye upon the externals of his edifice, Mr. Johnson has been sagacious enough
Continued on page 50
A Canadian at the "Met"
Continued from page 19
to begin right there to make his influence felt. By some miracle of achievement he has transformed the atmosphere of the Metropolitan from one of stiff formality into one of cordial informality. No longer is it necessary to finger a nervous tie or to quail before the calculating eye of a domineering doorman. There is no superior sniffing by an usher directing ticket holders to seats in the sixth row balcony. All that is gone.
In its place a simple friendliness pervades the Metropolitan from the orchestra pit to the Broadway marquise. The curtains of the boxes where dwell the élite are now swished back with cheerful abandon and left to hang at any rakish angle they may assume. In the not-so-good old days, for such a breach of etiquette the holder of the offending box was practically considered eligible for elimination from the social register. There is something quite puckish in the manner in which the orchestra tunes up before the overture. One has the feeling that at any moment the entire audience may break forth into a community sing-song before the rise of the curtain. Just how Mr. Johnson has accomplished this transformation is, so far, his secret. Perhaps his long membership as a Rotarian is making its influence felt. But if it is his first step in giving opera back to the people, it is both sound and important.
The New Chorus
WHILE HE has retained five of the noted conductors of the orchestra and added a sixth and an assistant conductor, Mr. Johnson also has made important changes in the personnel of the orchestra itself. These moves, according to the New York music critics who are well paid to comment intelligently upon such matters, have improved its quality materially.
Back of the footlights, the most startling change made by Mr. Johnson has been the substitution of the American Ballet for the traditional operatic ballet of which Miss Rosina Galli—in private life Mrs. GattiCasazza—-was for many years première danseuse and later ballet mistress. It is conjectural to what extent this substitution was a voluntary decision by Mr. Johnson or a capitulation to the insistence of the sectionally minded minority who seek the Americanization of the opera. Certainly if it was Americanization that was wanted, in this branch of operatic art they have been given a strong dose of it. Twelve of the fifty members of the old ballet are with the new, but there the resemblance between the two ceases. The lilt, lightness and gaiety of the accepted form of operatic ballet have been replaced by something
heavier, slower-moving, more difficult for the average opera-goer to interpret and smacking of the influence of those schools of dancing of which Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Doris Humphreys and Martha Graham are leading figures.
The critics have been kind, but it is not difficult to see that they are puzzled. It’s all just a little too beefy for a palate accustomed to the sugar-sweetness of the ballet schools of Paris, Vienna and Milan. If it is a definite attempt to modernize opera, judgment should be suspended for more mature consideration. If it is an astute move by Mr. Johnson to rally to his support a group to oppose the too swift and too radical Americanization of Metropolitan productions, he seems to be entitled to sincere congratulations.
XTO ONE IS better acquainted with nationalistic prejudices than Edward Johnson. It is a characteristic that is not solely American; Canadians suffer from it to a lamentable degree. Mr. Johnson encountered it when he embarked upon his operatic career in Italy, where, to offset the suspicions of his audiences against foreign artists, he masqueraded as Eduardo di Giovanni for seven years. He discovered that it did not injure his voice or his reputation, and it certainly did not alter his nationality. But it pandered successfully to Italian vanity and gave him a prejudice against nationalistic prejudices that, as a sane-thinking man, he will not be able to overcome as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera Company.
By the selection of artists from abroad as well as from native soil, Mr. Johnson has already shown that he has every intention of choosing the members of his company solely upon their ability to portray the rôles for which they are required, and to meet the exacting tests of the music which they will be expected to interpret. He will hear voices first and ask names afterward. And if he happens across another voice like that of Caruso or Kirsten Flagstad he is not apt to be much interested in whether the possessor of it was bom in Kansas or Königsberg.
But being totally unprejudiced in such matters, Mr. Johnson will not draw away from giving his approval to the voice of some American-born artist simply because some particular section of the country is yelling at him to give that artist a chance. The addition of twelve American-born singers to the Metropolitan Opera Company this season is ample proof of Mr. Johnson’s sympathy toward home talent.
The return of five other favorite sons and daughters of the Republic who had deserted the Metropolitan for other fields, ijft' warm testimony to the popularity of h:** appointment and an eagerness for his su tage cess among his fellow artists. His furth_ intention to show no partiality but to lärst the public, discriminating or otherwise, Pa>’ the sole judge of the merits of the indiv-derual performers, is clearly evident in Hlad resolute, not to say courageous action, ofk abolishing the paid claque from the Metropolitan. Next to the installation of the ultra-modern bar, this is probably the most popular move he has made so far.
In another surprise move, Mr. Johnson has proceeded with his plans to make plain that a new dynasty rules the destinies of opera in America, and that there shall be no purple pomp to hide from the public what makes the wheels of the Metropolitan go round. This move is the nation-wide broadcast each week of regular auditions of candidates for places in the company. Most of these candidates are Americanborn, and it is necessary to listen to this programme only once to understand that something higher than an appreciation of Gershwin is required to adjudicate the merits of voices trained for opera. By appearing personally on these programmes to introduce each candidate, Mr. Johnson cot only encourages the singers with his patronage but he succeeds also in establishing a definite contact between himself and the public. And that completely äiatters a Metropolitan precedent—a fact that should endear him to the American public which regards the shattering of precedents as much its inalienable right as an Irishman does a fight.
Time Will Tell
r"PHE SPRING season which is to begin in April, about six weeks after the close of the regular season, may provide some indications of what Mr. Johnson regards as operatic innovations. But, at this moment, the plans are shrouded in mystery. There is some talk that several operas will
Finally, the British stical reduction in belief that they could pring season, the Passchendaele I? plans for the postbreak through, andjohnson has not an abandon the coast Last year when the x plan shows what tived that the “C” in cosiNot a single re? highest “C” in its reperto?h, at least > shopping around for money, iv^s need*! an arrangement with the Juilliard Musical Foundation. Under this arrangement the Juilliard Foundation undertook to grant a subsidy up to $150,000 providing that it was given proper representation on the Board of Directors of the regular season, and equal representation with the Metropolitan on the Board of Directors for the spring season. Consequently, such innovations as are sprung upon a surprised clientele during April and May will probably be as attributable to Messrs. John Erskine, Ernest Hutcheson and Frederic A. Juilliard as to Mr. Johnson and Mlle. Lucrezia Bv d, who will act as honorary president of he Spring Season Board. Therefore, it may not be until the reopening of the Metro, olitan’s 1936-37 season that Mr. Johnson will have a true opportunity to make known his personal views of what particular bra d of monkey glands should be grafted on , -the ageing body of opera in America ; make it acceptable to eyes and ears tha have become accustomed to the blandish, oents of radio and colorful kaleidoscopes ou of the fecund brain of Billy Rose.
It was at the age of five years thu't Edward Johnson made his first public appearance. The scene of his masterful triumph was a Guelph Sunday School, and the aria was one that Metropolitan audiences have never heard him sing. It was called “Throw Out the Life Line.” Considered in the light of his existing problems, there was unquestionably something dramatically prophetic in his début.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.