Edward Johnson of Guelph
The dramatic story of the boy from Guelph who rose to the heights in opera — and then took over the show
H. NAPIER MOORE
ON A summer afternoon in the early ’nineties, a large number of citizens of Guelph, Ontario, were gathered together in Victoria Park. The reason for that particular assembly is now forgotten. It is unimportant. Of great importance in the light of what has happened since, and still remembered, was an event which, while not on the program, stole the show.
To the top of a picnic table there was hoisted a very young fair-haired boy. In a clear treble, and with surprising articulation, he proceeded to sing “Annie Roonev.”
It was not his first public appearance. A few' weeks previously he had roused his Sunday school to a high pitch of emotion by a heart-swelling rendition of “Throw Out the Lifeline.” But it was his first big adult audience, and he rose to it. It is doubtful if any group of people anywhere have better glimpsed the wholesome qualities of Miss Rooney than did the citizens of Guelph that day.
As they left the park, men and women agreed that James Johnson’s young Eddie would go far.
Today, Edward Johnson is general manager of the New York Metropolitan Opera Company. Handling the affairs of the biggest permanent musical organization on earth, he can look back upon a career as one of the great tenors of our time; a career filled with color, with triumph, and with touches of tragedy that make man a soul. He can look forward—and does—to a day in the future when he will retire to his native land, to Guelph. For Edward Johnson, the universalist of music, still is a Canadian. Honored by foreign kings and potentates, capped and
gowned by universities, friend of the world's great artists, motivating spirit of the Magic Met, never has he ceased to call Canada home, never ceased to be Guelph’s own Eddie.
This is the story of Edward Johnson, a Commander of the British Empire, Cavaliere Uflficiale della Corona d’ltalia. Mus. Doc., LL.D.
It is a many-sided story.
It is an inspirational story. In his youth, Johnson thought seriously of becoming a church missionary. He still believes that music is a gospel in sound.
It is a success story; a story of hard work, artistry, and good business sense.
It is a woman’s story; it has a great romance, a great love interest.
It is a man’s story. For none of the jokes about tenors fit this» narrative. Edward Johnson is a Regular Fellow. Old school chums will relate in accents of awe how' he donned the gloves and w'haled the tar out of a bully about twice his own weight. That was many years ago. But while his hair has whitened, there is no middle-age spread about him. The spring hasn’t departed from his step. Being general manager of the Metropolitan Opera these days means that now and then you have to argue with the Truck Drivers’ Union.
Born in Guelph. Johnson’s heritage w-as simple. Pioneer grandparents; a Welsh father, by trade a grain merchant, who stood for no nonsense, and an Irish mother, full of kindness and sweetness. His early life, with one exception,
paralleled the lives of other neighborhood youngsters— doing chores around the small house, shovelling snow on cold winter mornings before going to school, risking his neck on homemade toboggans, swimming in the river. The exception was music.
His father was an ardent lover of music in its simpler forms. As a member of the city’s brass band he performed with zest upon a wind instrument, and he was in big demand at all dances held in the countryside adjacent to Guelph. To the ear of the elder Johnson, the gurglings of the infant Eddie possessed an uncommonly melodious quality. Moreover, it w'as obvious that the child had a taste for music; did it not revel in its parent’s practicing?
Studies and Broadway
"DROM his tenderest years. Edward was encouraged to
sing. At an early age. as has already been recorded, he gave his Victoria Park recital. To add to his equipment, he was given piano lessons.
Weekdays, he progressed through Central School to the collegiate; just naturally being a leader in all activities.
Week nights, he studied, sang and played the piano and flute; became an officer in a cadet corps; became a member of the regimental band of the Thirtieth Wellington Rifles.
Saturday nights, from sitting in the “gods” at Town Hall shows, he progressed to the role of accompanist to Master D’Arcy B. Gilpin, who whistled “The Mocking Bird” to such public acclaim that they decided to team in professional vaudeville—Gilpin and Johnson. They never did. Master Gilpin became an advertising man in Toronto. Johnson followed his theatrical star and organized a minstrel show to get money for new instruments for the Wellington Rifles’ Band.
Sundays, Edward sang boy soprano in the Sunday school choir of St. George’s Church; progressed to the conductorship of the Norfolk Street Methodist Sunday school choir; became a soloist in the big church choir at St. George’s.
It was as a boy soprano that he hit his first high C. Unlike most boys, his voice never broke. It slid gracefully into a youthful tenor, and kept on hitting high C.
In his late teens, Johnson almost decided to join the church and become a missionary. His father thought it would be a much better idea were he to go to university and study law. But at twenty, Edward made up his mind. He would not be a missionary. He would not be a lawyer. His future was in his throat. He had saved $100 from his earnings as a church singer. He would go to New York, take singing lessons and be a much better church singer.
Living in New York at that time was Arthur Higinbotham, who also hailed from Guelph. I fancy Mr. Higinbotham had heard that memorable performance of “Annie Rooney.” At all events, here was Eddie Johnson from Guelph. That in itself was sufficient. Higinbotham promptly arranged to have Johnson live in the same apartment with himself and two other young men who were working in the city.
Johnson counted what the train fare had left of his $100, went out and found a teacher, sang his high C and got a church job which would pay the teacher. That problem settled, the next one was how to keep Johnson. He sang for his supper; he sang for his clothes. He sang in synagogues and Protestant churches. He sang at concerts. And his earnings he budgeted with an innate business sense. So much for study; so much for living; a little for the future.
Up to the age of twenty, never had he heard anything but a church organ or a brass band. Recitals, orchestras, opera had been denied him. Now he was able to climb endless stairs to the cheapest seats and revel in such music as he had not heard before. Gradually, the vision of his own life was forming. Grand opera! That would be his objective.
Little by little he began to build up his reputation. He got the position of tenor soloist at the well-known Brick Presbyterian Church. Followed calls to. different cities to do oratorio work. Then came recitals.
Critics began to write of the beautiful and brilliant quality of his high register. His friends talked of a great future for him.
He knew now that to fulfill their expectations and his own ambition there was but one thing for him to do—go to Europe and study. Germany, he thought, would be the best place. Forthwith, the practical side of Johnson’s nature asserted itself. With great exactness he drew himself an estimate. So much for the passage over. So much for so many months expenses over there. So much for the passage back (for he wasn’t going to budge until he had enough money to bring him back). The total was established. Only one question remained. Where was the money to come from?
There was an odd quirk in the answer.
The Interstate Amusement Company, theatrical producers, were in the throes of casting a new operetta by Oscar Straus. You may remember it. It was called “The Waltz Dream.” For the leading role of Lieutenant Niki they needed a tenor. Seeking expert advice as to where one might lie found, they asked Andreas Dippel, leading tenor of the Metropolitan Opera. Andreas knew a lot of tenors, but none capable of getting into a slim naval officer’s uniform. So he referred the problem to Henry Wolfsohn, the booking agent, who handled the affairs of both Herbert Witherspoon, celebrated basso, and Edward Johnson. Wolfsohn mentioned the problem to Witherspoon. Witherspoon immediately suggested Johnson, with whom he had sung. Eddie was youthful and slender, and he had a voice which, in stage parlance, ought to lay ’em in the aisles.
The agency called Johnson and asked him how he’d like to try his luck in light opera. In no time at all Edward was dashing up Broadway. When he dashed down again, he was floating. His high C had filled the vacancy in the “Waltz Dream” cast. He was Lieutenant Niki, and at $600 a week.
As for the odd quirk I mentioned, Andreas Dippel was later to become administrative manager of the Metropolitan Opera under Gatti-Casazza. Herbert Witherspoon was to succeed Gatti, and Edward Johnson was in turn to succeed Witherspoon.
The future being veiled from Johnson’s friends, they did not, of course, know what was to be. For the present they were jubilant. Eddie was at the top. A headliner. A star
Europe—and a New Dream
"DUT Johnson had his own ideas. “The Waltz Dream” was a huge success. So w-as the featured Edward Johnson. He could have gone on being Lieutenant Niki eight times a week for several years. But after one season, he had enough money to take him to Europe. To the consternation of the producers and the anguish of the cast, he left the show and sailed from New York in quest of his dream.
He landed in England, spent a week or two absorbing the beauties of the countryside and in a whirlwind but intensive tour of London’s art galleries and historic spots. Thence to Antwerp, Amsterdam, and, at last, Paris.
In Paris, as in New York, his first contact was via Guelph. Guelph and Higinbotham are two names which loom large in the life of Edward Johnson.
Waiting to greet him was Harry Higinbotham, the Paris representative of the Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada, who also—you have guessed it—came from Guelph. Harry was a brother of Arthur, who had been Johnson’s guardian angel in New York, and he also had known Eddie since childhood. Harry Higinbotham had a wide circle of friends in Paris. From him they had heard all about Eddie Johnson. One of them, considered by Higinbotham to be the most intelligent young woman he ever had met. had been made so Johnson-conscious that it’s a wonder she didn’t swoon away when told that she was about to be confronted with proof that he was not a Canadian myth.
To her intimates she was known as Bebe. Actually she bore the name and title of Beatrix da Veiga. Viscountess d’Arneiro, of Lisbon, Portugal. And she was destined to become the regnant influence in Johnson’s life.
Her father was a composer and a diplomat. He managed
the opera in Lisbon, spent a great deal of time at court, and travelled much. His wife being of uncertain temperament, the members of the family had, one by one, sought peace of mind elsewhere. The last to take the step was Beatrix, who went to Paris and proceeded to earn her own living by giving lessons in any of the seven languages she spoke.
Few people who met her bothered to ask themselves whether Bebe was “pretty" or not. They were captivated by her magnetism, charm, and a wit of such warmth that an amazing gift of ridicule never became an offense. Her fund of culture was endless. Everything she did she did superlatively well. She was a grande dame and an artist. All these things have been told me by various people who knew Beatrix da Veiga.
What more natural, then, than that Mr. Henry Higinbotham should want Bebe to be the first to meet Edward Johnson?
She had dropped in to Higinbotham's studio on L’Avenue de l’Opéra for a cup of tea just as he was leaving for the railway station. To Higinbotham, that happy circumstance was marred by the fact that Bebe had forgotten it was the Day, and seemed to bear up with remarkable restraint on being reminded of that fact. He left her calmly sipping, and rushed to the station to welcome Johnson with an eni thusiasm that interested even the demonstrative French.
They arrived at the studio to find Bebe still there. Higinbotham’s joy on discovering that she had prepared tea for them was subdued by the fact that even after meeting Eddie, she was able to pour without a tremor. Tea over, Higinbotham, who had talked incessantly about Johnson’s life and works, urged Eddie to sing so that Bebe could hear his voice, then quaked in his shoes lest the lady yield to her penchant for sharp, if honest, criticism. She sat at the piano and played while Johnson sang. To Higinbotham it sounded magnificent. When the music was stilled he sat back expectantly, but the anticipated outburst of enthusiasm was not forthcoming. With the utmost deliberation Bebe reached for a cigarette, lit it and blew smoke in the air. “Yes,” she said at last, “the voice is beautiful. He may go far—if he works.”
Higinbotham once told Johnson’s daughter that that was the maddest moment of his life. What seemed to him to be a condescendingly aloof statement raised his blood pressure. Not so with Edward. He saw that the girl had guessed instinctively what he was aiming for; that he had found an ally and a friend. Then and there he decided he was going to see a great deal of Beatrix da Veiga.
JOHNSON’S visit to Paris was short. It was full of excitement, enlightenment, and Bebe, but funds were running low and to earn more money, back to New York he went.
He kept up a constant corresjxmdence with Bebe, in which she urged him on with such fire and faith that he sang as he hadn’t sung before. The number of his concerts multiplied; the critics did him well. In twelve months he had enough money to take him back to Paris. Meanwhile, Bebe’s father had died, and her mother’s eccentricities were providing more difficulties every day. Bebe was under a depressing strain, relieved only by the affection she had formed for Edward. His return saved her from breaking. Edward, they decided, must give a recital. For weeks they worked like mad in assembling and rehearsing a program. Higinbotham gave the use of his office, a spacious and wellfurnished one. Invitations were sent out to all the important musical people in Paris. The day of the recital came; the hour. When Johnson walked out to face his audience, Bebe was missing. Higinbotham found her in another room, trembling and as white as a sheet. Somehow or other, until that moment it hadn’t occurred to him that there was something more than just good fellowship and ccworkmanship between Beatrix and Edward.
The recital was a great success. It was agreed all round that Johnson should study opera as soon as possible. His dream had been to go to Germany. Bebe felt that his voice was more suited to the
Italian roles, and that he should go to Italy. They agreed on Italy. They agreed on one other point. They must marry just as soon as Edward had made enough money to carry them through the joint adventure.
Once more Johnson returned to New York, this time with the definite object of accumulating sufficient money to support him during what might be a lengthy period of studying, and support a wife too. It took him two years.
Always practical, he wanted further assurance that the artistic assets he possessed were sufficient to warrant the investment of time and savings. If he was to be an Italian tenor, then the best judge could only be the greatest of all Italian tenors, Caruso. He must sing for Caruso.
His first move was to enlist the aid of Richard Barthélémy, Caruso’s accompanist. Barthélémy, of course, knew a good voice when he heard it. Moreover, he was moved to active interest by the phenomenon of so great a volume being produced from so slender a frame. He agreed to coach Johnson for an audition with Caruso, and chose, of all things, an aria from “Otello” which obviously Verdi wrote with a champion heavyweight tenor in mind. Johnson weighed little more than 140 pounds, but he went after that aria with such vim that when Caruso finally heard it, the genial Emperor of Opera was flabbergasted. Having assured himself that he was not the victim of a cunning illusion, Caruso did everything but embrace Johnson. Here, he informed his enchanted listeners, was a tenor who could arri would achieve greatness.
That day, in the Hotel Knickerbocker, there was launched a warm friendship that was to last until Caruso’s death. Incidentally, his widow, in tribute to that friendship, presented Johnson with all Caruso’s stage wardrobe.
In the spring of 1909, Edward Johnson arrived in Paris. In the meantime, Bebe had gone to Florence and enquired of Maestro Vincenzo Lombardi. Caruso’s teacher, if he would be willing to accept another pupil. The maestro, after appropriate deliberation, had intimated that he would if the pupil was worth it. Bebe took the chance. Edward was assured that everything was arranged so far as Italy and Lombardi were concerned. The next step was to get married.
They had planned to be wed in England, in the same little church wherein, a short time before, Harry Higinbotham had married a Canadian girl. The Higinbothams were to be the witnesses. Johnson had to go to London and establish a residence of two weeks before the banns could be announced. Bebe stayed in Brussels with the Higinbothams and fumed.
The necessary time passed. The Portuguese consul gave his permission. All difficulties were surmounted And on August 2, 1909, in the parish church of All Saints, West Dulwich. Edward Johnson, musician, and Beatrix Maria Ferreira da Veiga d’Arneiro became Mr. and Mrs. Edward Johnson. They left that same day for Florence, Italy, their eyes on the future.
Edoardo di Giovanni
A FURNISHED apartment at 2 Via Solferino became their home. It consisted of two small rooms, simply furnished, and a piano. Maestro Lombardi heard Johnson sing and accepted him as a pupil. From that day on the hard work began.
There were three lessons a week with Lombardi; Italian and French language lessons with Bebe for hours every day. To many people, singing consists merely of learning to project the voice so that it falls more or less agreeably on the ear of the listener. Singing, in an operatic career, involves much more than that. It means knowing languages as well as music. It means a knowledge of famous paintings in great art galleries; how else than by studying the portraits of the masters can a young singer or actor learn how to move or pose in the costumes of the period?
Johnson went at this with all the enthusiasm of his nature. Here, at last, was what he had longed for. His wife was the ideal companion. She led him through French. Italian and Russian literature. All she knew was his, and he absorbed it with an ever-active brain and overactive sensitiveness.
Edward Johnson says to this day that all he has he owes to his wife; that she was the artist and he the clay. A lot of famous men say that with at least a mental reservation. Johnson believes it.
A year went by. The Johnsons were looking forward to the arrival of a child, when Edward was laid low by an attack of appendicitis. It took a month for the doctor to get his strength up to par for an operation, and a long and dreary convalescence followed it.
At last Edward was better, but Bebe’s own travail was near. Finances were a worry. They were living on $100 a month (500 lire in those days). Rent, living expenses, lessons had to be paid. And now a child.
The child arrived on the 21st of December. A girl. She was named Fiorenza, after the city in which she was born. Today, she is the wife of Lieutenant-Colonel George A. Drew, Opposition Leader in the Ontario Legislature, and a strikingly beautiful wife. It is scarcely necessary to mention that George Drew is a part of Guelph. They were married in the same St. George’s Church in which Edward Johnson sang as a boy soprano; and they are the parents of another Edward of lusty if uncertain voice. His nurse is an adoring Italian woman, affectionately known as Tata. And with Tata we get back to the Johnsons in Florence. For Tata was engaged as nurse to Fiorenza. More than that, under her added tutelage, Edward Johnson became so fluent a talker in Italian that he could hold his own with any cab driver. And Florentine cab drivers were very fluent.
The strain of being a father over, Edward got back to work. A number of managers had heard him sing and had made offers, but Lombardi put his foot down. No engagements until he was a finished product.
In the meantime, he went constantly to the opera, waiting for hours until the doors opened and he and Bebe could scamper up to the peanut gallery, there to sit and shiver as they contemplated what might befall Edward. For, to any ambitious young musician, an opera performance in Italy was not encouraging. If a performance was poor, if the tenor was slightly sour on his high notes, the audience of that day would scream derisively and shout rude jokes across the theatre. They went to the opera to enjoy themselves. And enjoy themselves they did.
There was also another phase of audience reaction that occasioned Johnson some thought. To the Italian opera fan, any singer from the other side of the Atlantic was a doubtful quantity to begin with. Musically, neither New York nor Guelph meant anything at all. The name Johnson on the billboards of Milan and Rome wouldn’t be an attraction; it would be a handicap.
The problem was discussed with Maestro Lombardi, to whom the solution was obvious. The literal Italian translation of Edward Johnson was Edoardo di Giovanni. And Edoardo di Giovanni he became. Seven years later, when he joined the Chicago Opera, the management convinced him that it would be a wise thing to revert to Edward Johnson. He did, and estimates that he lost five years of his career by doing so. The fact that two such names as Mary Garden and Geraldine Farrar were drawing cards only demonstrated that exceptions prove the rule. Fifteen years ago there was much less nationalism attached to the American operatic stage than there is today. It was the popular notion that to be any good at all. an opera singer had to be weaned on either liverwurst or spaghetti. However, in the long run things were to be evened up. For it is exceedingly unlikely that in 1935 Edoardo di Giovanni would have become general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Whereas Edward Johnson did.
Only once during his years in Italy did the name Johnson appear on the billboards. That was when he was engaged to sing at the Bergamo in Puccini’s opera, “The Girl of the Golden West.” The role was that of ‘ Dick Johnson,” the bandit, and the history of ballyhoo is enriched by the fact that the theatre manager advertised that as a special attraction, and at colossal expense, he had brought over the original Dick Johnson to appear for the first time on any stage.
The Rout of the Claque
TT WAS in the spring of 1912 that
Lombardi informed Di Giovanni, natus Johnson, that the wraps were off and that he was to make his debut at Padua in “Andrea Chenier.” The tenor engaged for the role had been repudiated at the first rehearsal, and a frantic management had begged Lombardi to find and send a substitute.
Edward and Bebe worked feverishly on the part, while their infant daughter whooped it up with a robust attack of
bronchitis. The worried parents departed for Padua minus their child.
At the first rehearsal, it was obvious that all was not well. The tenor Johnson had superseded was a protégé of the chorus director, and that worthy was actively engaged in working up propaganda against the interloper. On the evening of the performance, Johnson discovered that a claque had been bribed by the ex-tenor to whistle him off the stage after his first aria. He had no money with w'hich to buy a claque of his own. True, the Higinbothams had journeyed from Paris to attend the debut, and a sprinkling of friends from Florence w'ere in the audience, but what were they in comparison to a sceptical audience and the Italian equivalent of a Bronx cheer section? His success lay in his throat.
Bebe helped him with his make-up and, too nervous to go to the front of the house, remained in the dressing room. The more Johnson thought about that claque, the madder he got. His call came. He walked to the stage. The stage manager passed and gave him a supercilious smile. Johnson grabbed him by the neck and shook him. “I’m going to show you!” he hissed. In his anger and nervousness. Johnson had spoken in English. The victim understood not a word, but he gained the definite impression that his personal outlook would not be a cheerful one were his claque to follow his instructions.
The aria in the first act of “Chenier” is one of the most brilliant ever written for the tenor voice—full of warmth and passion, and technically very difficult. The Italian public was well aware of this. It knew its stuff. With his nerves tuned to the highest tension, and filled with rage, Johnson went at that aria with aweinspiring zest. He had to convince them. He did. When he finished, there were shouts of approval. The claque made one half-hearted effort to earn its money. Then, being good Italians, they joined with the rest of the audience and screamed their delight. When the curtain fell that night Edoardo di Giovanni was a sensation. Next morning, the press critics were just as jubilant.
Eddie Johnson, of Guelph, and Beatrix d’Arneiro had made good. But in their joy they retained a sense of proportion. Ahead lay the Costanzi in Rome, La Scala in Milan, the greatest theatre in Europe, and. at last, the Metropolitan in New York. The path was strewn with boulders. That they knew. They didn’t know that in its centre stood Tragedy awaiting Edward Johnson.
Editor's Note—This is the first of three articles by Mr. Moore on Edward Johnson. The second will follow in an early issue.
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Y^\NE workman who has tried many methods of holding nails to drive them in hard-to-reach places, claims that a small paint brush beats them all. The nail is inserted into the bristles, which hold it firmly, yet are pliable and permit the nail to be driven almost its full length before removing the brush.—Popular Mechanics.