London Letter

Edward Johnson of Guelph

With indomitable will he conquered music, strange tongues and life’s tragedy in his determined invasion of the operatic world

H. NAPIER MOORE July 1 1939
London Letter

Edward Johnson of Guelph

With indomitable will he conquered music, strange tongues and life’s tragedy in his determined invasion of the operatic world

H. NAPIER MOORE July 1 1939

Edward Johnson of Guelph

With indomitable will he conquered music, strange tongues and life’s tragedy in his determined invasion of the operatic world



FROM THAT spring night in 1912 when, at Padua, Edoardo di Giovanni (Edward Johnson to Guelph), singing his first role in Italian opera, downed an opposition claque and conquered audience and critics, his progress was rapid. It was more than that. For a foreigner it was phenomenal; none the less so because the public never dreamed that lie was not Italian—so well had he mastered that tongue.

The Padua engagement extended for several wreeks. Followed a contract in Bologna. Di Giovanni was being acclaimed as the coming young artist. From Signor Erne Carelli, then managing director of the Costanzi in Rome, came a feeler. Would Edoardo go there to sing the role of Johnson di Sacramento in "The Girl of the Golden West," by Puccini the part, incidentally, wdiich had made Caruso famous iti America?

Edward Johnson (if you don’t mind, we’ll stick to Johnson Di Giovanni is rather confusing, don’t you think?) did not do what might have been expected. After all, wasn’t it his ambition to sing at the Costanzi? But he grabbed not at the offer. Always the businessman, lie knew that his market value w'as going up. The more restrained the eagerness, the better the terms.

That summer, while negotiations were still in progress, the Johnson family, accompanied by the faithful nurse, Tata, sailed for New' York, en route to Guelph. Complications w'ere visited upon Grandpa and Grandma Johnson, for, when, after a while at home, Edward and his wife went off to visit other relatives, the old folks were stymied by a grandchild who prattled in Italian, and a Florentine nurse. Tata solved the problem by constantly running to an Italian grocer who graciously officiated as interpreter to the grandparents.

Then came word that Edward had been engaged to sing at the Costanzi on his own terms. Autumn found the family installed in an apartment in Rome, and Johnson working like a Trojan on the new parts.

"Isabeau” was first, and he was a success. But now came the role that put bis heart iti his mouth. Johnson di Sacramento. I íe would be compared with Caruso !

For weeks the company rehearsed feverishly, and by the time the evening of the performance arrived, Johnson was in a state of nervous exhaustion.

The curtain went up. The first act ended with the audience unmoved. The final curtain fell to little applause and no enthusiasm. That night, Johnson dragged himself home in despair. He was a failure; might as w'ell give up. Glumly he waited until the next day to see w'hat the critics had to say. At noon, when the newspapers came out, he wras staggered. For the critics showered him with praise. What had happened to the audience the evening before, nolxxly ever knew. The second performance was a sellout. The enthusiasm w'as terrific. Once more Johnson wras on top.

Triumph in “Parsifal”

THE season progressed and reports of this amazing young tenor began to spread. They reached the management of La Scala in Milan. They sent an agent to Rome to hear him. The scout was impressed. A few days later Johnson’s manager burst in with the breathless announcement that La Scala was asking his terms and particulars of his repertoire.

Carelli, in Rome, w'as unwilling to let Johnson go. He was now box-office, a drawing card. But Edward knew when the going was good. He signed a contract with the Milan organization, and with it received the honor of being chosen as the first tenor to sing “Parsifal" outside of Bayreuth. Copyright for this opera ended on December 31. 1913. In January, 1914. “Parsifal” was produced at La Scala, with Edward Johnson in the title role.

The res|x)nsibility of such an undertaking was not lost on him. It w'as more than just a singing part. It meant the maintenance of a great tradition. “Parsifal” is more than an opera. It is a religious drama; and to become an interpreter of Wagner’s message meant a preparation almost comparable to that involved in becoming a servant of the church. Johnson not only learned the music; he studied every fxx)k pertaining to Wagner and his ideas.

At last he was ready. In the great opera house were critics from all over the world. The audience, for the most part, was composed of people who knew the work intimately.

Johnson’s success w'as immediate, and real. Only a few loyal Italians longed for their much beloved Wagnerian tenor, Borgatti; and to please them, the management brought him in to do one performance. But the years had told on Borgatti’s figure, if not on his voice, and he failed

to create the illusion of youth and innocence which Johnson had given.

Twenty-seven performances of “Parsifal” were given in three months, and Johnson sang twenty-five.

And note this: After the opening night’s performance, when Edward’s dressing room was filled with admirers, the conductor, Maestro Serafín, cleared a path through the throng and pulled a thickset, heavily-jawed young man within Johnson’s arm range. “Edoardo,” quoth the maestro, “I want you to meet one of our rising young critics, who is very enthusiastic over your performance this evening—Señor Benito Mussolini.”

Then a reporter for a Socialist paper, Avanli. Now, Il Duce.

Command Performance

IN AUGUST, 1914, came the European War. Everyone knew that it was only a matter of months before Italy would be in the thick of it, but theatrical life went on. Johnson wanted to join either the Canadian or British army, throw up the career, which, after years of hard work and study, was beginning to take shape. He was under various contracts to create a variety of new roles in Rome and Milan. From the managements’ point of view he was an investment. They weren’t going to stand for any contract jumping, war or no war. They’d have the law on him. Johnson had to yield. He went on singing.

In 1916, La Scala contracted to take its entire ensemble to South America for a six months season divided among Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Johnson was to sing Walter in “Meistersinger,” and “Tannhäuser.” In the fall the company embarked amid doleful headshaking. Friends assured them that they would never get through the submarine zone alive. The ship sailed in a dank fog. The Johnson share of its passenger list and cargo was comprised of Edward, Bebe, Fiorenza, Tata and seventeen trunks. And as the liner edged away from the dock. Fiorenza, in childish soprano, sang with fervor a little number she had picked up while sitting under the piano as her father and mother rehearsed. It was the farewell Chenier sings in the last act, as he is being driven off to the guillotine—"Viva la Morte,’’ or “Hurrah for Death.’ Those who had come to see them off wept. It seemed too sadly appropriate.

Three weeks later, the company was in South America. For two months they stayed in Buenos Aires. Many of the artists were already known 'l itta RulTo, Rosa Raisa, Maria Barientos among them. Before the engagement ended, Edoardo di Giovanni was equally popular. His success was repeated in Rio.

The early part of 1917 saw the company returning to Europe. On board the ship were Lucien Guitry, the famous French actor, and his beautiful wife, Jeanne Decios. The friendship which ensued between them and the Johnsons was lasting and memorable. To Fiorenza, Jeanne Decios was the most exquisitely lovely creature she had ever seen. Decios showered her with gifts. Among them the little blue velvet bag with a cock embroidered in gold, which Guitry used in the first performance of “Chantecler” in Paris.

The Johnson entourage landed in Barcelona and pro ceeded to Lisbon, where it was now Bebe s turn to introduce her Edward to relatives and friends. So far as Bebe’s mother was concerned, the meeting was not exactly a fiesta. The elderly countess just flatly refused to recognize a son-in-law who was an artist and a Protestant to boot. But to the rest of the family, Eddie was ace high.

From Lisbon the Johnsons went to Madrid, where Edward had been asked to sing a few performances of “Meistersinger.” So pronounced was his success that he was commanded to appear at court. And the Queen of Spain, having listened to, and applauded, some of Johnson’s best operatic arias, asked him if he would do her the favor of singing a few old Scottish songs.

Rehearsals and Bombs

"D ACK IN Milan in the autumn of 1917, Johnson plunged into an arduous routine made still more hectic by the ravages of war. Old operas, new operas, constant rehearsing —and bombs. One morning of the spring of 1918 is indeliblyimpressed upon Fiorenza’s mind. In the early hours she was yanked out of bed and dragged to the cellar by Tata, who explained that it was April Fool’s Day. Fiorenza regarded the explanation with some suspicion as April 1 had been duly celebrated a few days previously. An airraid was in process. Upstairs, Bebe was pleading with Edward to get underground. Edward, tired out by a heavy performance the night before, insisted that he would rather be blown to pieces than leave his comfortable bed. And he stayed in bed while German planes roared overhead and dropjied bombs.

The season over, the Johnsons returned to Florence. Edward was badly in need of rest, and longed for the quiet of his home in Via San Niccolo. But there was little rest. Every day, at least a score of people would drop in for tea. Soldiers on leave rushed to the Johnsons the moment they reached Florence. Civilians who had husbands and sons in the trenches, came to ease their suspense for an hour or two. Bebe, with her astonishing gift of mimicry, her fund of stories, held them spellbound. Nightmares vanished in that little Hat in Via San Niccolo.

In the summer of 1918, Maestro Puccini, then at his home in Viareggio, sent for Johnson. He had a new score he wanted to show, and would he come down for the day. The score turned out to be the famous “Trittico,” three one-act operas. It was his last completed work, for Puccini died before “Turandot” could be finished. The first one-act opera was “II Tabarro,” the second “Suor Angelica,” for women’s voices only; the third "Gianni Schicchi.” Puccini felt that Johnson should create the tenor roles in the first and third. Would he be willing? Would he! Edward Johnson selected by Puccini to create two new roles! It was agreed. The première was to be in Rome the following spring. Edward went home on wings.

Meanwhile the season was to be spent between Rome and Milan. And one night in the latter city is deeply engraved in Johnson’s memory. It was November 11, 1918. La Scala was all agog with the première of "La Nave," an opera for which Gabrielle d’Annunzio had written the libretto. Between the acts the manager went before the curtain and announced that an armistice had been signed and the Great War was over. The curtain rose, and all the singers came out carrying the flags of their respective countries and sang his or her national anthem. Johnson was so thrilled by the excitement on the stage and in the house that he forgot all about being Edoardo di Giovanni. Waving a Union Jack, he let fiy with “Rule Britannia” and

shook the rafters.

In Rome, the Johnsons' life was full of work and social activity. Sir Rennell Rodd, the British Ambassador to Italy, and Lady Rodd, were constantly calling for their assistance at charity concerts, in helping the Red Cross, the warstricken and the poor. Edward sang for everything. Bebe organized teas, balls and bazaars every day in the week. The Prince of Wales arrived. Edward was asked to sing for him. He did. He has a souvenir, tooa gold medal with his name on it. and also the signature, “Edward, Prince of Wales.”

Personal Tragedy

MARCH, 1919. In Florence, rehearsals were under way for the Puccini work. The première was to be in mid-May. And there was not one minute’s letup for either Edward or his wife. Bebe was beginning to show the strain. She was tired, nervous, strained.

The evening of the première came. Bebe was in her accustomed place in the dressing room, making Edward up. as she had done all through the years. But still she could not contain herself to go out front and sit in a box. To her, sitting in the dressing room, there came the sound of thunderous applause, of cheers. She knew that Eddie was out there, taking his bows.

Success! A day later, Bebe was unable to leave her bed. On the 23rd of May she lost consciousness. That night Edward left for the theatre to sing his second performance of Puccini. His daughter lay in one room screaming with an earache. In another room lay Bebe, his wife, the woman who had made his success possible, dying.

None in the audience that night knew that the great Di Giovanni, the artist selected by Puccini, didn’t know what lie was singing; couldn’t see through the mist before his eyes. Again and again they called him before the curtain. At last he fled from the theatre, home.

Next morning a bewildered little girl was taken to stay with friends. A few days later Johnson came to take her away. He explained that her mother had been sent to the country where she could get well once more. He couldn’t trust himself to tell her that all he had cherished in life had been taken from him.

The day after his wife died, Johnson had sung another performance. The management had written him entreating him to sing; otherwise it would mean closing the theatre, at great loss to it, to the artists and chorus. He had gone in a daze. The theatre was packed. All who heard him knew of the tragedy that had befallen him. Friends who were there will tell you that

Johnson sang as one inspired; that they had never heard anything more beautifiil. Johnson didn’t know what was happening.

The next day Bebe was taken to the quiet Florentine hillside. In the cemetery of the Allori, surrounded by stately cypress trees she rests. Upon the stone which marks her place, these words:

“And is he dead whose glorious mind lifts thine on high.

To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”

There are flowers on that grave all the year round.


THE NEXT few years were full of heartbreak and difficulties for Johnson. Immediately after his wife’s funeral he had to leave for Turin, where he was engaged to sing the Beethoven “Ninth Symphony” under Toscanini’s baton. In Turin he received a cable from his brother Fred, in Bay City. Michigan, announcing the death of his wife, which had occurred a day or two after the passing of Bebe. Within a week the two brothers, who were, and are. warmly attached to each other, had been made widowers, each with a small daughter to look after.

To those who know Edward Johnson socially or professionally, he is an evercharming, delightful personality, bubbling with wit and humor. Only his daughter and those of his friends who have had occasion to take their troubles and sorrows to him, know the depth of his understanding. They will never be published, but the letters written by Johnson to his child in the period following his bereavement have that beauty of expression and feeling that places the mark of deep human experience upon all masterpieces of creative art. Critics have often written of the “spirituality” of Edward Johnson’s singing. The reason you now know.

In the summer of 1919, Johnson signed a contract with the Chicago Opera Company. In November, their belongings stored and the house closed, Edward and Fiorenza left Florence for the United States, taking with them Tata and a governess who would look after the child until she knew enough English to go to a Canadian school. They landed at Boston and were met by Uncle Fred, who took the feminine contingent to Bay City while Edward went on to Chicago to make arrangements for the future.

In Chicago, Johnson’s manager convinced him that it would be wise to appear under his own name. That decision proved to be one of two setbacks. The fame of Edoardo di Giovanni had crossed the Atlantic, as witness the Chicago contract. Nobody remembered Edward Johnson. The second impediment was a temperamental lady who at that time pretty well ruled the opera. She had pronounced likes and dislikes. Only those artists she liked personally were allowed to sing. The others got paid but seldom opened their mouths. Johnson was not among the favored few. He had contracted for twenty performances. He was paid for twenty performances. But he sang only a fraction of them.

For the two years he was bound, Johnson was completely miserable. He was used to a different life and to success and acclaim. The glamour he had known in Italy and South America was missing, and he was lost; there was no Bebe to inspire him.

Gradually he began to appear in concert and recital work. Slowly he began to rebuild his reputation. Then the sky cleared. No sooner had the Chicago contract expired than came an offer from the Metropolitan in New York. He attacked his work with renewed zest. In the fall of 1921 he was ready to step into the greatest opera house in the world. Then another blow fell.

He had been suffering from a rheumatic condition. His doctor told him it was caused by an infected wisdom tooth which ought to be extracted ; really nothing to it. He decided to go up to Toronto for a week-end, see Fiorenza (then a boarder at Bishop Strachan School) and have the offending tooth removed.

Luncheon with his daughter was a great success. He went off blithely to a dentist, promising to call for his daughter next morning. But next morning he was in the hospital. The extraction had gone haywire; wound up with an emergency jaw operation. His jaw was immovable; his face swollen to frightening proportions, and the anaesthetic had done some mysterious wrong to his system. For a singer, he was a mess.

When he did make his delayed entry into the Metropolitan. Johnson was just not Johnson at all. He was ill. worn out, and had to miss several performances. Failure stared him in the face.

Next spring he sailed for Europe, to he joined by Fiorenza. who was to go later to a school in Lausanne. They holidayed in Dinard and went on to Florence, intending to spend the balance of the summer there. But their stay there was brief. Florence was too full of sad memories.

It was on the island of Elba that Johnson got a grip on things again. In that wild and beautiful spot, reminiscent more of Africa than of Italy, he relaxed. He picked grapes from the pergola for breakfast and figs from the trees for his tea. He sang with the fishermen when they drew in their nets at night. And when he sailed for New York to begin his second season at the Metropolitan, he was tanned, healthy and hopeful. His chin was up.

Success at the Metropolitan

JOHNSON walked through the stage door on Thirty-ninth Street to cement a connection with the Metropolitan which resulted in twelve consecutive seasons of ever-growing popularity, and in his ascent to the biggest job opera can offer—the general managership of the Metropolitan itself.

From the first rehearsal, he was back in his stride. In the Italian operas of the repertoire, he shone. Then came a new test—a modern work in French, “Pelléas and Mélisande,” by Debussy. The role of Pelléas was wholly suited to Johnson— vocally, artistically and intellectually. He worked incessantly perfecting his French, for, compared to the great singing operas. “Pelléas” is practically spoken; each word must come out clearly, and in its most beautiful form and color.

Lucrezia Bori was Mélisande. Gifted with intelligence as well as with voice and

beauty, she was the perfect partner. Together they gave so complete an illusion that the public jumped to the conclusion that they were in love with each other offstage as well as on. From time to time newspaper columnists reported their engagement. Johnson and Bori kept the press and public guessing, neither of them being altogether unaware of the value of publicity, but there was no romance flowering, nothing but perfectly co-ordinated stage business and understanding.

“Pelléas and Mélisande” was an artistic success. It never became a drawing card in the popular sense, because few understood the beauty of Debussy’s music and the symbolic drama of Maeterlinck, but the opera remained in the repertoire as a Johnson-Bori triumph. Edward Ziegler, the assistant general manager of the Met, who commenced his career in music as a newspaper critic and who saw and heard Johnson in every role he ever sang, regards his Pelléas as the best thing he ever did. Even today, Ziegler speaks of it in a hushed voice. None else has sung Pelléas on the Metropolitan stage.

The next innovation was the first opera to be written in English—“The King’s Henchman,” libretto by Edna St. Vincent Millay, music by Deems Taylor. Taylor asked Johnson to create the leading role. (Incidentally, Johnson has created more world premières than any other tenor.) Assisting him in the cast were Florence Easton and Lawrence Tibbett. Differing from “Pelléas,” the “Henchman” proved to be more of a success with the public than with the critics. The first performance went with a bang, and that night Deems Taylor sat down and penned these lines:

“Dear God, thank you for thinking up Eddie Johnson when you were making tenors.”

In the Orient

THE season ended, Johnson sailed for the Orient, booked on a concert tour. His first recital was in Yokohama, and the Japanese loved him just as much as did the European colony. In fact they cost him a small fortune in freight charges on gifts with which they had showered him. He arrived in China in the midst of a revolution, and his experience varied from giving a recital in a hall surrounded by a cordon of protective police, to singing in an outside stadium for the benefit of the soldiery. He was stranded in the interior when train service was cut off by bandits, he wallowed through floods, and was held up by a sixfoot student who insisted on five dollars before he would allow the terrified rickshaw porter to proceed.

Johnson returned via Egypt and Naples, spending the summer with his daughter in Italy. His third Metropolitan season was a complete success, and the following summer he joined Mr. Eckstein’s Chicago ensemble at Ravinia Park.

Ravinia, to artists and public alike, afforded one of the most unusual and enjoyable experiences America had to offer. It was rather like singing, or hearing, opera in Salzburg or Munich. A beautiful park, green lawns; huge shady trees, and, in the background, an exquisite little theatre. The theatre seated about 1,800 people, but at $1 admission thousands more could enter the park, and from outside the enclosure both hear and see opera which New Yorkers had just paid $8 to hear.

The artists loved it. They rented little houses near the theatre, loafed in contentment and forgot about temperament, even during performances. And there were little inconveniences to be put up with. Such as swallowing night butterflies while sucking in a deep breath. And singing against thunderstorms, which seemed to spend most of their lives on the shores of Lake Michigan.

One evening Johnson was singing in “Faust” with Yvonne Gall, of the Paris Opera, when a terrific storm smote the park. The artists continued, and the audience stuck it out, but not one note of music was heard above the rain and thunder. Another evening Martinelli was obliged to start his aria of “Andrea Chenier” three times. A near-by storm kept putting the lights out. Martinelli could have sung the aria blindfolded, but the orchestra needed illumination.

Changes of temperature added to the difficulties. It seemed that every time Johnson had to sing “Lohengrin,” the weather man, out of sheer spite, put the thermometer up to ninety in the shade. Johnson weighed about 145 pounds, and his coat of mail weighed just about half that. An hour or two of singing, and he could almost swim inside his own tank.

Five summer seasons did Johnson sing at Ravinia, until the well-known depression put a crimp in open-air opera. Each year he managed to get across to Europe for a few weeks. And each winter he was doing big things at the Metropolitan.

Came another Deems Taylor opera— “Peter Ibbetson.” Only one Peter would satisfy Taylor; Eddie Johnson. And Bori must be the Duchess of Towers. “Peter Ibbetson,” for opera, was a smash hit. It played twenty-two performances in one year, netting $150,000. It made more money than any single opera had made during the previous twenty years. Yet the opera had sad memories for Johnson. It was just before a performance of “Peter” that he learned that his mother had passed away. History was repeating itself. Once more he had to appear before the public and give it its money’s worth, no matter what was happening to him inside.

Yet a third time was a similar tragedy to occur. A few years later he had just received his nomination as assistant manager to Herbert Witherspoon, who had succeeded Gatti-Casazza as manager of the Metropolitan, and was on his way to Detroit for the last two performances of his singing career, when he received word that his father was critically ill. Johnson sped to Guelph, but arrived too late. “Jimmy” Johnson was dead. He went to his grave on a cold, rainy day. Edward had to run for the train in order to get to Detroit for the première of Puccini’s “La Rondine” in English.

His wife, his mother and his father—all had gone. And each time he had been compelled to go in front of an audience and carry on as if nothing had happened.

There are lighter moments to remember, too. That night in Philadelphia, for instance, when in the thrilling love duet in “Carmen,” Jeritza eased herself from Johnson’s embrace leaving a wig of large shining black curls clinging to the buttons on his uniformed chest; the audience staggered by the apparently miraculous and instantaneous growth of a long black beard upon its favorite tenor. Incidentally, it was Johnson who revived “Carmen” after its long absence from the Metropolitan.

Missioner of Music

IN THE first article of this series, I related how, in his youth, Edward Johnson decided he would be a church missionary. He did become a missionary, on behalf of music.

At the turn of the century, Millionaire Otto Kahn had interested himself in the Metropolitan. He was a tremendous worker, and his colleagues on the board were content to let him work just as hard as he pleased. Kahn became the dominating factor. With the 1929 depression and Kahn’s death, the Metropolitan was in serious financial difficulties. And Johnson became a missionary for opera. The Metropolitan Opera Guild was formed, with Edward as its plenipotentiary extraordinary. He made appeals from the stage, he haunted the salons of Park Avenue, drumming up subscribers for the Diamond Horseshoe; he addressed several service clubs a week. He preached music as a great force in everyday life. He sold it to hardheaded businessmen. “Save the Metropolitan” moved stony hearts, just as the boy soprano’s “Throw Out the Lifeline” had, long ago, caught that Guelph Sunday school class in a wave of emotion. Dollars began to roll in. Eddie Johnson was a go-getter.

The famous, awe-inspiring GattiCasazza, impresarioof the Metropolitan for twenty-seven years, retired and went back to Italy. He was succeeded by Herbert Witherspoon, the same man who had got Eddie Johnson the role of Lieutenant Niki in “The Waltz Dream.” And Witherspoon gave but one look for an assistant. Eddie’s singing days were over.

In the spring of 1935, Witherspoon died. There was no hesitation concerning a

successor so far as the board was concerned. A few days later Edward Johnson walked quietly into the office of the general director of the Metropolitan Opera and hung up his coat and grey fedora. He turned to the large chair which GattiCasazza had sat in for so long a time, and in which Witherspoon had sat for so short a time. Then he called in a house man.

“I think you can move that chair out,” said Edward Johnson. “It’s too big forme.”

Editor’s Note : This is the second of three articles by Mr. Moore on Edward Johnson. The third toil/ appear in an early issue.