Edward Johnson of Guelph
Artist, skilled executive, showman, a man of deep human understanding — Such is the ruler of the "Met"
H. NAPIER MOORE
WHEN Edward Johnson was Edoardo di Giovanni and star tenor of La Scala in Milan, opera was one of the main industries of that Italian city. The opera centre of the world, nearly 200,000 of its people were engaged, directly and indirectly, in work arising from that fact.
In Milan were trained droves of leading singers and chorus people, conductors and musicians, stage directors, designers and scene-painters, managers and assistant managers. A large proportion were for export. In Paris, London, New York, Madrid and Buenos Aires, the opera’s warp and woof were Italian. From great workshops in Milan came scenery, costumes, wigs, properties, accessories and music scores. So far as the opera business was concerned, Milan had almost a world monopoly.
Things have changed since that day. Italians still are prominent wherever opera is performed, but each of the world’s centres has become more or less its own producer. Today, New York’s Metropolitan, if it does not surpass it, at any rate equals La Scala of Milan.
On the Metropolitan billing and programs, American names such as Tibbett, Crooks, Carter, Hackett, Dickson, Thomas and Warren, vie with the Danish Melchior, the Italian Pinza, Martini and Martinelli. Gladys Swarthout, Grace Moore, Marjorie Lawrence and Helen Jepson are heralded with the Swedish Flagstad, the French Pons, the Italian Caniglia. Among the conductors, there is Wilfred Pelletier, a French-Canadian from Montreal.
And, commander-in-chief of them all, there is plain Edward Johnson, of Guelph.
He administers a salary roll of more than $2,(XX),000 a year. Backstage he rules 750 people—cast, orchestra and stage staff. In front of the house, 110 box-office, secretarial, ushering and caretaking employees. He is the impresario who handles talent and temperament. He is boss of a series of small industries. The costumes worn by Flagstad, Tibbett or Jepson were made on the premises. Twenty seamstresses, cutters and fitters are constantly at work clothing principals and chorus or keeping them clothed. Ten thousand costumes hang on the racks. The property department builds anything from an Egyptian tomb to a travelling swan. The music department keeps in good order and condition from 6,(XX) to 7,000 vocal scores. 1 he electrical shop turns out marvels of mechanism. The boiler room can generate mild steam for making clouds. It is surprising what is tucked away in the musty regions behind that huge proscenium arch.
A Popular Manager
TT WAS with some misgiving that Johnson took over the job which Giulio Gatti-Casazza made famous. For sixteen years and more Johnson had been a singer, a fellow performer with many who, from now on, were subject to his dictates. To musicians and stage hands as well as to his co-stars, he had been popularly known as “Eddie.” Now he was their boss, with full power to hire and fire. The big chief. Gatti (they did refer to Gatti-Casazza as “Gatti,” but nobody backstage was clubby enough to hail him as Giulio) had himself predicted success for Johnson—“You know the opera house, people like you. and you are lucky.”
Johnson did know the Metropolitan. He did know ojiera. He did admit that occasionally luck had smiled on him. But would people with whom he had worked continue to like him when they were working for him?
Well, backstage, scene-shifters, electricians and property men, artists, directors and conductors and musicians still refer to him as “Eddie.”
I was in his office the morning on which the newspapers published the interview in which Gigli, returning to his native Italy after an appearance made irksome by sundry threatened lawsuits and what not, declared that the United States was on the verge of a collapse and that the Metropolitan was going down, down and down. Johnson was highly amused. But every few minutes the door would burst open and in would rush an excited opera star. With gesticulations wonderful to behold, and in torrents of passionate Italian, French German. Spanish or Scandinavian. they made pronouncements concerning the relative merits of Signor Gigli and their Eddie. One didn’t need to be a linguist to understand the score, to realize that so far as his company is concerned, Johnson is tops.
Ar THE commencement of the Johnson regime, there ■ were rumors that the Metropolitan, with its staid old traditions of half a century, would be revolutionized. Some of its old brigade harbored a secret fear that at ten o’clock some morning Johnson would tear into things and that by nightfall the institution would be converted into a cross between a night club and a Major Bowes program.
Four years have gone by, and nothing like that has happened. The theatre itself has been refurbished as well as an old theatre can be refurbished. A large Louis Sherry restaurant and bar has been established back of the Grand Tier. There are more native Americans in the casts than there used to be. And the American ballet is coming into its own. But there has been a gradual, almost imperceptible absorption of innovation into the old traditions. Johnson has his own definite ideas, of course, but he knows that accomplishment is by way of gradual evolution, not by upheaval.
His main objective is to ensure the permanency of the Metropolitan, not merely as a New York institution, but
as a national one. He has vastly improved its financial position. Through co-operation with the National Broadcasting Company, which every Saturday afternoon during the New York season broadcasts the performance, he has taken grand opera into millions of homes throughout the United States and Canada, lie has extended the annual road tour beyond Boston and Philadelphia, td take in cities as far distant as Cleveland and New Orleans. His hope is that next year, or the year after, he may be able to bring the Mctrojxilitan Opera Company to Toronto, and that special trains will transport most of the citizens of Guelph to hear it.
Johnson believes that opera is made successful by performances, not by names. He is too much of a showman to underestimate the value of old favorites, but he knows that the public isn’t going to be attracted by any publicized “Thirty-three years service” slogans. It wants the goods. Given them, it will make a star out of a comparatively unknown singer overnight.
In the summer, Johnson makes an annual pilgrimage to Europe to confer with his scouts and check up on new talent. Sometimes he comes back with a Flagstad. Sometimes he doesn’t. All the year round he keeps his eyes and ears open for promising native singers. He has not scorned a commercial radio tie-up whereby auditions are held, the winners to be taken under the wing of the Metrojxditan. Which is not to say that the winners bound directly into the big billing. They still have a lot to learn. As Johnson says, “You can’t cheat in opera. You can’t copy anyone else. In addition to having a voice, you must know. You must study o|x*ra. You must learn three or four languages so perfectly that you can think in them as well as sing in them. No matter how well you may sing, you've got to train for oix*ra.”
A Prodigious Worker
IN THE spring of this year, I spent two or three days in the Metropolitan Opera I louse, watching Edward Johnson at work. This is a typical day:
I íe arrives in his office at ten o’clock in the morning. By that time, his secretary, the indefatigable Mr. Villa, has sorted out the mail, press clippings concerning the previous night’s performance, etc. The mail would make an article in itself. The business of answering it is complicated by the incessant ringing of the telephone bell, and to listen to Johnson on the phone is the equivalent of being with the secretariat of the League of Nations during a general session. In the course of three or four conversations he will talk in four or five different tongues.
At eleven o’clock, Johnson flips a switch on his desk, and from a loud-speaker near the opposite wall, you hear the orchestra start the overture of whatever opera is in rehearsal. His ear is cocked to the instrument; he doesn’t miss a note. But that doesn’t stop him from absorbing boxoffice receipts, checking over proofs of next week’s programs, and keeping tabs on th¡* doings of thirty-five leading sopranos, thfrteen mezzo-sopranos and contraltos, twenty-five tenors, eighteen baritones, el pen bassos, six conductors, twelve ? .‘Estant conductors, not to mention the c. i TJS and the orchestra personnel.
Pis drawer abides a little book contaii^fir neatly tabulate*' ^es. It supplies an mlswer for every ne or emerg-
ency that might poss^jy i.4lse. Were the tenor cast for the principal role in tonight’s performance to be knocked down by a taxi, his part would be taken by one of half a dozen tenors who know it inside out. In fact, a dozen changes in a cast can be made at a moment’s notice without any visible commotion. If, by some fantastic whim after the curtain rose, the orchestra suddenly started in on an entirely different opera from that scheduled for that particular performance, the chorus would be quite at home except for costumes and scenic surroundings. Each member of it knows from twenty to thirty operas equally as well as his or her A B C’s.
You can’t make Johnson shiver by asking what would happen were so-and-so to be suddenly laid low by tonsillitis.
Then there are interviews. Every morning there are interviews. It may be a young Italian soprano with liquid eyes who thinks she deserves bigger parts and more money, but whose contract isn’t going to be renewed. Or a North European tenor who has just heard that a week from Tuesday the ambassador of his country is going to attend the performance, and couldn’t Mr. Johnston please arrange to switch the bill to an opera in which he can fill the stage?
Johnson has a way with him in inter-
views. He has the happy faculty of making the caller feel that what he has to say is the very thing Johnson has been waiting all his life to hear, and that he has all the time in the world to devote to that particular matter. Interviews seldom last longer than five minutes, but even those people whose fondest hopes have been shattered, make their exit with the warm belief that they have taken leave of a man who is filled with understanding and the milk of human kindness. Which, it happens, is true.
Rehearsal at the “Met”
DY NOON, Johnson will be in the dark U cavern of the auditorium, watching the rehearsal. General rehearsals, by the way. are run by the clock and the musicians’ union rules. When you are paying eighty or a hundred orchestra performers for four hours work, you can’t take time out to fuss around with lights and scenery, or go over stage business with a singing actor. You have to stick to the music.
Halfway back in the house, sits Director Johnson. Beside him, Ziegler, his chief assistant. About him, stage directors, chief electricians, scenic directors, and what not. In the back row is the production manager, with a telephone connected with the backstage regions. The orchestra is playing. On the stage Melchior and Flagstad, in street clothes, are singing “Tristan und Isolde.” Johnson thinks that a piece of scenery should be moved slightly to the right. There is a wh'spered consultation. Muted telephone instructions. '1 he scenery moves.
Johnson thinks it would be more effective were Flagstad to take three steps upstage as she sings such and such a bar. The stage director agrees and makes a note. He will mention it to Flagstad at the end of the act, when the set is being changed.
Or maybe it is “Boris Godounov” that is being rehearsed. Ezio Pinza, as the Czar, is singing toward his dramatic end. He moves right and is lost in shadow. Johnson says quietly that there ought to be more light coming through the window. An assistant tiptoes up the aisle. More
instructions via that backseat telephoneThe ray of light coming through the window increases.
Pinza has sunk to the floor at the side of a table. Johnson whispers to the stage director, “Chaliapin used to sweep everything off the table and die in front of it. It was every effective.” The director nods. When the act ends, he will explain how the great Chaliapin did the business of falling. And Pinza will think it’s a good idea.
Incidentally, Johnson’s memories of Chaliapin are filled with both awe and merriment. Awe because he used to play Faust to the Russian basso’s Mephisto. Chaliapin, of tremendously powerful physique, used to grab Johnson with such force that he generally lifted him clear off his feet. Merriment because of Chaliapin’s robust sense of humor. Johnson likes to tell of his arrival at some city where he was to sing at a concert arranged by a women’s musical club. Chaliapin was met by the officers of the organization and enquired of them what time his recital w'as to begin.
The reply was, “Eleven o’clock.”
“Eleven o’clock at night?”
“No, in the morning.”
Chaliapin looked horror-stricken. “Sing at eleven o’clock in the morning!” he roared. “Why, I can’t even spit at that hour.”
It is two o’clock.
We dash out to take a hasty lunch. Johnson and Ziegler discuss arrangements for taking the company to Boston, a move involving two special trains for two or three hundred people, freight cars for tons of scenery and costume trunks.
Back to the theatre. More interviews, more consultations with ballet and stage directors. A discussion of next season’s repertoire. At five. Johnson leaves for his apartment on Madison Avenue. There he relaxes, dines and dresses. At eight o’clock he is back at the opera house. There are things to discuss with Earle R. Lewis, who has been treasurer and front man for thirty years. A solicitous eye must be kept on the box-holders of the Diamond Horseshoe. There may be Distinguished Visitors; guests in his own Grand Tier box. The curtain rises. Johnson is either backstage,
or in his office, listening to his loudspeaker, dictating correspondence, poring over contracts, discussing new terms for scenery truckers.
At 11.45 p.m. the curtain is down. The audience is pouring into Broadway. And Johnson is still there; praising his performers; suggesting, here and there, a possible improvement; shaking hands with someone from Rome, Milan, Paris, London, Toronto or Guelph.
Shortly after midnight, he is on his way home. His day’s work is done.
Only on Tuesdays does the routine vary. At four o’clock he dashes from the opera house to the Pennsylvania Station, where the company is embarking on a special train for its weekly performance in Philadelphia. He is back in his apartment by two a.m. And on the job at ten a.m.
Music Universal Language
JOHNSON maintains contact with his personal friends by having them in for breakfast. He lives above a bookstore, which creates a sort of literary entrance, and his rooms are filled with treasures gathered in many years of travel—European and Oriental objects of art, ranging from a priceless old Chinese chest to an original shoemaker’s bench; from a religious carving which took him six years to wean from a dealer, to an old painting of Paganini and an original bon mot signed by that great violinist and attested by his son, Achille.
Hanging on the walls are lovely tapestries, cartoons drawn by Caruso, signed portraits from Paderewski, Puccini, Queen Marie of Roumania. Rachmaninoff, John McCormick (who once told the press that he considered Edward Johnson the best all-round tenor in the world), and opera and concert stars galore.
He was made a C.B.E. during the twenty-fifth year of George V’s reign. He also has two decorations presented by King Victor Emanuel III of Italy, a metal cast of Toscanini, under whose baton he has sung, made by Bistolfi and presented by the sculptor to the singer, letters of appreciation from Gabriele d’Annunzio and Puccini.
Johnson has been given honorary degrees by the University of Western Ontario, Toronto University and the University of Pennsylvania, in recognition of his services in the cause of music. And there is nothing Johnson would rather talk about than music, even during breakfast.
Opera, he will tell you. is everything. It is a symphony orchestra, singers, drama, a course in period architecture, and a course in period costuming.
Music he regards as a vital factor in everyday life. It is not only a universal language, it is practical. A businessman who has a knowledge of music is a better businessman for it. He is alive to the importance of sound. If he has learned to sing, he has learned the value of voice control and modulation, correct articulation and pronunciation. He can do a swell selling job.
Johnson wishes he could be superintendent of a school for a while. He says, “I would have a department with the sole purpose of training children to use their imagination. You see how important this is if you realize that we get emotional values only through the imagination. We often make the mistake of approaching musical problems the wrong way. It is not to the older generation we should teach music or the arts, but to children. Were imagination developed from childhood we would have audiences carefully trained to appreciate good music, and as sensitive to it as the artist who produces it.”
I have listened to Edward Johnson talk music in a breakfast tête-à-tête, and in the fireside circles of his friends. And I have heard him talk to a large audience of businessmen whose main concern an hour previously had been with a stock-market dive. No matter what type or size an audience may be, no matter if the people he is addressing are jitterbugs who regard classical music as heavy slumber, the effect is the same. Tney not only listen; they catch some of his enthusiasm.
The reason is Johnson’s sincerity. “Sincerity,” in fact, is his favorite motto. He has an idea about it. He says you’ve got to fully understand the word; that sincerity is preparedness and preparedness is power; that it is the only power in the world of art—and in everything else.
Moreover, Johnson practices what he preaches. He has dug deeply into his private purse. And again Guelph is uppermost in his mind. To organizations in that city he has contributed $25,000 for the advancement of musical education.
Last year, when the citizens of Guelph staged a monster banquet in honor of his son-in-law, Colonel George A. Drew, Edward Johnson played hookey from the Metropolitan Opera for the occasion. He was given an ovation when he entered the hall, and another following the sparkling little speech he made. But, next to the reason for the banquet, what made Johnson beam most was the performance of a choir and orchestra of young people. It was a very creditable performance. The youngsters were singing and playing for Edward Johnson, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera of New York, and they put it over. They also were part of Johnson’s dream come true.
A Memorable Occasion
COME years ago I happened to be ^ president of a famous old club in Toronto which, born of the arts, extends
its hospitality to visiting artists and players. “Green Pastures” was playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, and the late Richard Harrison, who was “de Lawd,” was invited to bring the entire company to the club after the performance one night. That same evening, Edward Johnson was singing what was to be his last recital in Toronto. He promised to come along too.
Around midnight, the company of colored actors and singers arrived in a body —about eighty strong. They assembled in the entrance. Then the lights of the hall were dimmed, and the centre aisle leading to the platform was bathed with mystic blue spotlights. The buzz of members’ conversation ceased. Then suddenly a mighty chorus broke the silence. Through the hall came the “Green Pastures” company, singing the chant which, in the play, is sung as the people of Israel march round the walls of Jericho. Led by Harrison, whose performance of “de Lawd” was one of the memorable events of the American theatre, they mounted the steps to the stage.
There was something about the atmosphere of the old hall and the welcome of the audience which electrified those talented colored folk. They sang number after number for the sheer joy of singing. With tears streaming down his face, Harrison whispered that never, in the several years the show had run, had he heard his people sing that way.
I could see Edward Johnson sitting in the front row, entranced by what was happening. It was too good an opportunity to miss. He had that night gone through a heavy recital, giving many encores. He was tired. It was an imposition to ask him to sing. But I asked him if he would. He did. He sang “Pagliacci.” The extraordinary spirit of the place had got him too. He sang with a fire and with a pathos that swept that strangely mixed gathering to its feet. None who was privileged to be present that night will ever forget what followed that last sobbing note. It was one of the most profoundly moving demonstrations I ever witnessed. It will never be dimmed in Edward Johnson’s memory.
Guelph Still “Home”
SOME DAY, Edward Johnson will return to Guelph to live in the lovely old family home he has maintained there for many years. He will fill his library shelves with almost every book that was ever written on the subject of music, and a fine collection of biographies. He will surround himself with his pictures, antiques, carvings and manuscripts; unpack trunks which bulge with photographs of Edoardo di Giovanni and Edward Johnson in dozens of operatic roles, with programs, playbills and mementos from the leading opera houses and concert halls of four continents.
And then, having everything arranged for a life of complete leisure and comfort, he will spend the rest of his days working like a Trojan to make Canada the most music-conscious country in the world.
He will, in short, continue to be what he is and always has been—Edward Johnson, of Guelph.