In 1907 Johnson reluctantly agreed to sing the leading role in the North American premiere of Oscar Straus's A Waltz Dream. After performances in Philadelphia and Baltimore the operetta opened at New York's Broadway Theater, 27 Jan 1908, and ran 14 weeks. The young tenor found himself an 'overnight star'. More important, the engagement furnished him with the means to study abroad. He sailed for Paris in 1908 and commenced work with Richard Barthélemy. In Paris he met Beatrice d'Arneiro, daughter of the Portuguese viscount José d'Arneiro, and in London, 2 Aug 1909, he married her. The couple settled in Florence, where he studied with Vincenzo Lombardi and where his only child, Fiorenza, was born 21 Dec 1910.
Opera Singer 1912-1931
Johnson made his opera debut 10 Jan 1912 as Andrea Chénier at Padua's Teatro Verdi. He called himself Edoardo Di Giovanni (Johnson's own spelling and capitalization, contrary to other references) and under that name achieved his first successes. These included a season 1912-13 at Rome's Teatro Costanzi in such operas as Mascagni's Isabeau and Puccini's La Fanciulla del West and an important engagement 9 Jan 1914 at La Scala, Milan, where he had a triumph in the title role of Parsifal in the first fully staged production of that opera in Italy. In the five years that followed, Johnson was heard at most of the important Italian houses as well as at Buenos Aires's Teatro Colón in 1916 and Madrid's Teatro Real in 1917.
Apart from Don Carlo and Aida he eschewed the usual 19th-century repertoire, finding that his robust voice and passionate temperament were best suited to the verismo school, some of whose leading exponents - Alfano, Montemezzi, Pizzetti - invited him to participate in world premieres during this period. The 'Edoardo Di Giovanni' phase of Johnson's career ended with his wife's death 24 May 1919.
Johnson made his North American opera debut 20 Nov 1919 as Loris in Giordano's Fedora with the Chicago Opera and remained with that company for three seasons, performing his customary repertoire as well as the title role in Lohengrin and such oddities as Erlanger's Aphrodite (with Mary Garden). Johnson made his Metropolitan Opera debut 16 Nov 1922, as Avito in Montemezzi's L'Amore dei tre Re. Thereafter, for 13 consecutive seasons, he was among the most admired artists on that company's roster, bringing to bear his unexceptional but shrewdly managed voice and faultless instinct for romantic portraiture on a wide variety of roles, notably Pelléas in Pelléas et Mélisande (which he first sang in the Metropolitan premiere of Debussy's opera, 21 Mar 1925, and last sang in his final appearance on the Met stage, 20 Mar 1935), Canio in I Pagliacci, Roméo in Roméo et Juliette, and Don José in Carmen. He sang in the first performances of two operas by Deems Taylor: The King's Henchman, 17 Feb 1927; and Peter Ibbetson, 7 Feb 1931.
Opera Administrator 1935-1950
In May 1935 Johnson succeeded Herbert Witherspoon as general manager of the Metropolitan. His regime of 15 years coincided with many unprecedented problems, among them increasing labour union demands, rising taxes, and the advent of World War II. The successes and failures of his tenure are chronicled fully in Irving Kolodin's monumental history of the Metropolitan; but no assessment, however brief, should overlook the fact that it was Johnson who introduced to the company such esteemed artists as Licia Albanese, Jussi Björling, Raoul Jobin, Robert Merrill, Zinka Milanov, Jan Peerce, Bidú Sayão, Eleanor Steber, Giuseppe di Stefano, Risë Stevens, Richard Tucker, Leonard Warren, and Ljuba Welitsch. During the Johnson years, too, Metropolitan Opera subscribers heard for the first time such masterworks as Gluck's Alceste, Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio, Britten's Peter Grimes, and Mussorgsky's Khovanschina.
Return to Canada
After his retirement from the Metropolitan in 1950 Johnson returned to Canada. He had become a US citizen in 1922 but his ties with Canada had remained strong, as evident in his appointment in 1947 as chairman of the board of the Royal Conservatory of Music Toronto, a position he retained until 1959. It was he who induced Gina Cigna, Irene Jessner, and Boyd Neel to join the faculty. He helped set up the Edward Johnson Music Foundation, which sponsors the annual Guelph Spring Festival. Following Johnson's death the University of Toronto's new Faculty of Music Building and its library were named in his honour and house his memorabilia.
Edward Johnson's recordings are few. The first 10 (which include excerpts from Andrea Chénier and Parsifal) were European Columbias generally supposed to have been made in Italy about 1915. He made many 1919-28 for American Victor, mostly of trivial ballads of the moment, but also arias from Carmen, Pagliacci, La Bohème, and Fedora and (among his very best) 'If, with all your hearts' from Mendelssohn's Elijah, recorded in 1920. (A discography can be found in The Tenor of His Time.) In recent years, off-the-air transcriptions of complete performances of Pelléas, Peter Ibbetson, and Hanson's Merry Mount have received limited circulation. His recordings are reissued on Met Stars in the New World (MET 216CD, 1992), RCA/Met Singers, 100 Years (RCA Red Seat 09026-61580-2, 1984) and Great Voices of Canada, vol 2 (Analekta AN2 7802, 1993).
A plaque commemorating Johnson's life and career has been mounted in Guelph, Ontario. In 1992 his archives were deposited at the University of Guelph Library.
Author James B. McPherson
'Great Canadian tenor gives home-coming recital in Guelph,' Canadian Music Trades Journal, vol 20, Apr 1920
'Edward Johnson and his musical task,' Musical Canada, vol 16, Oct 1920
'The career of Edward Johnson,' Musical Canada, new series, vol 1, Dec 1920
Armstrong, Isabel C. 'A chat with Edward Johnson,' Musical Canada, new series, vol 4, May 1923
Nelson, John. 'Canadian star shines for the world,' Maclean's, 15 Oct 1925
Thompson, Oscar. 'Two singers who became managers,' The American Singer (New York 1937)
'Edward Johnson: Johnson-Di Giovanni-Johnson: the three-fold career of a Canadian tenor,' Record News, vol 2, Feb 1958
Benson, Nathaniel A. 'Edward Johnson,' Canadian Music Journal, vol 2, Spring 1958
Walter, Arnold. 'In memoriam,' Canadian Music Journal, vol 3, Summer 1959
Benson, Eugene. 'Edward Johnson,' Opera Canada, vol 9, May 1968
Mercer, Ruby. The Tenor of His Time (Toronto 1976)
Rutherford, John E. 'Edward Johnson and Raoul Jobin on CD,' Antique Phonograph News, Nov/Dec 1993
Links to Other Sites
A profile of opera singer Edward Johnson and an overview of the "Edward Johnson Collection" at the University of Guelph.
The Virtual Gramophone
An extensive multimedia database that covers the history of recorded music in Canada. Search the site for musician biographies and notes about the early years of sound recording, online audio clips of recordings, podcasts on specific themes, videos, and more. From Library and Archives Canada.
A profile of Ruby Mercer, founder of “Opera Canada” magazine. From “La Scena Musicale.”
The Canadian Opera Company is born
Listen to a 1950 CBC Radio broadcast featuring interviews with noteworthy personalities in Canada's opera community.