Edward Johnson | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Edward Johnson

Edward Patrick Johnson (a.k.a. Edoardo Di Giovanni), tenor, opera administrator, patron (born 22 August 1878 in Guelph, ON; died 20 April 1959 in Guelph, ON).

Edward Patrick Johnson (a.k.a. Edoardo Di Giovanni), tenor, opera administrator, patron (born 22 August 1878 in Guelph, ON; died 20 April 1959 in Guelph, ON). One of Canada’s greatest opera singers, Edward Johnson was renowned for his robust voice, passionate temperament and faultless instinct for romantic portraiture. After studying singing in Italy, where he performed professionally for eight years under the stage name Edoardo Di Giovanni, he joined the Chicago Opera Company and the Metropolitan Opera, becoming one of its most highly acclaimed singers. He then served as the Metropolitan's general manager (1935–50), expanding the company's repertoire and introducing many of opera's most spectacular personalities. Retiring to Canada in 1950, he established the Edward Johnson Foundation to support public music education. In 2006, Canada Post featured him on a stamp in a series honouring great Canadian opera singers.

Early Years

The son of James Johnson and the former Margaret Jane Brown, Edward Johnson sang as a child in a local church choir. At age 20, he was soloist at Guelph's Chalmers Church and had already appeared at amateur functions, including a concert in Stratford in 1897 with contralto Edith Miller, who encouraged him to pursue a professional career. Going to New York soon afterwards, he studied with a Madame von Feilitzsch and filled numerous minor engagements at churches, YMCA entertainments and other venues.

By the turn of the century, he was established as a young “assisting artist,” sharing programs with such celebrities as Lillian Nordica, Louise Homer, Vladimir de Pachmann and Ernestine Schumann-Heink. Most of these engagements were in the northeastern US, with occasional forays into Canada, where he was heard as soloist in Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha (Montréal, 27 January 1904) and Liszt's Psalm 13 (Toronto, 16 February 1905, with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir). He made his concert debut at Carnegie Hall in 1904.

In 1907, Johnson reluctantly agreed to sing the leading role in the North American premiere of Oscar Straus' A Waltz Dream. After performances in Philadelphia and Baltimore, the operetta opened at New York's Broadway Theater on 27 January 1908 and ran for 14 weeks. The young tenor found himself an overnight star. More importantly, 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. He married her in London on 2 August 1909. The couple settled in Florence, where he studied with Vincenzo Lombardi and where his only child, Fiorenza, was born on 21 December 1910.

Opera Singer, 1912–31

Johnson made his opera debut on 10 January 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 major 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 on 9 January 1914 at La Scala, Milan, where he triumphed 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 opera houses, as well as at Buenos Aires' 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 on 24 May 1919.

Johnson played Loris in Giordano's Fedora with the Chicago Opera on 20 November 1919 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 as Avito in Montemezzi's L'Amore dei tre re on 16 November 1922. For the next 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 in a wide variety of roles, notably Pelléas in Pelléas et Mélisande (which he first sang in the Metropolitan premiere on 21 March 1925, and last sang in his final appearance on the Met stage on 20 March 1935), Canio in I Pagliacci, Roméo in Roméo et Juliette and Don José in Carmen. He also sang in the first performances of two operas by Deems Taylor: The King's Henchman (17 February 1927); and Peter Ibbetson (7 February 1931).

Opera Administrator, 1935–50

In May 1935, Johnson succeeded Herbert Witherspoon as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. His regime of 15 years coincided with many unprecedented problems, among them increasing labour union demands, rising taxes and the beginning of the Second World War. The successes and failures of his tenure are chronicled fully in Irving Kolodin's monumental history of the Metropolitan. 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. Also during the Johnson years, Metropolitan Opera audiences 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 became a US citizen in 1922, but his ties with Canada remained strong, as evident in his appointment in 1947 as chairman of the board of the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Conservatory of Music), a position he retained until 1959. It was he who persuaded Gina Cigna, Irene Jessner and Boyd Neel to join the faculty. He helped set up the Edward Johnson Music Foundation, which sponsored the annual Guelph Spring Festival (1968–2006). Following Johnson's death, the University of Toronto’s new Faculty of Music building and its library were named in his honour; they also house his memorabilia.


The first 10 of Johnson's recordings (which include excerpts from Andrea Chénier and Parsifal) were European Columbias generally supposed to have been made in Italy about 1915. He made many between 1919 and 1928 for American Victor, mostly of trivial ballads of the moment, but also arias from Carmen, Pagliacci, La Bohème and Fedora, as well as “If, With All Your Hearts” from Mendelssohn's Elijah, recorded in 1920 and among his very best. (A discography can be found in Ruby Mercer’s The Tenor of His Time.) Off-the-air transcriptions of complete performances of Pelléas, Peter Ibbetson and Hanson's Merry Mount received limited circulation. His recordings were 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 was mounted in Guelph, Ontario. In 1992, his archives were deposited at the University of Guelph Library. In 2006, Canada Post issued a stamp in his honour; it was part of a series dedicated to great Canadian opera singers, which also included Raoul Jobin, Maureen Forrester, Jon Vickers and Léopold Simoneau.


Honorary Doctor of Law, University of Western Ontario (1929)

Honorary Doctor of Music, University of Toronto (1934)

Honorary Doctor of Letters, Union College, New York (1943)

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