Edward Johnson and the University of Toronto

As many people have observed, the University of Toronto’s music building is named after the opera man and its opera theatre is named after the music man (referring in turn to the Edward Johnson Building and to its opera hall, MacMillan Theatre). Ernest MacMillan had conducted opera in the 1920s for the Toronto Conservatory Opera Company, but as the longtime conductor of the Toronto Symphony and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, he was more closely involved with concert music than opera. He enjoyed a long association with the University of Toronto, first as a student, and later as a professor and the Dean of the Faculty of Music. The naming of the opera theatre in his honour was a well-deserved recognition of his important contributions to music at the University of Toronto. But who was Edward Johnson, the “opera man,” and what was his connection to the University of Toronto?

Edward Patrick Johnson – Eddie to his friends and family – was born in Guelph, Ontario in 1878. On the strength of his early successes as a church and oratorio soloist, he moved to New York City in 1899 to study singing seriously. He soon found lots of work as a tenor and had many prestigious church, concert, oratorio, and operetta appearances, but recognition in opera eluded him. So he travelled to Paris for further vocal training, working with Beatriz d’Arneiro, a Portuguese pianist and vocal coach. Their close working association soon led to a romantic relationship, and they married in 1909. Still more training followed in Florence, Italy, where the couple’s first and only child, a daughter, was born in 1910; she was christened Fiorenza in honour of the city of her birth.

On January 10, 1912, Johnson made his operatic debut in the title role of Giordano’s verismo opera Andrea Chénier in Padua. (Of the 40 or so recordings he made later, four are of tenor arias from this opera.) For the next seven years, he enjoyed great success in the verismo operatic repertoire in Italy and abroad, performing under the stage name Edoardo Di Giovanni (the Italian translation of his name). Signal moments included his debut at La Scala opera house in Milan in the title role of the first Italian staged performance of Wagner’s Parsifal in 1914, and singing the lead tenor roles in the Italian premiere of Puccini’s Il trittico in Rome in the presence of the composer in 1919. The Italian sojourn came to an unhappy end when his wife Beatriz died in 1919; heartbroken, Johnson elected to start a new career back in the United States.

Edward Johnson- Romeo at Metropolitan Opera 1923

Edward Johnson- Romeo at Metropolitan Opera 1923

For three seasons, Johnson sang with the Chicago Opera and then, in 1922, he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. For thirteen seasons, he sang leading roles at the Met, including Pelléas in the first Met production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 1925 (with the Canadian conductor Wilfrid Pelletier in the pit). In addition to many performances of 60 different operatic roles, he also had a busy recital career that took him across North America and as far abroad as Japan, Korea, and China. Robertson Davies has left a fine account of a recital that Johnson gave in 1927, at the height of his career, in Kingston, Ontario. “There was something princely about him,” Davies remarked. “And for all of us Edward Johnson was a splendid figure, because, to crown his other great qualities, he was one of us, and princes were in short supply in Canada in those days. Indeed, they have never been so numerous that we have grown tired of them.” [One Half of Robertson Davies, Penguin Books 1978, p. 26-27]

A new chapter in Johnson’s life began in May 1935, when he unexpectedly became the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera upon the sudden death of Herbert Witherspoon, who had been in the job for less than two months. Johnson would serve for 15 years, setting up the Metropolitan Opera Guild and steering the company successfully through the Second World War. He also increased the number of North American singers in the company, and introduced the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s ties to Canada remained strong. In 1936, his daughter Fiorenza married the Ontario lawyer and politician George Drew, who was the premier of Ontario from 1943 to 1948 and then, switching to federal politics, was leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada from 1948 to 1956. Being the father-in-law of such a prominent politician only strengthened Johnson’s voice in Canadian affairs. In 1945 Johnson was appointed to the Board of Governors of the University of Toronto, and that same year he was named the chairman of the Board of Governors of the Toronto (from 1947 on the Royal) Conservatory of Music.

The postwar era saw some complicated manoeuvring regarding the role of music at the University of Toronto. There was huge growth in student numbers, but also difficult negotiations between the university administration and the university’s two music institutions, the Faculty of Music and the Conservatory. Several strong personalities were involved, each with his (they were all men) distinct vision of how music education at the University of Toronto should unfold. Initially Johnson had little direct input into these matters, as he was still busy running the Met until 1950. Soon after his retirement from the Met, music matters at the university came to head.

In January 1952, Sidney Smith, the president of the university, introduced a new plan for music at U of T, drafted by a committee led by Claude Bissell (who would succeed Smith as the president of the university in 1958). Under the umbrella designation “Royal Conservatory of Music,” there would be a Faculty of Music (offering degree courses) with Arnold Walter as the Director, and a School of Music (giving pre-university instruction for the most part) with Ettore Mazzoleni as the Principal. There was to be a rector or dean with overall authority for both parts of the Royal Conservatory, but no one had yet been appointed to the position.

The confusion began with the naming of the constituent elements. The School of Music was actually the Conservatory, and people continued to refer to it as such. The Faculty of Music was technically “the Faculty of Music of the Royal Conservatory of Music of the University of Toronto,” but scarcely anyone used this unwieldy name for it; it was just the U of T Faculty of Music. MacMillan was offered the position of rector/dean, but felt that he was too busy with his conducting duties to take up this post, so he retired from the university, feeling unhappy with the way that the entire reorganization plan was unfolding. Mazzoleni, who was his brother-in-law, also tendered his resignation. Turf wars ensued, tempers flared, backroom intrigue flourished, and the whole imbroglio made front-page head headlines in the local papers. “MacMillan Retires, Mazzoleni Resigns as Discord Rocks Royal Conservatory: Dispute Appointments in New U of T Setup,” read the page one headline in the Globe and Mail on April 28, 1952.

Edward Johnson Drew family picture December 1958 in Guelph

Edward Johnson Drew family picture December 1958 in Guelph. Left to right: Sandra Drew, Edward Johnson, George Drew, Edward Drew, and Fiorenza Drew.

As a member of the governing boards of both the U of T and the Conservatory, Johnson was tasked with smoothing things over. He agreed to act as the interim rector/dean of the Royal Conservatory until the post could be filled. Upon learning of this, Mazzoleni rescinded his resignation (to MacMillan’s surprise and disappointment). Arnold Walter’s title was Director of the Faculty of Music, but his portrait hangs in the EJB along with the other Deans of the Faculty. Johnson served without pay as the interim Dean during the 1952-53 academic year; his portrait does not hang with the other Deans, though a fine portrait of him by Eugene Speicher hangs in one of the two main entrances to MacMillan Theatre (a portrait of MacMillan by Kenneth Forbes hangs in the other entrance). Boyd Neel was appointed as the Dean of the Royal Conservatory in 1953, to oversee both divisions, and occupied the position until 1970. Johnson was initially not keen on relinquishing his influence or cooperating with Neel. President Smith finally had to tell Johnson to stop interfering with the running of the Conservatory, at which point Johnson stepped aside, though he did remain on the Board of Governors.

Johnson spent his remaining years divided between Guelph and Toronto, with regular trips to Ottawa to visit his daughter and son-in-law, and to Europe, especially his beloved Italy. He was involved in preliminary plans for a new building for the Faculty of Music – the building that now bears his name. He did not live to see the building, though; he died of a heart attack while attending a performance by the National Ballet of Canada in Guelph on April 20, 1959. Two years later, on the anniversary of his death, his daughter Fiorenza (Mrs. George Drew) laid the cornerstone for the building that bears her father’s name. “This building is in spirit the true receptacle of his heart,” she remarked on that occasion, “and so it will always remain.”

Edward Johnson Building Stone

Edward Johnson Building Stone at 80 Queen’s Park



Professor Robin Elliott
Jean A. Chalmers Chair in Canadian Music
Director, Institute for Music in Canada