Gertrude Johnson OBE 1894-1973

Gertrude Johnson

Gertrude Johnson

From the moment she was born in Hawksburn, Victoria, on 13 September 1894, Gertrude Emily Johnson was destined for a theatrical career.

Johnson was still a student when she auditioned for Dame Nellie Melba.

In 1918 she sang in Messiah with the Melbourne Philharmonic Society, and then joined the Rigo Opera Company for seasons in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide and New Zealand.

 

National treasure

‘What was known as the National Opera was run by a woman named Gertrude Johnson, whom I’d never met,’ recalled Australian bass baritone Neil Warren-Smith. ‘I’d only heard of her. Until the dress rehearsal [of Don Giovanni at St Peter’s Hall, Eastern Hill, in 1955] that is. I was on stage in my costume and feeling very silly about it all – I thought I looked terrible. I heard a rich, clear voice come from out of the darkness of the auditorium: “Verdon [Williams]! Leporello cannot wear that! Give him this,” she said, and a fawn-coloured felt hat with a drooping feather was passed over the footlights to me. It was one of the legendary Miss Johnson’s own hats and, as far as I could see, no improvement on the thing I was wearing, but I got it into my head that I’d been singled out for some mysterious kind of honour. I jammed it on and wore the hideous thing from my first entrance at the first performance until my final exit on the last night.’

From the moment she was born in Hawksburn, Victoria, on 13 September 1894, Gertrude Emily Johnson was destined for a theatrical career. Her grandfather, George Johnson, had been a tenor with the Lyster Opera Company. Her father, a solicitor, was well-known as a baritone with the Melbourne Liedertafel. Her parents were affluent, though by no means wealthy. Gertrude was educated at Presentation Convent, Windsor. She showed an early aptitude for music, and was only six when she made her first public appearance.

Johnson was still a student when she auditioned for Dame Nellie Melba. ‘She is a dickie bird,’ she decreed, and advised her to go to Europe for training. In the meantime she was to study with Anne Williams at the Melbourne University Conservatorium. Soon her concert appearances were receiving glowing reviews. In 1915 she transferred to Melba’s Albert Street Conservatorium, but left at the end of 1917 to accept an engagement as principal soprano with Count Filippini’s opera company for a tour of Queensland and New South Wales. In 1918 she sang in Messiah with the Melbourne Philharmonic Society, and then joined the Rigo Opera Company for seasons in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide and New Zealand. In 1921, after a Farewell Concert at the Melbourne Town Hall, she left for London.

She was 25, tall, dark and beautiful; she was a natural and affecting actress, and the possessor of a voice of remarkable richness, liquidity and power. Soon she was singing principal roles with the British National Opera Company. She was in the first BBC opera broadcast, singing the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, a role in which she scored an enormous success at Covent Garden. Her performances at the Salzburg Festival were lauded, and she sang in many recitals with the British composer Cyril Scott.

Biographical references

Thérèse Radic: ‘Gertrude Johnson’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 14, Melbourne University Press
Frank Van Straten: ‘Gertrude Johnson – Master Builder’, in Stages, July-August 1993
Frank Van Straten: National Treasure, Victoria Press, 1994
Neil Warren-Smith: 25 Years of Australian Opera, Oxford University Press, 1983