From the Archives
With a Song in His Heart
BY ANDREW VOWLES
|Edward Johnson memorabilia are on display at the U of G Library. Photo by Rebecca Kendall|
Sometimes it's hard to stay upbeat. Ask Rosemary Smith about the musical legacy of operatic tenor Edward Johnson in his Guelph hometown, and she delivers a mixed response.
“I think he'd be disappointed,” says Smith, executive director of the Edward Johnson Music Foundation (EJMF). Referring to cancellation of this year's Guelph Spring Festival, she adds: “He would be really upset that the festival is no longer in business.”
She thinks he'd also share her frustration over recent funding woes that have limited the foundation's music education outreach program in area schools.
But there's an upside, says Smith, referring to the possibility of more funding for local school boards and the Ontario Arts Council. Seated in the boardroom of the foundation's downtown office, she glances at an image of Johnson on the wall and says: “I see that as encouraging.”
Those are decidedly mixed emotions in a year marking the 50th anniversary of the foundation established by Johnson in his home city. Here on campus, the U of G Library is marking the milestone with a display of Johnson memorabilia. There's room in the glass cabinet for only a smattering of the material that occupies much of an entire row of cabinets in the archives. But the handful of photos, articles, programs and other mementoes sketch the entire career — and hoped-for legacy — of one of Guelph's more famous sons.
Born in 1878, Johnson became one of the world's leading tenors. After a stint as a church soloist in New York, he moved to Europe in 1912. In Italy, “Edoardo di Giovanni” conquered opera audiences in Padua and Milan. He also won over Beatrice d'Arneiro, daughter of a viscountess living in Portugal. They were married in 1909.
Ten years later, his wife died. Johnson returned to North America and sang with the Chicago Opera Company. (His daughter, Fiorenza, attended boarding school at Bishop Strachan in Toronto and married George Drew, who became premier of Ontario and later leader of the federal Conservative party.)
In 1922, Johnson joined the Metropolitan Opera Company and enjoyed 12 successful seasons in New York. After leaving the stage, he became general manager of the Met until retiring in 1950. He returned to Guelph, where he established the foundation in 1957 to promote music instruction and appreciation and to solicit funding for music education. He died April 20, 1959, while attending a National Ballet of Canada recital in Guelph.
Johnson had shared his music manifesto years earlier. Speaking to the Canadian Club in Toronto in 1945, he called for strengthening music education from elementary schools through university.
“We want to make the public an understanding public, a listening public and a singing public,” he said. “We want music taught per se as culture; we want to develop an understanding and sympathetic listening public; and we want to provide the best teaching and opportunities for our talent.”
That spirit continues through initiatives run by the EJMF. The Musicians in the Schools program brings professional musicians into regional elementary schools for hands-on workshops for about 3,500 students a year. In 2006, two students received $750 scholarships from the foundation for university studies in piano and violin performance. It also sponsors the annual International Music Day held each fall.
Johnson's name shows up in a number of places today. Besides the extensive collection at U of G, the Edward Johnson Building houses the faculty of music and the opera school at the University of Toronto. And much closer to home, his legacy continues in the K-6 public school in Guelph that bears his name.
Gord Heasley, principal of Edward Johnson Public School, confesses he can't carry a tune himself, but more than a few of the school's roughly 550 students can, including many who have attended those Musicians in the Schools sessions since Grade 1.
Heasley adds, however, that Johnson's legacy extends far beyond music. “He's remembered not just for his music but also as a symbol of someone who achieves something significant in life. Our school motto is: ‘Learning for life.' I think he epitomizes that.”
Heasley's predecessor caught the spirit in a different way. John Cassano was principal during the school's 50th anniversary last year. A lifelong arts aficionado and a freelance writer, he wrote a play about Johnson's life called Heart of Song. Working with Smith at the EJMF, he had planned to stage the production in Guelph, but their funding application fell through. As part of the proposal, he had also written a companion teaching guide to help students learn about Johnson and the arts.
That project is on the shelf, but Cassano still hopes to bring it to the stage. Art “is a powerful and important vehicle to facilitate learning,” he says. “Arts capture the imagination and, when used skillfully, can be a very powerful engine to draw children.”