Gertrude Emily Johnson (1894-1973), coloratura soprano and theatre administrator, was born on 13 September 1894 at Prahran, Melbourne, second child of George James Johnson (d.1953), professor of music, and his wife Emily Gertrude, née Pridham, both Victorian born. Educated at Presentation Convent, Windsor, at the age of 17 Gertrude enrolled—on (Dame) Nellie Melba’s advice—as a student of Anne Williams at the University Conservatorium of Music. In 1915, when Melba founded a women’s singing school at the Albert Street Conservatorium, East Melbourne (later the Melba Memorial Conservatorium), Williams transferred there, taking Johnson with her. Melba accepted Johnson into her classes, eventually endowing her with her own personal cadenzas, a valuable professional asset. Fritz Hart, director at Albert Street, had a particular interest in Mozartian opera and introduced Johnson to what was to be the core of her repertoire throughout her career.
Through Melba, in 1917 she met Guido Cacialli, the leading bass of the wartime-stranded Gonsalez Opera Company. Johnson subsequently toured twice with remnants of the company: to outback Queensland and New South Wales as part of Count Ercole Filippini’s troupe, and in 1919 to Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and New Zealand with the Rigo Grand Opera Company. In February 1921 she sailed for London where she was engaged for coloratura roles by the British National Opera Company. Her long broadcasting career began on 8 January 1923 when she sang the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute for the first broadcast and operatic programme transmitted from Covent Garden by the British Broadcasting Corporation. She recorded extensively thereafter on the Columbia Gramophone Co.’s dark blue label, notably popular arias in English.
A tall, regal woman, classically handsome rather than beautiful, fair skinned, dark haired and dark eyed, Johnson toured Britain as a concert singer several times, appearing at music festivals and in large-scale oratorio events. Noted for her Mozart interpretations and her ability to sing his roles in the original keys, she performed at the Royal Albert Hall, Queen’s Hall and Covent Garden. Her appearances with the B.N.O. at Covent Garden were as Micaela in Carmen (1922), Marguerite in Faust (1923) and the Princess in Holst’s The Perfect Fool (1924), but she also sang from the standard bel canto repertoire with that company, which was primarily a touring one. On 7 December 1926 she sang Musetta to Melba’s final London appearance as Mimi at the Old Vic Theatre.
Although she became engaged to Dr Pullar Strecker in 1929, Johnson was never to marry. She returned to Australia in 1935 and abandoned her singing career. By then she was of independent means and set about establishing a national theatre movement—modelled on the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells—to provide training and employment at home for Australian performing artists who were being lost to the larger European and American markets. She had in mind a national body which she would co-ordinate, but which would leave the States autonomous. There was support for the proposition in four States; it encountered opposition in Western Australia and New South Wales. The goodwill of a Victorian pressure group, which included (Sir) Errol Knoxand James Hume Cook (the first chairman of the board), determined a Victorian base for her venture. They won her State government support and the directorship of the Australian National Theatre Movement, a position she retained for life. Her wealth, her forceful personality and her social connexions were significant elements in the success of the drama, ballet and opera performances she then staged. In a period of economic depression, when the theatrical life of the country had dimmed, the results were grasped as heralding a new and nationally focussed era for locally made versions of the performing arts.
The A.N.T.M. was inaugurated on 4 December 1935. The first production, a Christmas pageant, was staged in December 1936 at the Princess Theatre. As You Like It and The Barretts of Wimpole Street followed in 1937. Two years later the first opera productions, The Flying Dutchman and The Marriage of Figaro, were produced by the owner of the Princess Theatre, Garnet Carroll. While drama and ballet were to remain major concerns, the A.N.T.M.’s real success was in opera. An opera school was founded in 1938 and a ballet school in 1939.
With the outbreak of World War II and, consequently, no imported competition, the A.N.T.M.’s activities escalated. Fifteen operas—most of them conducted by the octogenarian Gustave Slapoffski—were produced during the war years. The musical director was the composer Edith Harrhy, later replaced by another composer James Penberthy. In 1948 a seven-week season of opera at the Princess Theatre, given by a company consisting of 45 principal singers, a chorus of 110, 45 dancers, and an orchestra on loan from the Australian Broadcasting Commission, drew 73,000 patrons and the subscription list stood at 2000. Further successful seasons followed in 1949-51, as part of a Three Arts Festival, which also included a ballet season and a season of drama, and which received a Victorian government subsidy of £10,000 in addition to an increased annual grant of £8,000.
After these three successful years, the A.N.T.M. collaborated with Clarice Lorenz’s recently formed New South Wales National Opera Company to create the basis for a national opera company. In its first season it played at the Tivoli Theatre in Melbourne during Johnson’s 1951 A.N.T.M. Arts Festival. The highly successful joint-season of 1952 was staged in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, with John Brownlee returning home for the Don and Scarpia, and Marie Collier making a sensational début as Santuzza. At the end of the season the Lorenz group renamed itself the National Opera of Australia. Since Johnson had been appointed O.B.E. in 1948 for her work with the National Theatre Opera Company she was offended; she refused further joint ventures and mounted an ambitious interstate tour instead. In 1954, having outrun her rival, Johnson’s company was chosen to present the royal command performance of opera during the visit of Queen Elizabeth II.
The success of the eight-week 1954 season and that of the combined Johnson-Lorenz seasons led to the formation of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, but Johnson kept her group apart. With the loss of personnel to the Trust (later reorganized as the Australian Opera) which offered better financial rewards and a more professional future, the A.N.T.M. seasons began to dwindle in quantity and quality. An attempt to stem the tide by launching a building fund in 1956 for a National Theatre subsequently failed. A series of fires in premises used by the group sapped initiative and morale. The investment of the remaining building fund, however, permitted the National Theatre to open in 1974 in a renovated cinema at St Kilda, though only the schools remained, with Ballet Victoria and the Victorian Opera Company as the performing bodies. Gertrude Johnson died on 28 March 1973 at Malvern and was cremated. Her estate, sworn for probate at $117,034, provided scholarships for students of the A.N.T.M.
Under Johnson’s leadership the Australian National Theatre Movement had provided the basis for later national ballet and opera companies, and acted as a training-ground for the artists who stocked such groups and who ultimately fostered the talents of a younger generation.