Gertrude Johnson OBE 1894-1973
On 7 December 1926, she was Musetta to Melba’s Mimi in the great diva’s Old Vic Farewell.
In the church hall of St Peter’s, Eastern Hill, Johnson established schools of drama, opera and ballet.
In February 1948, with support from Garnet H. Carroll, she mounted the first of the National’s pioneering Arts Festivals at the Princess Theatre.
On 7 December 1926, she was Musetta to Melba’s Mimi in the great diva’s Old Vic Farewell. This was a fundraiser for Lilian Baylis’ brave attempt to establish a national theatre and training school. ‘I saw the wonderful work being done there for young artists,’ said Johnson, ‘and I thought how wonderful it would be to have an Old Vic in each state of Australia.’ In 1935, soon after her return to Melbourne, she formed ‘The National Theatre Movement, Victoria’, dedicating the enterprise to the training of young Australians in drama, opera and ballet. The initial capital was £8. Gertrude Johnson became the National’s director – an honorary position she held for the rest of her life.
Johnson swiftly recruited a solid body of subscribers and the support of several prominent citizens, and launched the venture on 12 December 1936 with ‘A Joyous Pageant of the Holy Nativity,’ at the Princess Theatre, where she had auditioned for Melba 25 years before. This production marked the beginning of her long association with entrepreneur Garnet H. Carroll. Six months later the National was presenting As You Like It and The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and its first opera, The Flying Dutchman, which Carroll directed.
In the church hall of St Peter’s, Eastern Hill, Johnson established schools of drama, opera and ballet, headed by, respectively, William P. Carr, Dr Herman Schildberger and Jean Alexander. The National’s initial ballet performance came in 1939, at the Princess, with a programme including Etude and Mozartiana, the first works created in Australia by Edouard Borovansky.
During the war the Princess became a cinema, so the National made do with the 350-seat theatre at its Eastern Hill headquarters, staging no fewer than 15 operas, including such unusual fare as The Beggar’s Opera, Méssager’s Monsieur Beaucaire and Gluck’s Iphigenia in Aulis, as well as innumerable dramatic and dance presentations. The National gave a generation of young actors, dancers, singers, musicians and designers the opportunity to develop their talents in a professional yet fostering atmosphere, while eager, ever-increasing audiences appreciated the respite from the revivals and escapist fare offered by commercial theatre at the time. And the National’s efforts contributed £16,000 to war charities.
Her work at the National brought out another of Johnson’s strengths: she was a natural entrepreneur. In February 1948, with support from Garnet H. Carroll, she mounted the first of the National’s pioneering Arts Festivals at the Princess Theatre, showcasing the first locally-assembled opera company seen in Australia for years. There were 45 principals, and Joseph Post conducted. The initial repertoire – Aida, Faust, Rigoletto and The Marriage of Figaro – was so well received that the season was extended, Carmen was added, and a second season followed in November.
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