James Johnston was born 17 August 1903, son of a Belfast butcher, who left school to work in his father’s shop in York Street. He started singing in the Church choir and although he had no formal musical training he won many baritone competitions until he was discovered to be a tenor. Thereafter he was in demand throughout Ireland; in 1932 he sang at the Eucharistic Congress.
In 1945 Tyrone Gutherie, then in charge of Sadler’s Wells Opera Company in London, offered Johnston a leading role. He was Britain’s leading tenor from 1945 until 1958. In more than 850 performances in 24 leading roles with Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden, he sang with Sutherland, Hammond, Schwarzkopf and Callas with whom he had a fiery difference of opinion just before a Covent Garden Il trovatore in 1953. He was described by Lord Harewood as the singer to whom postwar British opera owes a great debt. Noted for his big Italian roles, his singing of Nessun Dorma was often interrupted by applause and Italianate tone and ringing top notes made him a firm favourite with audiences.
In oratorio, his recordings of The Messiah and Elijah with Sir Malcolm Sargent were best sellers on both sides of the Atlantic. Notable roles: Calaf (Turandot); Pinkerton (Madam Butterfly); Gabriele Adorno (Simon Boccanegra); Hugh (Hugh the Drover); Don Jose (Carmen); Manrico (Il trovatore).
Johnston said that he would quit while he was still at the top. His final performance at Covent Garden was in a production of Carmen in 1958. After that he returned to his Belfast butcher’s shop in Sandy Row. He died on 17 October 1991.
Deskarati received this comment:
Your article on James Johnston brought back memories! After I married in the late sixties I often used my mother-in-law’s butchers on the Lisburn Road in Belfast. There were several butchers there and the eldest one regularly burst into song while serving in the shop. One day when he serenaded me I said “So you think you can sing then?” Of course in hindsight that was a stupid thing to do as he didn’t know that I had always sung in choirs and regularly went to the Belfast Opera House – so it was said very much ‘tongue in cheek’ – but of course he wasn’t to know that. If looks could kill, I wouldn’t be writing this now.
When I mentioned this incident to an older gentleman some months later he said it was a wonder Mr. Johnston didn’t take one of his cleavers to me as he had been very famous in his younger days and sung in opera houses all over the world. My mother-in-law wasn’t from Northern Ireland and didn’t make the connection with him and his previous life. To add insult to injury, a gift of Kobbé’s Complete Opera book sometime later had a photo of him singing Don José from Carmen at Covent Garden in 1953. There was a short Ulster TV documentary about him broadcast either shortly before or after his death. Your article mentioned his shop was in Sandy Row. I believe that outlet was managed by his wife. His very attractive younger mistress (later his wife) helped on the till in the Lisburn Road shop on a busy Saturday.
I still cringe when I think of my faux pas with the “singing butcher”.