She may be a brassy innkeeper from Amarillo, but when Mary Jane Johnson takes the stage with Pavarotti, opera fans everywhere are enchanted.
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MARY JANE JOHNSON IS GROOMED to the nines. Radiant, chignoned, draped in a taupe silk pantsuit, Amarillo’s five-foot-nine-inch opera sensation deserves the distinction once given to her by a fellow Texan, gossip maven Liz Smith: “She is easily the most gorgeous soprano in the world of classical music.” Even if you haven’t seen the competition, it’s hard not to agree. Dominating the leather sofa in her living room, she’s enthusing about her recent Atlantic City concert with supertenor Luciano Pavarotti, who discovered her fifteen years ago. They did a few duets (“We were really cooking for the Otello”), and each sang solos. One reviewer wrote that Johnson’s “If I Loved You” was “a perfect delight.” Pavarotti’s manager, Herbert Breslin, told her afterward that she was “the hidden secret in this business.” But for Johnson, one moment stood out: “I didn’t know I had ’em in the palm of my hand until I took a breath during the ‘Vilja’ solo and could have heard a pin drop.”
She recalls being so wired after the concert—which played to a crowd of 14,000—that she hit a casino at two in the morning to work off her adrenaline. There, she was pretty much ignored by change girls and cocktail waitresses, their chests decorated with Pavarotti pins, as she socked quarters into the slot machines. “It was hysterical,” she says. “Here I’d just sung with him, sung my tits off, and no one recognizes me.”
Not being recognized by the cocktail waitresses is par for the course for opera singers like Johnson (who refuses to divulge her age, though she admits to being in her forties). “I’ve made it at a certain level,” she insists. And, indeed, she has played the world’s major houses: La Scala in Milan, Paris Bastille, and Chicago Lyric, among others. Her voice has been called commanding, steely, and mighty. She herself says she doesn’t know anyone who “soars” better than she does. As Tosca she has been praised for beginning the famous aria “Vissi d’arte” while seated and ending on her knees with no loss of power or range; citing the spectacle, the Wall Street Journal compared her to “the great past interpreters of this role.” Yet Johnson has her critics, who’ve described her soprano as acid and strident. “A lot of people prefer a generic sound,” Johnson concedes, “because they say, ‘Oh, that’s safe. It won’t offend anyone.’ My voice is not a safe sound. Either you like it or you don’t.”
Johnson has also had to endure the sort of lesser-light treatment accorded all but the best-known stars. Take her Metropolitan Opera debut as Emilia Marty in Janacek’s The Makropulos Case last January, where she did the next-to-last show of the run in place of legendary soprano Jessye Norman. Not only was she denied a rehearsal on stage or with the orchestra, but she had to perform with an enormous billboard of Norman’s face looming behind her. “I just ignored it back there,” Johnson says, stiffening her posture. Did she find it intimidating? “Insulting.” Glowing notices salved her pride, though: One said she “managed to suggest Marty’s irresistible sexual allure, a quality absent from Norman’s mannered reading of the part.” Amarillo’s public television station filmed dozens of bouquets being delivered to Johnson at the Met for the one-hour documentary Mary Jane Johnson: From the Heart, set to air on many PBS stations August 25.
And yet for a woman who outperformed one of the great divas, Johnson seems oddly trammeled. She doesn’t get the high-profile recital tours and the recording contracts; more important, she doesn’t get the regular engagements she wants at the major houses in the United States, or even in Texas. “You get frustrated,” she grouses. “Why am I packing my bags and traveling halfway across the world to be recognized and appreciated? I don’t know that I’m perceived the way I need to be perceived.”
It’s hard, of course, not to perceive Johnson in a certain way when she describes an operatic feat as singing her “tits off.” Her colorful turns of phrase, and her pride in her Panhandle roots, have perhaps done her wrong in a business that prizes a more subdued air. Typical write-ups note that her English is “full of Texas” or attribute her soigné vestments to the fact that “a Texas lady simply does not appear in public without looking her best.” The cliché is certainly bolstered by her signature role, the lead in Puccini’s Fanciulla del West (“Girl of the Golden West”). The 1910 melodrama centers on Minnie, a comely innkeeper in the Sierra Nevadas who packs a pistol. “Not many people can sing that role,” says Patrick Smith, the editor of Opera News. “It has to have a certain verisimilitude, and I think Mary Jane is able to bring it off so that you believe her.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt that there are weird similarities between Johnson and Minnie—the weirdest being that Johnson is also an innkeeper. She and her husband, David, own Galbraith House, an Amarillo bed and breakfast that was designated a Texas Historical Landmark in 1992. Brimming with memorabilia from Mary Jane’s opera career—including the Emmy she won for a 1982 PBS broadcast of La Bohème—the five-bedroom house was the Johnsons’ residence from 1977 to 1989. Another Minnie—Mary Jane coincidence: People just don’t get why they live in the hinterlands. Minnie’s lover declares, “How curious to live . . . far away from all the world!” Mary Jane, meanwhile, keeps house in the Panhandle even though she spends about two hundred days a year on the road. Why? “I can’t ask my husband to go to Italy! What’s he going to do there? He could do something in New York, but I wouldn’t want to raise my kids there. Besides, I’m used to no trees.”
But while Mary Jane scores as Minnie, Fanciulla has never sold well in the U.S. “I think in part we are too familiar with the Wild West image,” Patrick Smith suggests. Johnson, for one, didn’t anticipate that her pure-dee swagger would impinge on her ability to sell herself. “I am down to earth,” she says, “but I also approach my craft very seriously and very artistically.” Her frustration is understandable when you realize that her schedule is overrun with Salomes, Turandots, and Lady Macbeths, yet Smith says he knows her only as Minnie (“What else she has done I’m a little hazy on”).
Born to Maxine and Rex Rose, a well-to-do Pampa car dealer, Mary Jane enjoyed an idyllic childhood that prepared her for the stage. For ten years she studied ballet and, in the summer, attended camp in the Ozarks, where she was “always the lead in the play, always princess of the tribe.” She sometimes went to church with the family’s maid, Winnie Dee, where, she recalls, “I was the only white kid in the congregation. They said, ‘Anybody who wants to sing today?’ And Winnie Dee said, ‘My girl does here’ and shoved me up there.” (Johnson’s PBS documentary is dedicated to Winnie Dee.)
The classic popular blonde, Mary Jane was a cheerleader at Pampa High School and a finalist in the Miss Lubbock contest. As a music major at Texas Tech, she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Red Raider basketball games and fell in love with David, who played forward. They married in 1971 and eventually settled in Amarillo, where they had a daughter, Taylor, in 1977 (a son, Greer, followed in 1984), and David became vice president of operations for the Amarillo area’s 65 Toot ’n Totum convenience stores, a position he still holds. While earning a master’s degree in performance at West Texas State University, Mary Jane progressed from mezzo-soprano to soprano and hit her first high C. She also directed the opera workshop and taught at Amarillo College, frequently taking her students to the Sante Fe Opera, where she started thinking, “Well, now. I want to do that.”
Sometime before age thirty, when her eligibility would have run out, Johnson entered the Metropolitan Opera Auditions for Young Singers’ regional competition in El Paso and won, though she didn’t make it to the last cut of the national finals. Undaunted, she persuaded the Amarillo National Bank to give her a $25,000 loan to pack up her three-year-old daughter and study in New York for a year. “We didn’t have a computer purpose code for opera,” recalls the bank’s president, Richard Ware. “But she had addressed all the practical aspects that appeal to a banker, down to the child care. There was no doubt in her mind.”
After a year of intensive training in New York, she entered Pavarotti’s first International Voice Competition in Philadelphia in 1981 along with more than 500 singers from 33 countries. Though she offended the other judges by singing a German selection in the maestro’s presence, Pavarotti insisted on selecting her as one of the sixteen winners. “He knew I was an important voice,” Johnson says. In fact, Pavarotti devotes a couple of paragraphs to Johnson in his 1995 autobiography, My World. “Mary Jane had a wonderful voice,” he writes, “typical of the kind of people we hope to find.”
Pavarotti hasn’t always approved of the roles Mary Jane has chosen, preferring the repertory of famed coloratura Joan Sutherland. “But my voice was always heavier,” Johnson says. Just last year in Canada, where she was performing the lung-busting Turandot, Pavarotti scolded her. Johnson recalls the conversation: “‘Now, Luciano,’ I said, ‘Sutherland did Turandot.’ ‘She never did it onstage!’ I was just very calming, very pat-pat-pat, very stroke-stroke-stroke. We’re dealing with an ego here.”
Building her repertory with longevity in mind, she started with lighter Italian pieces and progressed gingerly to the heavier Puccini, eventually assaying the German composer Richard Strauss and even Wagner (his airiest piece, The Flying Dutchman). Today, she’s eager to do Wagner’s Tannhäuser, which would open the door to the Brünnhilde roles in his grueling Ring Cycle. “The key to Wagner is endurance,” she says. “Can you last all night singing? When I finish singing a role, I’m very proud that I can resing it that same night. You see, I’ve got a strong throat. I think I could do the Brünnhildes.” If she indeed pulled that off, she’d be in high demand, for few sopranos can manage the role. What’s more, since only the bigger houses can afford to mount the Ring Cycle, she’d be working where she wants to.
But even if that never happens, Johnson is determined to get her due. She recently hired a publicist, a move she has shunned for years. “I had to bite the bullet,” she says, acknowledging that these days a serious singer needs someone to oil the machinery, make the contacts, get the name out. And she realizes she has to watch her own tongue. She recalls being in Chile to play Strauss’ Salome, for which she does the famous seven-and-a-half-minute “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Because the body stocking she was given to wear—to suggest nudity—was so tacky, she did the dance topless on opening night. The director, having watched her dance fully clothed during rehearsal, came into her dressing room afterward. “He said, ‘That was beautiful! Why didn’t you do that during dress rehearsals?’ And I said, ‘You have to pay for tits.’ He looked at me and then started laughing, but for a minute there, I thought he wasn’t going to. I guess I wasn’t that offensive, because he hired me back for two more years.”
She laughs in her warm, throaty way, then sighs. She knows she’s going to have to start behaving herself. “I should have said, ‘Well, you have to pay to see bosoms.’”