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