Today is Madison Opera founder Maestro Roland Johnson’s 90th birthday, and it is with our sincerest gratitude that we wish him a very happy day! We are using this special occasion to start a season long blog series documenting Madison Opera’s 50 year history, which is inextricably tied to the passion and hard work of Maestro Johnson, the company’s artistic leader for 32 years.
Roland Johnson was born in Johnson City, Tennessee in 1920. A trained violinist, he received a scholarship to the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. As a young man, he enlisted in the Navy during World War II, and following the war, he pursued graduate studies in violin and composition at the Juilliard School and Tanglewood. In 1948, Johnson took over as conductor of the CCM orchestra, and in 1952-53, he received a Fleischmann Fellowship and spent a year in Europe as an assistant conductor to Hermann Scherchen.
Upon his return from Europe, Johnson was appointed to the University of Alabama as a teacher of violin and voice, in addition to a position leading the university orchestra and chorus. It was at the University of Alabama that Johnson met his wife, Arline Hanke, a singer and the director of the school’s opera program.
Roland and Arline Johnson arrived in Madison in 1961, where Roland was to be the new Music Director of the Madison Civic Music Association. At the time, no formal opera organization was associated with MCMA. However, upon their arrival, the Johnsons were approached by a group of Civic Chorus members led by Lois Dick, Robert Tottingham, Warren Crandall and Joanna Overn, about creating a formal opera company.
The immediate result was the Madison Civic Opera Workshop (above), which debuted in May of 1962 at a pops concert titled “A Night in Vienna.” Held in the Youth Building (now the Alliant Energy Center), the ensemble performed Act II of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Later the same month they performed Act II of The Marriage of Figaro in Scanlan Hall of Central High School, making that opera a fitting start to Madison Opera’s 50th season.