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Gertrude Johnson OBE

Gertrude Johnson OBE was an opera singer, arts educator and administrator.

Honour Roll

Few people could claim to have founded a ballet school, an opera school, a drama school, all of which have operated for more than sixty years. But they are only just a few entries in the list of accomplishments of Gertrude Johnson, a woman who quite literally created the field of professional arts administration in Australia.

Born in Melbourne in 1894, Gertrude's first career was as an opera singer and included more than ten years performing in England at Covent Garden and the Old Vic. She sang with Dame Nellie Melba in La Boheme in 1926 and in the first ever live broadcast of an opera by the BBC on 8 January 1923. Returning to Australia in 1935, she recognised the lack of opportunities for Australian performers and immediately founded the National Theatre Movement.

In the space of just four years, she dramatically increased arts training in Australia, founding the National Theatre, the National Theatre Drama School, the National Theatre Opera School and the National Theatre Ballet School. She expanded these opportunities through the creation of ballet, drama and opera companies in 1949, all of which staged many successful productions. In 1951, Gertrude received an OBE in recognition of her work as Director of the National Theatre movement. She constantly championed new Australian composers, playwrights and performers and was instrumental in increasing public, private and business support for the arts.

Gertrude was asked by the Victorian and Federal Governments in 1954 to stage Tales of Hoffman at the Princess Theatre before Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip. This led to the formation of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust and in turn The Australian Ballet, Opera Australia and the State Theatre Companies. Her personal support provided many Victorian women with opportunities either as performers or arts administrators. She transformed arts administration from an amateur hobby activity to a professional occupation.

Gertrude Johnson died in 1973. Her legacy lives on not only in the training provided by the National Theatre in St Kilda, or in the graduates of the schools she founded, but also in the many talented women who now hold senior roles in the Australian arts industry.

Reviewed 25 May 2022

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