His name makes him sound like an ninth-grade math teacher.
Dale Johnson? Ah, yes. Taught algebra, didn't he? Nice man. Quiet. Casual slope to his shoulders, broad grin. Favored zip-up cardigans.
You have the man right, but Dale Johnson has never been near the business end of a blackboard or a piece of chalk.
For more than 40 years, Johnson has been immersed in the world of opera, including the past 23 years as artistic director of Minnesota Opera.
That will change in the new year, as Johnson, 68, slides into the role of creative adviser — consulting on season choices, developing works and finding talent.
"It's a good way for me to leave," Johnson said in his office recently. "It's time to let Ryan have a go at it."
Ryan is, of course, Ryan Taylor, the opera's president and general director. Johnson's shift signals that Taylor is taking full charge nearly two years since he was hired.
"I'll take a lead hand with a group of three to four people in artistic, production, marketing," Taylor said in explaining a change that consolidates his power and spreads responsibility among a group of administrators.
Johnson, who suffers with every opera he produces, said he has come to terms with the change.
"Ryan is letting me phase out slowly," said Johnson, who recruited Taylor for the president's job. "We talked about the idea that I might want to retire, and I feel strongly Ryan is the guy."
Pianist from a dairy farm
Johnson indeed tends toward comfortable brown sweaters. They look good against his ruddy complexion, defined by a modest smile and the contours of Jack Paar hair.
He protests that he's "not really that interesting," and while that is always open to opinion, his Swedish sensibility, introversion and desire for privacy make him a curious topic. How did a man who grew up on a dairy farm become the top artistic officer in an opera company? Where did he learn his love for bel canto and the Italian works that make up the core of the repertoire?
Johnson's parents milked cows in northern Ohio. He started piano at age 4 and as a teenager played organ in a Lutheran church.
"My parents have two great disappointments," he said. "They wanted me to become a band teacher. And my mother always asks me, 'When are you going to come home to play the organ in church?' "
Johnson graduated from Mount Union College and then moved to New York in the early 1970s for grad work at Manhattan School of Music. He got into the opera world as a rehearsal pianist, which included playing for some of the top vocal coaches in New York for 12 years. What he learned from them has made him a respected teacher.
"We put a lot of roadblocks around singing, and we don't have to," he said. "If I were coaching you, I'd have you lie down on the floor and just breathe. Then take that breath and exhale and let it vibrate the vocal cords. Then you take the concept of breathing and put it to notes."
Johnson had known Kevin Smith, then the Minnesota Opera's general director, and accepted Smith's invitation to come to Minnesota in 1985. After a decade of doing whatever was necessary to keep the company alive, Johnson became artistic director in 1994.
"They used to call us Smith and Johnson," said Smith, who was the opera's president for 20 years and then left retirement to head the Minnesota Orchestra. "It was a pretty bland brand."
Bland or not, the two men formed a partnership of mutual respect and a clear sense of each other's responsibilities. Smith was a fundraiser and leader. Johnson ran the artistic department.
The company emerged from an extended period of malaise to become a respected regional opera. They spearheaded the Resident Artist Program for training young singers, and launched the New Works Initiative — which is responsible for a spate of new operas in the past decade.
A volatile business
"Dale can get intense," said Smith of their working relationship. "He doesn't yell, but he can get into a funk when something's not working."
Johnson admits that the pressure gets to him. "I sweat bullets over who I hire," he said.
He tells stories of divas who brought real-life resentments to their arias. ("They hated each other and they'd still be fighting after the curtain went down.") Last year, he needed to make a high-stakes decision to replace a Tosca mere weeks before opening. Then there was the tenor who was sick during an entire production ("that's why we haven't done 'Rigoletto' in a long time").
With Smith in the picture, the introverted Johnson had someone who was good at getting into the middle of things and smoothing it all over. Smith's retirement in 2010 was a huge blow. For someone whose tendency was to "take it all on my shoulders," the ensuing years wore Johnson down.
"After Kevin left, we went into the weeds," he said. "The institutional part of the company was starting to collapse."
Johnson put his head down and tried to keep the art going. Minnesota Opera ambitiously has produced world premieres at the rate of roughly one a season since 2007.
"Silent Night" won a Pulitzer Prize for composer Kevin Puts. John Patrick Shanley came to Minnesota to write the libretto for his play "Doubt." Puts and librettist Mark Campbell returned for "The Manchurian Candidate" and then Campbell adapted Stephen King's "The Shining" with composer Paul Moravec.
Taylor, the man who will become Johnson's boss next summer, learned opera in the Resident Artist Program before launching a modestly successful singing career. He went into management at Arizona Opera and hired Smith to teach him how to do the job. After the Minnesota Opera had run through two presidents in Smith's wake, Johnson reached out to Taylor and asked him to apply.
Retirement was part of their conversation, even before Taylor was hired last year.
"There comes that point where it is time to hand things over," Johnson said.
Meanwhile, Michael Christie's contract as music director expires at the end of the season and will not be renewed. Christie, who came on in 2012, has been an independent contractor with engagements around the world. Taylor did not rule out Christie's return to conduct a particular show, as he did before becoming music director.
Few know him well
Ask around and the response is usually the same among artistic types. Does anyone really know Dale Johnson?
"Dale is a very private guy," Smith said. "Even all the years we worked together and we had a great relationship, we didn't do much socially together."
Johnson is comfortable with that description. He lives in southwest Minneapolis, likes to bike, work out, knit, read. He prefers to dine out ("I'm no cook") but worries that some of his favorite spots are too expensive. He'll sneak over to Target Field from the opera's North Loop offices to watch a Twins game but, being a Buckeye, prefers Ohio State football.
"I love opera, but I don't listen to it much," he said. Exceptions are when he's scouting new talent.
He confesses a fondness for Dwight Yoakam, Green Day, Beck.
"My favorite is Beck," he said. "That's what I listen to when I'm in the car."
In musical theater, he loves "Gypsy," and really most anything else from the pen of Stephen Sondheim.
"I tell every new composer and librettist to listen to Sondheim. Listen to how the words shape a tune. Words are more important than they get credit for."
Johnson's real sweet tooth is for traveling — Italy, in particular. Florence is one of the places he says he could live if he chose to move on once he fully retires in a couple of years.
And who knows? There in the land of Verdi, Rossini, Puccini, perhaps the name "Dale Johnson" will sound exotic.
"But I love Minnesota," he said. "I'm very much like my father — quiet, thoughtful, opinionated. I've always thought of myself as the rehearsal pianist."
Interesting, amid the passion, high drama and glorious emotional impact of opera, that this mild-mannered guy made his mark.
Perhaps, though, Dale Johnson is the perfect face for a Midwestern opera company: a guy who likes to be backstage, behind the scenes, modest yet always in love with the music.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune journalist and critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.