James Johnston

The singing butcher of the York Road

His name is almost unknown in his native city but between 1945 and 1960 James Johnston, butcher of the York Road, was the world’s leading operatic tenor.

Although Johnston had been a famed amateur singer in youth, his father’s biblical fear of the stage made a formal musical education impossible. Johnston was therefore unable to study at the highest level.

Instead, he expanded his butcher’s outlets into South Belfast. His natural talent, however, ensured that he was soon offered a role singing 'The Duke of Mantua' in Rigoletto.

This was the beginning of a prolific four years performing the length and breadth of Ireland. Johnston’s profile had risen so high that he was approached by the great Tyrone Guthrie to become principal tenor with the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company. The move launched a frenetically successful international career.

A natural, practically untrained voice, Johnston was the leading tenor in Europe at the time, performing with the legendary Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. James Johnston was a star across the world, and retired at the top of his profession, returning to Sandy Row and his butcher’s shop.