Down Under In The 19th Century

"There's a little group of isles beyond the wave - so tiny, you might almost wonder where it is"

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Historic Note:
The earliest recorded music-theatre work to be produced in Sydney was William Shield's comedy opera The Poor Soldier (libretto by John O'Keefe), presented at Sidaway's Theatre in 1796 (13 years after its first London production under the title The Shamrock, or The Anniversary of St. Patrick).

The first New Zealand theatrical entertainment was "The Lawyer Outwitted" by Stephen Clarke. The performance was at the Albert Theatre, a makeshift venue, in Auckland, on November 24th, 1841.


The Early History of the Australian Theatre:
Regular professional theatre began in Sydney in the early 1830s with the opening of the Theatre Royal, with a capacity of over 1,000. Unfortunately the Royal burned down in 1840 and a new theatre, the Royal Victoria, seating 2,000, was built in Pitt Street.

In 1842 a rickety wooden pavilion known as the Theatre Royal was host to Melbourne playgoers. It was later renamed the Victoria but by 1845 it had closed. At this time another theatre, the Queen's Theatre Royal, was opened in Queen St. Francis Nesbitt lead the first resident company there. The towns first pantomime, The Goblin of the Gold Coast, was performed there in May 1850.

Although there were ballet programmes as early as 1835, the first major romantic ballet produced in Australia was the two-act La Sylphide. This opened at the Queen's Theatre Royal in Melbourne on September 25th 1845. Excerpts from the classic Giselle were given at the Royal Victoria in Sydney in 1855 by Aurélia Dimier who was in the original Paris production of 1841.

William Saurin Lyster (1827-1880) was a colourful American impresario who, concerned about the possible looming American Civil War, set sail for Australia. Gold had recently been discovered in Victoria which made Melbourne the largest and most prosperous of all Colonial cities. Lyster arrived in Melbourne in March 1861 and set up his own opera company. This was one of the very first chances that Antipodean audiences could taste full scale productions of European Opera. For the next two decades Lyster was to reign supreme. The Royal Italian and English Opera Company extended its activities to other Victorian towns and then toured up to Sydney. In 1864 the Company steamed over the Tasman and toured the whole of New Zealand.

William Saurin Lyster
William Saurin Lyster


Historic Note:
The most popular and most performed operas in New Zealand during the latter part of the 19th Century were (in order of performances): Wallace's Maritania, Gounod's Faust, Verdi's Il Trovatore and Balfe's Bohemien Girl.

from "Opera's farthest frontier" by Adrienne Simpson

In 1877 and 1878 a 40-strong English Comic Opera Company toured extensively in America and Australasia. George Benjamin Allen (1822-1897) was responsible for introducing Opéra bouffe into Australia. The company consisted of leading members of current London productions and the operettas performed consisted of various English and French works of the day. The favourite was the popular Geneviève de Brabant by the French master, Jacques Offenbach. This featured the showstopping Gendarmes Duet which received seven encores when it opened in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The troupe's featured prima donna was Allen's second 'wife', Alice May (1847-1887) (Editor's Note: Although they lived as husband and wife there were no records to suggest that the two were actually married). Also in the Company was actor-singer Howard Vernon who would later become Australasia's leading exponent of Gilbert and Sullivan. This Company first introduced Sullivan's Cox and Box to Australia and New Zealand. This was premiered in Sydney's Masonic Hall on December 26th, 1872. In the same evenings entertainment were Offenbach's The Rose of Auvergne and Allen's own work The Belle of Wooloomooloo. Howard Vernon took the role of Box.
The New Zealand premiere of Cox and Box with the Alice May Company took place in Wellington on June 20th, 1874, with Howard Vernon still in the cast. (Editor's Note: There was a production of 'Cox and Box' in Auckland in August 1871 by a group calling itself the South Pacific Opera Company)

Later the touring company brought with them Trial by Jury, written in 1875 by the virtually unknown partnership of Mr Gilbert and Mr Sullivan.

New Zealand theatregoers were able to see firsthand a first class London company. They packed the theatres.

Historic Note:
Trial by Jury was premiered in Australia by W.S. Lyster's Opera Company as an afterpiece to Offenbach's La Belle Hélène at the Prince of Wales Opera House, Melbourne, on 26th June 1876, only fifteen months after its London début.
The Melbourne Age reviewer at the time stated "None of the melodies are very original though thoroughly adapted to the positions indicated by the libretto." There were 12 peformances of the work.

The New Zealand premiere of the work was on 30th August, 1876, at the Canterbury Music Hall in Christchurch.
The Christchurch Press gave quite a lengthy review concluding: "The piece was well mounted, and received quite an ovation."

The Company played seasons in Melbourne, Adelaide and Calcutta before returning to England.

Historic Note:
New Zealand's national anthem God defend New Zealand was composed in 1876 by an immigrant from Tasmania, John Joseph Woods. He won a competition which set out to find a setting for Thomas Bracken's poem.

Australia's national anthem Advance Australia Fair was first performed in 1878. It is attributed to Peter Dodds McCormick and has been the 'official' national anthem since 1984.

On November the 17th 1877 Alice May created the role of Aline in Gilbert and Sullivan's first great success The Sorcerer. London's Daily News said "Miss May was an attractive and graceful Aline, and her brilliant and extensive soprano voice told with much effect.". Sadly Alice died prematurely in 1887 and Allen settled back in Australia.

Historic Note:
New Zealand has always been known as a country, along with Britain, which popularised the Brass Band. In 1859 the band of the Taranaki Volunteer Rifles was formed in New Plymouth. It was the first volunteer brass band in that country. More and more bands popped up in both small and large centres. The first National Brass Band contest was held, in 1880, in Christchurch. (The winning band being the Ivercargill Garrison).
The first New Zealand pipe band was formed in 1896 in Invercargill.

Musical note: The first Wagner opera to be performed in New Zealand was 'Lohengrin' at the Princess Theatre in Dunedin by the Royal Italian Opera Company in November 1877. New Zealanders had to wait to the turn of the century for 'Tannhauser' and 'The Flying Dutchman'. Both were performed in Auckland in July 1901 by Musgrove's Grand Opera Company.

In 1878 a young American actor and his wife were in London and they caught the original production of H.M.S. Pinafore at the Opera Comiqué. Entirely under the spell of the Pinafore mania which was raging in England he made one of the boldest moves of his career. He secured the exclusive performing rights, for both Australia and New Zealand, for this and all future or past Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

J.C. Williamson
J.C. Williamson

This young man was J.C. Williamson. Born in Pennsylvania in 1845 Williamson was one of the leading stage comedians in New York in the early 1870s. In California he married Maggie Moore and the couple signed a contract to perform in Australia. They eventually settled in Australia in 1879. This was to be their home for almost the rest of their lives.

Expecting to be the first to introduce H.M.S. Pinafore down under, Williamson was surprised to find several pirated versions already being staged. Legal action soon took care of the Australian productions but the sheer physical distance of New Zealand made restraints more difficult to extend across the Tasman.


Check out a short biography of James Cassius Williamson

Historic Note:
The first Australian pirate Pinafore opened at the School of Arts, Sydney, on the 3rd of May 1879, presented by the Kelly and Leon Minstrel Troupe. There were 12 performnaces.
Edwin Kelly, an Irish immigrant, and Francis Leon (real name Patrick Francis Glassey), America's most famous female impersonator, founded the troupe in the U.S. in the 1860s.
The Kelly and Leon Minstrel troupe came to Australia in 1878 opening at the Queen's Theatre, Sydney. They later toured Melbourne and Adelaide. Leon played Buttercup in Pinafore.
The group disbanded in 1880 with Leon returning to the States and Kelly joining the J.C. Williamson Company where he appeared in several Gilbert and Sullivan productions.

Quite amazingly two unauthorised productions of HMS Pinafore opened in Melbourne on the same day, June 7th, 1879. Horace Lingard's company played at the Academy of Music and Richard Stewart and his family opened a production at St George's Hall. The reviewer in the Melbourne Age said of the work: "The piece taken as a whole may be regarded as occupying a secondary place to Offenbach's opera bouffes. It certainly is not equal, either as a comic or musical work, to any of the best productions of the vivacious French composer."

The Richard Stewart production featured an up and coming actress, Nellie Stewart. What was unique about this production was that Nellie Stewart played Ralph! The critic for the Melbourne Age on June 10th said: "Miss Nellie Stewart represented Ralph, and acted as well as sang the music incidental to the part in a most satisfactory manner."

In New Zealand there were several productions of "Pinafore" being performed in various centers throughout the later part of 1879. In June of that year three different productions opened within days of each other. On the 16th the H Towles Amateurs opened in Christchurch (Surprisingly this was incorrectly advertised as the very first production in Australasia.)

Christchurch June 16th 1879

On 17th of June the D.W.Carey Amateurs opened the work in Wellington.

However the very first staged performance of the work in New Zealand was on the 9th of June by the Riccardi Opera Company in Auckland. (read review)

During August 1879 notices appeared in newspapers which assigned copyright of "Pinafore" to J.C. Williamson. Several productions were stopped until the legality of the situation was clarified.

The first genuine production was mounted by the Lingards Company from Melbourne. This opened on the 3rd of September in Dunedin. Advertised as "word for word as the authors wrote it, and with all the original London business, dances, etc as played in London, New York and recently in Melbourne." The critics were none too kind: "Not a single representative of the principal characters possesses more than an average voice; although none will deny that the piece was mounted with greater attention to details than we have seen it here before."

Many different productions continued to be staged well into the new decade - a sure sign that the genius of the authors could transcend any sort of treatment.

In Australia, J.C. Williamson delighted audiences with a definitive production of H.M.S. Pinafore. This opened at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, on November 15th, 1879. (read review) Maggie Moore played Josephine and Williamson himself played Sir Joseph Porter. The original London costumes and scenery were all authentically reproduced.

Maggie Moore as Josephine
Maggie Moore in Pinafore


Historic Note:
Thomas Edison's pioneer phonograph was first patented in 1878. There was a demonstration in a Melbourne church hall in early 1879 and again later in the same year at the Sydney International Exhibition where it gained a gold medal.


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