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 most successful operetta produced in 19th-century Australia was Offenbach's La Fille du Tambour-Major in an English version by H.B. Farnie. This opened on December 27th, 1880, in Melbourne and ran for 101 nights.

In Australia, thanks to J.C. Williamson, Gilbert and Sullivan were flourishing in the main centres.

Sydney Nov 26th 1881


Patience was produced at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, on November 26th, 1881, (read review) just seven months after the London première. The Australian Bunthorne was Howard Vernon, with Guglielmo (Signor) Verdi as Grosvenor. Others in the cast included Alice Rees and Maggie Moore. The production ran non-stop for five weeks.

Signor Verdi
Signor Verdi in Patience


Historic Note:
Prices for opera were inevitably much higher than those for other forms of entertainment, yet even at their most expensive they remained surprisingly cheap by European standards. Moreover, seat prices steadily declined as the century progressed. Where, in 1864, Lyster charged 10s 6d for the best seats, the top price demanded by his successors of the 1880s was 6s. Places in the pit could be obtained for as little as a shilling.

from "Opera's farthest frontier" by Adrienne Simpson

1881: Check out this year in Melbourne Theatre history

In September, 1881, Williamson took over the lease of the Theatre Royal, Melbourne. This marked the beginning of Williamson's long career as Australia's foremost theatrical manager. This was the first of many theatres which would eventually become part of the organisation, J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd. Also known as "The Firm".

Historic Note:
The first Salvation Army band was set up in Adelaide by a cornet player, Captain Thomas Sutherland, in 1881. He formed the Adelaide No 1 band which laid the pattern for every local corps centre, or church, ever since.

In late 1881, leaving G & S aside for the time being, the Williamsons toured New Zealand with a quartet of American and English plays. It was while touring that Williamson decided to arrange his 50-strong Royal Opera Company, still playing to full houses in Sydney, to come across the Tasman and show New Zealand what G & S were all about.

There was a problem however. To move 50 people 1,300 miles was neither easy nor cheap. The Union Steam Ship Company refused to allow a discount for bulk transport. Williamson was cunning and in the local newspapers notices appeared publicizing a new charter shipping line that was refitted especially to carry touring theatrical companies.

The Gilbert like plot worked and the Union Company called Williamson with a revised schedule of fares.

In the end it took two ships to bring all the performers, stage staff and scenery over from Sydney.

Otago Daily Times Feb. 21st 1882

The company opened its New Zealand season at the Princess Theatre, Dunedin, on 27th February, 1882.

The Princess Theatre, Dunedin 1876

The Princess Theatre, Dunedin 1876

Historic Note:
The Princess Theatre, Dunedin, was first opened on March 5th, 1862. It was rebuilt in 1876 after suffering a terrible fire.

Historic Note:
From the beginning of the New Zealand tour Williamson introduced several innovations for the theatre going public. There was a ban on the wearing of bonnets and hats, a police officer was in attendance each evening to perserve order and a bell was sounded before each act to remind patrons that the show was starting.

The first work presented was Patience, (read review) the most recent G & S masterpiece whose original production was still running in London.

The company was practically the same as the Australian one, led by Alice Rees, who played the principal female roles. Miss Rees had been discovered by Williamson when he was casting Patience for Sydney. Here was a real gem.

The four main centres were all visited by the comic opera company during its 15 weeks tour. New Zealand were singing the three Ps - Pinafore, Pirates and Patience.

HMS Pinafore programme Wellington 1882. Photo courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.

On May the 23rd Patience opened the newly completed Abbott's Opera House in Auckland. The Auckland Weekly News had this to say about the venue:
"Abbott's new Opera House in Wellesley street was opened on Tuesday night for the first season by Mr. Williamson. The new theatre itself has been the source of considerable interest for some days previously, and was visited by a large number of the general public. Certainly nothing could be better arranged for comfort and convenience than the interior fittings." Only seven months were occupied in building the theatre.

Williamson's close attention to detail resulted in reviews which favourably compared his production with the original London one:
"There are some passages of great musical beauty in this opera. Miss Alice Rees possesses one of the purest soprano voices we have heard. It is admirable in its display of modulation and definite tone. Mr. Howard Vernon as actor, and Miss Novarro as vocalist, produced the the most uncontrollable fun and laughter. There is a duet, which may be called the "pooh-pooh" duet, which they had to sing four times. The most rapid effects of rhyme and music are curiously woven with the extraordinary conceits of the librettist and the special powers of adaptation of the composer." (Auckland Weekly News)

The tour was a success both artistically and financially.

Twenty five years were to pass before Williamson himself would return to New Zealand. He had assembled a theatrical empire which knew no equal in this part of the world.

Whenever Williamson produced anything successfully in Australia it was usually brought across the Tasman. Even though New Zealanders did not see the man again for a quarter of a century they were never unaware of the Williamson name.

The success of J.C. Williamson can be best summed up by the Auckland Weekly News:
"Mr. Williamson has earned a very high reputation for enterprise in this department of dramatic business. He is diligent to import the novelties of each season for introduction to colonial audiences. He aims at attainment of a result equal to that obtained in London."

Historic Note:
New operas often appeared in Australasia with astonishing rapidity. In the 1870s and 1880s lighter works could be seen in Australia within two years of their first London performances and in New Zealand within three. The grander operas frequently did not lag too far behind. Verdi's Aida was seen in both Australia and New Zealand within six years of its original production and the 1877 premieres of Wagner's Lohengrin on both sides of the Tasman pre-dated those in all American cities save New York.

from "Opera's farthest frontier" by Adrienne Simpson

1882: Check out this year in Melbourne Theatre history


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