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"

The beginnings | Instant success | Non  stop  hits | The partnership | Big Boxoffice | Revivals and  more | Approaching  a new Century

Historic Note:
M. Grevy has been the first person to inaugurate the theatrical telephone in his household.
(The) apparatus communicating with the Opera, Theatre Francais, and the Opera Comique, has been set in a drawing-room, on the first floor, looking into the garden. The number of recipients is 12 - four for each theatre. The work has been executed by M. Ader, who has introduced great improvements into this marvellous instrument. Notwithstanding the distance of 3000 metres between the Elysee and the Theatre Francais, the voices of the actors arrive as clear and distinct as in the theatre itself.

From a Sydney correspondent for the New Zealand Times. February 1882.

Historic Note:
The Martyr of Antioch received two performances in Sydney around Easter, 1882. The Sydney Morning Herald said "The principals, with the chorus and orchestra, worked so well, that the audience, which quite crowded the theatre, applauded and seemed thoroughly to appreciate the work." The first Melbourne performance was on Saturday June 21st, 1884, at the Town Hall. Alice Rees, at short notice, sung the principal soprano music.

The first New Zealand performance was in Auckland at the end of November, 1888. The Observer noted that "words cannot express the sympathetic charm of the music, which is an excellent specimen of the merits of the composer in melody, spirit, orchestration, and power."

In 1882 Williamson organized the first of several partnerships. With Arthur Garner, he joined his greatest Australian rival, George Musgrove (1854-1916). The trio took over the Princess and Theatre Royal in Melbourne and the Theatre Royals in Sydney and Adelaide. Thus they had an access to the main centres of theatrical interest.

The Princess Theatre, Melbourne

The Princess Theatre, Melbourne

The Williamson trio took possession of the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, at midnight on July 1st, 1882. The theatre reopened just seventeen hours later with new carpets, stained glass in the lobby, velvet curtains in the archways of the foyer and inside the auditorium their was a new sunken orchestral pit. The inaugural production in the revamped theatre was the first Melbourne performance of Patience. "The music, the scenery, the dresses, all lend their share of attraction to this most diverting performance but no one who has not heard the humours of the verbal text can form any conception of how inspiriting and exhilarating the entertainment is" (Argus)

Nellie Stewart

The company, besides acquiring formidable and popular repertoire, also obtained a leading lady who was to endear herself to audiences in Australia and New Zealand, Nellie Stewart.


Check out an article on the life of Nellie Stewart


Others in the company included John Wallace, Fanny Liddiard, Howard Vernon and Alice Barnett.

Miss Barnett had sung Ruth in the American production of The Pirates of Penzance and Lady Jane and the Fairy Queen in the initial London productions of Patience and Iolanthe. When she came to Australia shortly after Iolanthe closed in London she took over these roles for Williamson and went on to introduce Katisha in The Mikado.

Table Talk (22nd July 1887) had this to say about her performance in Princess Ida: "If ever there was a real Lady Blanche in this world, then she must have acted, spoken and sung just as Miss Barnett makes the ideal one do."

Alice Barnett

Australians had a regular diet of popular operas. Many were performed shortly after their European premieres and in several instances preceded their U.S. presentations. Here are a few original Australian performance dates.

Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera (Melbourne 1868)
Offenbach: La Belle Helene (Sydney 1876)
Johan Strauss: Die Fledermaus (Adelaide 1877)
Verdi: Aida (Melbourne 1879)
Wagner: Lohengrin (Melbourne 1879)
Bizet: Carmen (Melbourne 1879)
Thomas: Mignon (Sydney 1881)
Ponchielli: La Gioconda (Melbourne 1887)
Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana (Melbourne 1893)
Wagner: Tannhauser (Sydney 1901)
Puccini: La Boheme (Melbourne 1901)
Humperdinck: Hansel und Gretel (Melbourne 1907)
Wagner: Die Walkure (Melbourne 1907)
Puccini: Madama Butterfly (Sydney 1910)

In 1881 D'Oyly Carte introduced the electric light to the Savoy Theatre, the first time that a theatre had been lit entirely by electricity. On September 2nd, 1882, the electric light was first used publicly in a theatre in Australia - the Prince of Wales in Melbourne. The production was Suppe's Boccaccio which ran for over sixty performances and became the first successful Viennese operetta in Australia.

1883: Check out this year in Melbourne Theatre history

Historic Note:
There Is no underground drainage system. All the sewage is carried away in huge open gutters, which run all through the town, and are at their worst and widest in the most central part, where all the principal shops and business places are situated. These gutters are crossed by little wooden bridges every fifty yards. When it rains, they rise to the proportion of small torrents, and have on several occasions proved fatal to drunken men. In one heavy storm, indeed, a sober strong man was carried off his legs by the force of the stream, and ignominiously drowned in a gutter. You may imagine how unpleasant these little rivers are to carriage folk. In compensation they are as yet untroubled with tramways, although another couple of years will probably see rails laid all over the city.

From 'Town Life in Australia'. Written in 1883 by R. E. N. (Richard) Twopeny

On Saturday the 3rd of November, 1883, the first Sydney Theatre to be lit by electricity was the Theatre Royal. This was during a season by the Royal Comic Opera Company which included revivals of both Patience and The Pirates of Penzance.

Several people suggested that electric lights were hard and cold and that gas lighting gave an atmosphere of warmth and naturalness.

Sydney Morning Herald Thursday November 1st 1883

1884: Check out this year in Melbourne Theatre history

On Wednesday July 9th, 1884, 'Patience' received its first official performance in Brisbane. The cast included Nellie Stewart (Patience), Fanny Liddiard (Lady Jane), Howard Vernon (Bunthorne), Edwin Kelly (Grosvenor) and T. Grundy (Colonel Calverly). The Brisbane Courier said "Every point of detail in mounting the pieces appears to be made a study; the scenery generally is excellent and the costumes are not only brilliant and costly but are perfectly correct. Mr. Howard Vernon as Bunthorne brought a very high reputation with him, and we cannot say more of his performnace last evening than to admit that it fully bore out the opinion we were led to form concerning him. Competent judges say that he is the best representative of the part who has ever appeared, and that his appreciation of the grotesque humour of it is better from an artistic point of view than that of the original performer."

Silly Fact:
Often dress circle patrons at many Australian theatres would be targets for the unruly occupants of the gallery above. Liberable sprinklings of soda water was popular, but often nuts, lollies, saliva and buttons found their way down to those below.


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