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:
In the 1880s the introduction of the elevator meant that the central business district of Melbourne was practically rebuilt. Tall office blocks with lifts could draw as much rental for space on the upper floors as on the lower. The lean twelve-storey Australia Building at the corner of Flinders Lane and Elizabeth Street was the first Australian skyscraper and remained the tallest building in the city for sixty years.

Musical note: The first performance of Beethoven's Opera 'Fidelio' was at the Melbourne Town Hall on the Monday September 15th, 1884. This was a concert performance by the Melbourne Liedertafel with Fannie Simonsen as Marcellina, Armes Beaumont as Florestan, and Elise Wiedermann in the title role. The Argus said "In Madame Elise Wiedermann we possess a 1yric artist of fine vocal powers, of great natural sensibility, and of such experience as enables her to give us in our own language a true reading of the most heroic and interesting woman character that the history of opera supplies to us."

1885: Check out this year in Melbourne Theatre history

1885 saw new productions of Iolanthe and The Mikado.
Melbourne May 9th 1885 Iolanthe opened at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, on May 9th (read review) with Robert Brough as the Lord Chancellor, W.H. Woodfield as Lord Mountararat, Signor Brocolini as Strephon, Florence Trevelyan (Mrs Brough) as the Queen of the Fairies, and, Emma Chmabers in the title role.

The Age had this to say: "The music bears in every part the distinct individuality of the composer, although having no actual resemblance to his other operas. The concerted numbers are cleverly constructed, and many of the melodies extremely pretty, while the orchestration shows an artistic hand and poetic imagination."

A season in Sydney followed with 'Iolanthe' opening on August 1st. Albert Brennir played Strephon. The company then headed to Brisbane where 'Iolanthe' opened on Tuesday September 1st, 1885. Robert Brough played the Lord Chancellor and Nellie Stewart played Phyllis. The description by the Brisbane Courier of the production will give readers an insight into an actual G & S staging in Australia. "The 'Arcadian Landscape' in the first act is an exceedingly pretty set, and the scenery is such as might be expected from the pencil of such an experienced scenic artist as George Gordon, but is somewhat marred by one or two slight defects. For instance, the beautifully painted trees - apparently elms - which recall an English landscape, are hardly set off by boughs of undeniable bluegum, with leaves shrivelling up in the heat and glare of the gas-lights, and the bridge which spans the gauze river is altogether too heavy and massive for the otherwise fairy aspect of the scene. Instead of spanning an Arcadian rivulet it seems more adapted for providing a permanent way over Cabbage Tree Creek, but this heavy structure we are given to understand is necessary to support the weight of the 'military band', who presently use it as a grand stand. The costumes, as a matter of course, are magnificent; the robes of the peers, who, by the way, are all bald-headed and carry their hankerchiefs inside their coronets, and the jewels of the fairies being especially conspicuous. The 'military band' that preceded the procession of peers on their entry, and who usually occupied the bridge at the back of the stage, manifested a great improvement last night, and though rather too loud at times added much to the effectiveness of the score. A very effective feature of the performance was the electric lights worn on the foreheads of the fairies in the last act, which, twinkling brightly as they moved about, aroused the enthusiasm of the audience, who in other respects, were rather apathetic."

Iolanthe at the Theatre Royal. Coutesy of the State Library of Victoria

The Mikado had its Australasian premiere at Sydney's Theatre Royal on November 14th (read review). Howard Vernon, Nellie Stewart and Alice Barnett were all in the cast. This production would run continuously until Christmas, closing finally on December 24th.

Table Talk had this to say:
"Certainly Mr. Gilbert has never written anything more sarcastically humourous and Sir Arthur Sullivan has never composed music more enticingly 'catchy'. As for the dresses, stage appointments and scenery, they are simply perfection to the remotest detail."

There were also revivals of Patience, H.M.S. Pinafore, Iolanthe and The Pirates of Penzance. One cast change, in the former, saw Alice Barnett recreate her original London role of Lady Jane. The Sydney Morning Herald complimented the artist. "There were many little points given for the first time, and a thorough self-control, whioh in the most amusing scenes prevented tho slightest approach to vulgarity. The duet, "So go to him" was a notable instance of Miss Barrnett's power; while entering fully into tho spirit of the thing, singing the musio as it has never been sung here before, she yet kept a curb on Mr, Vernon and took away the coarseness which occasionally marred the rendering. The duet was twice encored."

When The Mikado opened in Melbourne, on February 20th, 1886, the famous D'Oyly Carte conductor, Alfred Cellier, took over the baton. However it was discovered that Frank Boyle, who was to play Nanki-Poo, was too indisposed to appear. There was no adequate understudy ready. J.C. Williamson was frantic with anxiety. A near catastrophe was averted when W.H. Harrison, the conductor, who that night had relinquished his position to Alfred Cellier, said that he knew the part. He went on and saved the performance.

After seasons in the major cities the operettas would eventually make their way around the smaller settlements. At the first performance of 'The Mikado' in Ballarat, in December 1886, the newspaper critic was not the most positive. "The weakest part of the opera are the melodies, which are somewhat disappointing, though there are one or two catching airs."

The Mikado Ad


1886: Check out this year in Melbourne Theatre history

The first production by J.C. Williamson of The Sorcerer took place at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, on May 22nd, 1886, with Frank Thornton as John Wellington Wells and Nellie Stewart as Aline. (read review). The opera was produced by Frank Thornton and conducted by Alfred Cellier. Trial by Jury was on the same programme.

The Sorcerer

Nellie Stewart and Alice Barnett in The Sorcerer

Frank Thornton had begun his career in London, as a chorister at the Savoy. By careful make-up, effective by-play, and intelligent regard for business of the scenes in which he figured, he had caught Gilbert's eye and was promoted to the playing of parts.

Another star of the time was William (Billy) Elton. He was a leading comedian for John Hollingshead at the London Gaiety Theatre during the 70s and 80s. He had been in Australia since 1886 and joined the Royal Comic Opera Company the following year for leading roles in the Australian premieres of Princess Ida and The Yeomen of the Guard. He was soon a firm favourite in Sydney and Melbourne and, a little while later, New Zealand.

Alice Barnett William Elton

Alice Barnett

William Elton


The weekly newspaper Table Talk was first issued on June 26th 1885.
The Editor made the following comment:
"In entering into your journalistic arena with TABLE TALK, we are acting upon a well-founded belief that Colonial Society has attained such a definite stage of development, has become crystallised into such a concrete and enduring form, that it merits more systematic and comprehensive treatment than it hitherto received at the hands of journalists. The daily newspapers of Melbourne and their weekly offshoots have done much in that direction, but our effort will be to do incomparably more."
Articles in the first issue included two columns devoted to Gilbert and Sullivan entitled "Satirical Opera" and an article on Iolanthe entitled "Wards in Charncery".
Table Talk continued for some 2723 issues. The final publication was on September 14th 1939. Of interest the last, but one, issue featured the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Victoria's presentation of Iolanthe and the Martyn Green movie The Mikado.

The Williamson company was now very successful indeed. They could afford to build a grand new theatre in Melbourne. The stars shone on the evening of December 18th, 1886, when the new Princess Theatre opened its doors for the first time. The presentation was a revival of The Mikado with Nellie Stewart as Yum Yum and Alfred Cellier conducting the orchestra.

Saturday night at the Princess Theatre Melbourne from a flash-light photograph. Picture coutesy of the Performing Arts Museum of the Victorian Arts Centre.

Historic Note:
The new Princess Theatre was designed by architect William Pitt in an Italian Renaissance style. The building cost £45,000 and another £5,000 was spent on interior decorations. Both the stage and auditorium were lit by electricity and there was a complex system of electric bells which connected the dressing rooms with the prompt box. In the ceiling of the auditorium was a very novel feature - a sliding dome which allowed ventilation on hot summer nights.

New Princess Theatre 1886

George Musgrove journeyed to England in 1887 with the purpose to secure both new artists and new repertoire. Newcomers included soprano Clara Merivale, tenor Clarence (C. H.) Leumane and bass-baritone Henry M. Imano. All of these singers had been working with D'Oyly Carte touring companies in England. (Unfortunately owing to committments Clara Merivale did not arrive in Australia until 1889. Her first appearance was in September that year, taking over the Nellie Stewart roles, with the Williamson Company in Brisbane, Sydney and then Melbourne.)

It was three and a half years after its first production in London that Princess Ida reached Australia (read review). The first performance took place at the New Princess Theatre, Melbourne, on Saturday, July 16th, 1887 with Howard Vernon as King Hildebrand and Alice Barnett as Lady Blanche. It also introduced C. H. Leumane, as Hilarion, F. Federici, as Florian, and the young prima donna, Miss Colbourne-Baber, as Princess Ida.

Historic Note:
Miss Colbourne-Baber was wife of composer Harrison White. She was born in Tasmania in 1861. The family immigrated to New Zealand around 1865. Her first husband was a vocalist, Mr. Baber. Although always refered to as Miss Colbourne-Baber her name was actually Eliza. Her first major stage success was in 1886 when Annette Ivanova, the prima donna of the Dunning Opera Company was unable to appear, through indisposition, in Melbourne one night in 'Falka'. Miss Colbourne-Baber took her place and was instantly successful. She settled down in Sydney in the 1890s as a singer and a concert vocalist. She made her London debut on March 4th 1897 at a concert in the Queen's Hall.

Historic Note:
Mr. F. Federici was born Frederick Baker. Federici had the honour of appearing in the very first production of The Pirates of Penzance playing the Pirate King. He was performing in a D'Oyly Carte touring company in South England when, for copyright reasons, there was a single performance of the work at the Royal Bijou Theatre in Paignton, Devon.
F. Federici went on to take the title role in the original New York production of The Mikado before heading to Australia in 1887.

F. Federici in the title role of the first New York production of The Mikado

In Australia Federici played Florian in the first production of Princess Ida. This was followed by a leading role in Dorothy.
We end on a sad note. One evening in Melbourne, in 1888, during the opening night of a production of Faust, as Federici made his final exit under the stage amid smoke and flame, he actually collapsed. A doctor was summoned in vain. The next day the theatre's flag flew at half-mast.

One of the biggest triumphs of the J.C. Williamson company at that time was the operetta Dorothy with words by B.C. Stephenson and music by Alfred Cellier. This opened in Melbourne on August 20th, 1887.
Table Talk had this to say:
"Dorothy was received so well, and the applause so lavish, that it should have a long run. The scenery is so beautiful that it merits much more than a passing remark."
The Argus said:
"The general verdict was favourable, and that this desirable result was brought about by wise liberality and exercise of good taste on the part of the management, and by the intelligent and strenuous endeavours of all concerned in the action of the piece."

This production saw the first appearance in Australia of the wonderful Savoyard Leonora Braham.
Table Talk said:
"Leonora Braham was greeted with a marvellous reception. In a very short time showed what a sparkling little actress she is. Her voice is very sweet and full of expression, though not very powerful. She placed herself heart and soul into the work."
The Argus said:
"Miss Leonora Braham comes to us with a well won London reputation, and is likely to remain a favourite here as long as she elects to stay. Petite in form, animated and graceful in bearing, displaying colloquial tones of sonorous quality and polite inflexion, and having a singing voice both sweet and full, and of high soprano range. Miss Braham got through an arduous first appearance with complete success."

Last night I had the pleasure of meeting Miss Leonora Braham and her husband (Mr. D. Young) at the Princess Theatre. They had only that morning arrived from London. Miss Braham is dark, undersized, and vivacious, with unmistakable, though not pronounced, Jewish features. Mr. Young is tall, fair, and somewhat good looking.

From 'The Stage in Australia' by reviewer Scalfax. July 19th, 1887

After Melbourne Dorothy moved to Sydney where it was an instant hit and was conducted there by the composer himself.

1887: Check out this year in Melbourne Theatre history

Historic Note:
Often two different productions by the J.C.Williamson companies would be running concurrently. While Princess Ida was playing at the New Princess Theatre the Theatre Royal played Shadows of a Great City by L.H. Shewell, Esq. This featured both Maggie Moore and J.C. Williamson.

Theatre Royal Sydney, Castlereagh Street

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