Story: Opera and musical theatre

Page 2. Light opera and musical theatre

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From grand to light opera

The divide between serious or grand opera and lighter varieties, such as operetta, has always existed. In Europe they usually played in different theatres, with different performance styles and behaviour expectations. In the first 40 years in New Zealand a company often performed both types.

From the 1870s most of the new pieces were soon-forgotten French or English comic operas. Works by Offenbach, Suppé, Johann Strauss, Sullivan, Planquette and many others began to outnumber grand operas in the repertoires of the touring companies.

Offenbach’s opéras-bouffes (a genre of comedic operetta) first appeared in 1872 with The grand-duchess of Gerolstein, and 10 were premiered before 1900.

An isolated production of Sullivan’s Cox and Box (not to a Gilbert libretto) was in the 16-opera repertoire brought by the popular Allen’s Royal English Opera Company that toured 11 towns for more than a year in 1874-75. The first two Gilbert and Sullivan operettas arrived only with the Riccardi Opera Company in 1879 (The sorcerer and HMS Pinafore) and nine had been seen by 1900. Some came no more than a year after their English premieres.

J. C. Williamson gained performance rights to all Gilbert and Sullivan works and from 1884 his Royal Opera Company won enormous success, not just with Gilbert and Sullivan but soon by dominating the comic opera scene. From the 1880s most touring companies confined their repertoire to light and comic pieces.

Musical moments

Musical theatre can probably be said to have begun in 1841 in Auckland and 1843 in Wellington. These theatrical entertainments at the very lightest end of the spectrum comprised short farces with songs, dances, recitations and comic turns. The ad hoc companies that presented them were short-lived, their comings and goings haphazard.

The Pollard companies

One of the most unusual theatrical spectacles was Pollard’s Liliputian Opera Company. The main singers were children, and the orchestra consisted of older adolescents.

Formed in Tasmania, the company of nearly 100 children made its New Zealand debut at Invercargill in 1881 with HMS Pinafore. The company toured Australia and travelled to Batavia (Djakarta), Singapore and India, but disbanded in 1886 once most members were no longer children. In 1891 successfully recreated the company, which toured South Africa in 1903 and survived until 1905. Yet another company, renamed Pollard’s Juvenile Opera Company, was launched in 1907 and disbanded in 1910.

The repertoire of the Pollard companies was almost entirely English, French and German comic opera. Apart from Offenbach and Sullivan works, most of its 50 or so operettas fell into obscurity.

Pollard’s prodigies

The range and expertise of Pollard’s Juvenile Opera Company was astonishing. It was Pollard’s boast that he could stage 32 works in as many nights without a rehearsal, and if someone was ill, a competent stand-in could always be found.

Amateur operatic societies

New Zealand’s tradition of amateur music making led to the establishment of amateur operatic societies from the 1870s and 1880s – in Whanganui, Auckland, Wellington, Napier, Christchurch and New Plymouth among others. Soon almost every town had one. Gilbert and Sullivan provided the staple repertoire for these groups until around 1900, when musical comedy began to dominate. As touring companies typically failed to use local performers in principal roles, it fell mainly to the amateur operatic societies to nurture New Zealand artists over the next half century.

The 1920s and 1930s

The musicals that swept the world, and were performed in New Zealand by touring companies until the late 1930s, included No, no, Nanette; Chu Chin Chow; The new moon, The student prince and The desert song. They came at the end of the charmed period before ‘talking pictures’ wreaked great damage on live theatre.

Post-war developments

At the end of the 1940s professional tours of musical comedy revived, with shows such as Annie get your gun and Oklahoma! These works were also staged by amateur operatic societies, which grew vigorously after the war.

In 1960 several amateur operatic societies formed the New Zealand Federation of Operatic Societies which changed its name in 2003 to Musical Theatre New Zealand. By 2013 it had about 80 member societies. Productions were becoming much more elaborate and polished, with production costs shared among several societies. Notable collaborations included Les misérables, West Side story and 42nd Street.

How to cite this page:

Lindis Taylor, 'Opera and musical theatre - Light opera and musical theatre', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 November 2021)

Story by Lindis Taylor, published 22 Oct 2014