Skip to main content
Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Related Images


Although the history of opera in New Zealand began in the early 1860s, it is an art form that for almost a century remained the prerogative of visiting companies from overseas, some from Australia, others from England and Italy. These companies may not have contained famous singers (Melba, Galli-Curci, Toti dal Monte, and many others who visited this country have confined their appearances to the concert platform), but their range of works, considering the distances they had to transport scenery and costumes, was surprisingly wide and comprehensive. Lyster's Royal Italian and English Opera Co., for example, in 1864 performed some 24 operas by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Weber, Meyerbeer, Auber, Gounod, Flotow, Balfe, Benedict, and Wallace; Cagli and Pompei's Royal Italian Opera Co., 1871, while hardly moving outside the Italian repertoire, nevertheless delved as far as Cimarosa's Il Matrimonio Segreto and Pacini's Saffo. In this century the most important of these companies have been Musgrove's Grand Opera Co. (1901), the Gonsalez Italian Grand Opera Co. (1917 and 1928), and companies organised by J. C. Williamson's in 1910, 1920, 1932 (the Imperial Grand Opera Co.), and 1948.

Popularity of Light Opera

Popular though these companies have been, the New Zealand public, at least until the time of the Second World War, gave its first allegiance to musical comedy and comic opera, and it is this tradition of “light” opera which has been mainly responsible for the slow development of indigenous “grand” opera. J. C. Williamson (1845–1913), the greatest impresario in Australasian theatrical history, promoted every kind of entertainment from grand opera to spoken drama, but it was with Gilbert and Sullivan, for which he gained the Australasian rights, and musical comedy that he achieved his greatest success. Tom Pollard (1858–1922), who in the eighties and nineties organised a professional company so popular that it became virtually a New Zealand institution, similarly concentrated on Gilbert and Sullivan and musical comedy, and the trend was further confirmed by the popularity at that time of juvenile opera companies which, with performers ranging in age from about 10 to 13, appeared in the established successes of the day. Pollard's Opera Co., for example, began as Pollard's Lilliputian Opera Co.

Pollard produced several light operas by local composers, the best of which was Tapu (1903), composed by Alfred Hill (1870–1960) on a Maori subject. Although an Australian, Hill spent most of his creative life in New Zealand where he produced another opera, the “romantic comic” A Moorish Maid, presented in 1905 with the New Zealand soprano Rosina Buckman.

The hold of musical comedy over local operatic activity relaxed for the first time in many years in 1940 when, as part of the centenary celebrations, Faust was performed in the four main centres with overseas principals (Isobel Baillie, Gladys Ripley, Heddle Nash, and Raymond Beatty), an orchestra formed specially for the occasion, and a new chorus in each city. After the war, Carmen was produced on similar lines: principals (two from overseas, the remainder New Zealanders) and the recently formed National Orchestra performed in the four main cities with choruses supplied by local operatic societies. Several amateur productions of grand opera followed, leading in 1954 to the opening of a new chapter in the history of opera in this country – the founding of the New Zealand Opera Co.

New Zealand Company Formed

In the first eight years of its existence New Zealand's first professional “grand” opera company has taken 15 operas on tour through the country. Beginning with a series of short works (La Serva Padrona, The Telephone, The Medium, Susanna's Secret, Bastien and Bastienne, Amahl and the Night Visitors, The Impresario), it graduated in 1956 to full-length standard operas (The Consul, The Marriage of Figaro, The Barber of Seville, Madam Butterfly, La Traviata, Don Pasquale, Tosca, Carmen). In December 1962 it presented its first work by a New Zealand composer, A Unicorn for Christmas, by David Farquhar. The company has no home theatre or orchestra of its own, and only recently (1962) has it gained the nucleus of a full-time chorus. As a result it has mounted two types of tour: one, lasting some months, comprising performances in small towns without chorus and with piano accompaniment; the other, of shorter duration, providing full orchestral seasons in the main cities with local choruses. At the end of 1961 James Robertson, a former conductor of the National Orchestra, was appointed musical director at the same time that the New Zealand Broadcasting Service announced his appointment as conductor of the new concert orchestra which was being formed particularly for use with opera and ballet.

by Jeremy Paul Axford Commons, M.A.(N.Z., OXON.), Department of External Affairs.

  • Music and the Stage in New Zealand, Hurst, M. (1944), Music in Dunedin, Campbell, M. (1945).