Apart from passing references to occasional touring opera companies from overseas, it has been common to date the beginnings of opera in New Zealand with the emergence of the New Zealand Opera Company in 1954. In fact many New Zealanders were exposed to classical opera – dramatic performances set to music for singers and instrumentalists – from the 1860s. At this time performing arts flourished, and in major settlements like Dunedin, theatre construction was given the same priority as church building.
The 29 operas in the Lyster company’s repertoire during their 1864-65 tour were: Mozart’s Figaro and Don Giovanni; Auber’s Fra Diavolo and La muette de Portici; Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and Le prophète; Rossini’s The barber of Seville and Cinderella; Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, La favorita, Linda di Chamounix, The daughter of the regiment, Lucia di Lammermoor and Lucrezia Borgia; Bellini’s La sonnambula, I puritani and Norma; Verdi’s Ernani, Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata; Gounod’s Faust; two German operas: Der freischütz and Martha; and five English operas: The Bohemian girl, The rose of Castille, The lily of Killarney, Lurline and Maritana.
The first tours
Dunedin was the point of arrival for the first two touring musical companies. The first company, in 1862, brought Donizetti’s The daughter of the regiment, Bellini’s La sonnambula and three English operas including Balfe’s The Bohemian girl. The next tour, in 1864-65, by William Saurin Lyster’s Royal Italian and English Opera Company was more substantial. Between August 1864 and February 1865 six towns saw 29 operas, almost all of which had their New Zealand premieres at the Princess Theatre in Dunedin.
Boom years: 1870s and 1880s
In 1871 the Cagli and Pompei Royal Italian Opera arrived with a dozen operas, only two not already seen in New Zealand. After that hardly a year passed without a visit from an opera company, most adding a few new operas, although the additions slowed. The number of successful new works presented in Europe was declining from the prolific years of the earlier 19th century.
While no company brought as many operas as Lyster’s had done in 1864, some continued to perform grand opera, for example Lyster’s company returning in 1879-80; Allen’s Royal English Opera Company of 1874-75; Simonsen’s Royal English and Italian Opera Company in 1880-81; and the Montague-Turner Opera Company in 1881-82, which returned with grand opera in 1892 to tour small towns.
1877 saw two outstanding events: Verdi’s Aida (only six years after its Cairo premiere) and Wagner’s Lohengrin (sung in Italian). Bizet’s Carmen arrived in 1879, only four years after its Paris premiere.
Familiar favourites: 1900–1950
The new century opened with a tour by Musgrove’s Grand Opera Company which brought, among other works, three of Wagner’s operas: another production of Lohengrin, plus The flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser. They were sung in English by the largest and most accomplished company yet seen in New Zealand and there were sell-out seasons in four cities. In spite of its artistic and popular success the company lost money. Apart from a cut-down Lohengrin in 1928, Wagnerian opera was not seen again in New Zealand until 1990.
J. C. Williamson brought the New Zealand premieres of Puccini’s La bohème and Madama Butterfly in 1910 and Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann in 1919. The Gonsalez Italian Grand Opera Company, which was to make several visits from the time of the First World War, brought Puccini’s Tosca and the popular double bill of Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) and Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni). Visiting companies in 1928 and 1932 did not break new ground, and Manon (Massenet) was the only new piece in the last Williamson tour of 1949.