Throughout most of New Zealand’s musical history there have been attempts at composing for opera as well as for the less elaborate or serious genres of musical theatre.
Luscombe Searelle was the first New Zealand composer to make a real mark, in the 1880s. Raised in Christchurch he lived his life overseas, making his way ‘by a mixture of talent and audacity’.1 Several of his operas were seen in New Zealand: The wreck of the Pinafore, Bobadil, Estrella and Isidora.
Other attempts by largely untrained New Zealand composers were made in the following years, some with short-lived success. Alfred Hill’s achievement was of a higher order. Born in Melbourne in 1870, he lived his early years in Wellington. After studying at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany he returned to New Zealand. He composed an unperformed comic opera, but it was his cantata Hinemoa in 1896 that made a mark.
His opera Tapu (1902) met with success in Wellington in 1903, and A Moorish maid (1905) was a triumph at its premiere that year in Auckland. However, its hoped-for successes in Australia and Britain did not materialise.
The Māori Opera Company
Clergyman and first bishop of Aotearoa, Frederick Augustus Bennett was also an accomplished musician, and formed the Māori Opera Company at Rotorua in the early 20th century. It toured the North Island in 1915 with a production of the musical play Hinemoa by Percy Flynn, and in 1920 staged Marama: the mere and the Maori maid (words by H. S. B. Ribbands, music by Archie Don) to great acclaim.
George de Clive-Lowe
George de Clive-Lowe, an Auckland medical practitioner, had great success in 1909 with The belle of Cuba (alternatively called Manuella). Nothing of the libretto or score has survived. His greatest triumph was in 1937 with Runnymede, a grand historical pageant.
There was a succession of locally composed light operas and musical plays through the 1920s and 1930s. As well as Marama, which was staged in Hastings in 1920 (and was notably revived there in 1996), local creations included Tutankhamen in 1923, A desert romance, The quest of the cassowary, The forgotten kingdom, The little gold porringer, Moonflower and Robin Hood.
The premiere of David Farquhar’s A unicorn for Christmas in 1962 was a major event for the New Zealand Opera Company. But critic Owen Jensen was bemused at the subject of Farquhar’s otherwise fine opera: ‘The story was naïve, the libretto corny, it had little to do with Christmas’.2
After the Second World War
University revues and extravaganzas may have been the only new, local musical theatre creations after the Second World War.
A remarkable number of musical theatre compositions were produced from the 1950s to the 1980s. The high point was the commissioning by the New Zealand Opera Company of David Farquhar’s A unicorn for Christmas in 1962. From the 1960s there were more frequent attempts by New Zealand composers including Dorothy Buchanan, Edwin Carr, Lyell Cresswell, William Dart, Gary Daverne, John Drummond, David Griffiths, Ross Harris, Douglas Mews, Philip Norman and John Rimmer.
Music and arts festivals offered fertile ground for composers such as Christopher Blake, Jack Body, Jenny McLeod, Gillian Whitehead, Michael Williams and Michael Vinten. Anniversaries also prompted some: for example John Drummond, Anthony Ritchie and Gillian Whitehead all marked Otago’s sesquicentennial with operatic pieces.