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Opera and musical theatre

by Lindis Taylor

New Zealanders have thrilled to the grandeur of opera and the exuberance of musical theatre since colonial times. Tales of triumph, failure and struggle have played out off-stage as well as on – but these art forms endure.

Early years of opera

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.

Operatic riches

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.

Light opera and musical theatre

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.

New Zealand opera companies

1940s: seeds

During New Zealand’s centennial celebrations in 1940 a professional staging of a locally produced opera – Gounod’s Faust – was seen in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. A local orchestra and chorus and some principals were assembled, but prominent British and Australian singers took the leading roles.

In 1948 the New Zealand Broadcasting Service used the newly formed National Orchestra for its production of Carmen (Bizet) in the four main cities. The next year the orchestra was an incentive for the last New Zealand tour by J. C. Williamson’s opera company.

1950s: formation

The creation of the National Opera of Australia in 1951 and its 1954 tour further highlighted New Zealand’s need for a resident opera company. Baritone Donald Munro formed the New Zealand Opera Company and many singers, then overseas, rallied to support his enterprise.

The company began with modest one-act pieces such as The telephone (Menotti) and La serva padrona (Pergolesi) in 1954. Their next highly successful productions of small works – Susanna’s secret (Wolf-Ferrari) and Menotti’s The medium and The consul – encouraged a full-scale work in 1958: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. It visited 47 towns, with piano accompaniment in small towns and orchestra in cities. The barber of Seville (Rossini) followed in 1959.

A change of mind

An unexpected musical stimulus in 1963 was a visit by Sadler’s Wells Opera with sparkling productions of The merry widow and the New Zealand premiere of Orpheus in the underworld. These productions caused the New Zealand Opera Company to look upon the light opera genre more favourably.

1960s: heyday

The 1960s were the company’s years of triumph. From 1963 funding from the newly established QE II Arts Council allowed it sometimes to tour, to employ the National Orchestra and to undertake more large-scale productions. There were many memorable productions, especially Porgy and Bess with Īnia Te Wīata. This confirmed the viability of resident New Zealand opera employing almost entirely New Zealand artists and production teams.

1970s: collapse

In 1971 the company folded after a disappointing Figaro and an Aida that was a triumph. Personality and financial problems had emerged, but another reason for failure was that national touring had become an anachronism worldwide. Transport costs were too high, and television discouraged people, particularly in smaller centres, from going to shows that hardly matched what they could see in their living rooms.

Filling the opera gap

In the following decade energetic amateur or semi-professional companies arose in the main centres.

  • In Auckland among the several short-lived groups was Perkel Opera, launched in 1974, which produced some 20 operas, touring widely in the North Island. In 1989 it merged with two smaller companies to form Auckland Metropolitan Opera.
  • Opera Technique in Wellington flourished from 1954 for 40 years, also staging around 20 productions of opera, operetta and musical comedy, including a few New Zealand compositions.
  • The New Opera Company of Wellington, established in 1972, staged six productions over its five years.
  • In 1975 a group formed under Geoffrey de Lautour’s leadership – the De La Tour Opera – toured small-scale works in the Wellington region. In 1984 it became Wellington City Opera.
  • In Christchurch Dorothy Hitch’s Shoestring Opera began with lunchtime opera concerts, and by the 1980s had moved to full-scale opera.

These barren years were relieved by an inspiring visit in 1976 from the Australian Opera, performing Rigoletto (Verdi) and Jenůfa (Janáček).

Opera’s obituary?

Comments in 1988 by Auckland Star music critic Desmond Mahoney summed up the tragedy of the New Zealand Opera Company’s demise: ‘Opera has failed so far because it has never had reliable financial backing, because the amateurs co-opted in boards of management have never been able to resist interfering in the artistic side, because personalities have often loomed larger than the objective of established opera, and most of all because opera has never, apart from a short spell, been able to rely on orchestral accompaniment.’1

The National Opera of New Zealand

In 1978 Arts Council facilitated the creation of the National Opera of New Zealand, based in Auckland. In 1982 Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the screw and Kurt Weill’s Rise and fall of the city of Mahagonny were artistically excellent, but through inadequate funding and ill-advised repertoire, this company too collapsed.

    • Quoted in Adrienne Simpson, Opera’s farthest frontier. Auckland: Reed, 1996, p. 217. Back

The survival of opera

Professional city companies

In the 1980s Mercury Opera became established in Auckland, as did other professional opera companies elsewhere in New Zealand.

Despite being denied Arts Council funding for several years Wellington City Opera staged enterprising productions.

Canterbury Opera began in Christchurch in 1985 and survived until 2006, usually producing two operas a year. Some it staged in partnership with Wellington City Opera.

Dunedin’s company, founded in 1956, became semi-professional in 1985 and mounted creditable productions during the 1990s, but its offerings became sporadic after the Arts Council’s support was withdrawn.

Funding fairness

When the National Opera of New Zealand failed in 1982 the Arts Council’s money was given to Auckland’s Mercury Theatre – which had joined forces with the dying opera company. Mercury Opera productions were confined to Auckland, provoking anger from opera-lovers in the rest of the country.

Arts festivals and opera

From 1991 Wellington City Opera staged three operas every year, reduced to two in alternate years when the biennial New Zealand International Festival of the Arts presented a major production. The festival’s first triumph, in 1990, was Wagner’s Die meistersinger von Nürnberg, starring New Zealand’s great Wagner singer Donald McIntyre. It was followed by Salome (Strauss), Katya Kabanová (Janáček), Fidelio (Beethoven), Simon Boccanegra (Verdi), Der Rosenkavalier (Strauss) and a semi-staged version of Wagner’s Parsifal. However, from 2000 the festival’s commitment to classical music and opera declined markedly.

The limited amount of professional staged opera meant that concert performances – often by symphonic choirs in the main cities – became important, though not as much as in parts of Europe. In 2005 the Auckland Festival, with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO), gave a semi-staged performance of The death of Klinghoffer by John Adams.

The Auckland Philharmonia performed concert versions of opera annually from 2006, notably Salome and Elektra (Strauss) and Wagner’s Das Rheingold. In the 2000s the NZSO performed Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in the main cities.

Undressing opera

Wellington’s Pocket Opera set out to convert people to opera by staging some startling shows. One in 1995, Opera undressed, ended with the soloists stripping to their underwear.

Small opera groups

The lack of real seasons of opera repeatedly inspired small groups to arise and tackle operas, both familiar and obscure.

  • In the 1990s in Wellington, and occasionally with Waikato Opera, Jeremy Commons produced forgotten 19th-century salon operas that his researches in Italy and France had unearthed.
  • Dedicated to touring opera around schools nationwide, Auckland-based Class Act Opera survived for many years from 1991.
  • From the mid-1980s a small Christchurch enterprise, Academy Opera, presented a series of mainly baroque operas. After the organisers moved to Wellington, two rare Puccini operas and Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito were seen.

Changing fortunes

Opera groups mounted creditable productions in several provincial cities – Whanganui, Hamilton and Gisborne, as well as in Hawke’s Bay. Such regional opera was vital to nurturing singing and production skills for fully professional companies in the large cities. However, during the early 2000s these companies as well as those in Christchurch and Dunedin were allowed to decline or disappear through lack of state support and, typically, reliance on the energies and vision of one person.

NBR New Zealand Opera

In 1991 Mercury Opera merged with Auckland Metropolitan Opera to become Auckland Opera. The company usually staged two productions a year. The most impressive was Wagner’s The flying Dutchman in 1992. In 2000, faced with financial difficulties, it merged with the Wellington opera company to become NBR New Zealand Opera. This merger, which later included Canterbury Opera, seemed to be a move back to a national touring model, counter to international trends.

Though New Zealand Opera productions have been more opulent and polished than the work of earlier companies, and there have been some admirable ventures such as Boris Godunov, Jenůfa and Xerxes, some are concerned that more New Zealand singers are not used.

There are signs that grassroots audience support for opera is slipping. Furthermore the range of productions nationally has fallen from eight or ten a year in the 1990s to a mere two or three in 2013.


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

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.

Alfred Hill

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.

Musical plays

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.

    • Quoted in Adrienne Simpson, Opera’s farthest frontier. Auckland: Reed, 1996, p. 93. Back
    • Quoted in Opera’s farthest frontier, p. 209. Back


Vocal tuition

Teaching of performance singing began in New Zealand universities only in the 1960s.

In 2013 all major New Zealand universities had performance courses. The main university schools for vocal and opera studies were Auckland University and the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington, and there were significant strengths at Canterbury, Otago and Waikato universities. The National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Art (NASDA), part of Christchurch Polytechnic, was known for teaching popular vocal styles, including musical theatre.

The New Zealand Opera School, Whanganui, ran an intensive training course for promising singers during January of each year. A biennial summer school, the New Zealand Singing School at the Eastern Institute of Technology in Napier, catered for opera as well as other singing styles.

Student productions

Performances by students have for many years provided some of the most adventurous and exploratory opera experiences, with premieres of New Zealand works at Otago, Auckland and Victoria universities in the 1980s.

The Victoria University and Massey University music schools merged to create the New Zealand School of Music in 2006. Each had traditions of annual student productions from the 1970s. By 2013 the school was producing an opera every alternate year. In Auckland a similar role was filled by Opera Factory, run by former opera singer Sally Sloman. From 1993 it staged numerous interesting productions.

New Zealand opera singers

New Zealand resident singers were rare among the many companies that toured New Zealand from the 1860s until the mid-20th century. Frances Alda and Rosina Buckman were the first to establish international careers, around the turn of the 20th century, but it was another 30 years or so before another New Zealander had the same success.

Three basses to emerge from the late 1930s to 1960 were among the greatest of their eras: Oscar Natzka, Īnia Te Wīata and Noel Mangin. There were also two very distinguished baritones – Denis Dowling and Bryan Drake – who sang mainly at Sadler’s Wells, specialising in Britten’s works.

From around 1960 the flow of New Zealand singers to Australia, Europe and America burgeoned. Donald McIntyre and Kiri Te Kanawa were the most famous, but others who gained distinction included Heather Begg, Patricia Payne, Conal Coad, Grant Dickson, Malvina Major and Barry Mora. Especially notable were tenors: Peter Baillie, Christopher Doig, Richard Greager, Keith Lewis and Patrick Power.

From around 1980 increasing numbers were graduating from the expanding tertiary music schools. However, this was also happening in the rest of the world, with a boom in classical music in Asian countries and the opening of doors from Eastern Europe. Among those New Zealanders attaining international careers were Ana James, Anna Leese, Jonathan Lemalu, Simon O’Neill, Madeleine Pierard, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Martin Snell, Wendy Dawn Thompson and Paul Whelan.

For the record

Magazines are a means of promoting and reviewing productions and are sources for future historians. The newsletter of the New Zealand Opera Society began in 1960 and continued as Opera News (later New Zealand Opera News) in 1976. Musical theatre was documented from 1961 by Musical Theatre New Zealand’s magazine Spotlight, and in 2013 it was still going as an online publication.

Other prominent figures

Prominent New Zealand conductors of opera and musical theatre include Warwick Braithwaite, John Matheson, Tecwyn Evans and William Southgate. The latter two are also composers.

Well-known set and costume designers include Raymond Boyce, Kristian Fredrikson, Allan Lees and John Verryt. Important directors include Jonathan Hardy, Raymond Hawthorne, Elric Hooper, Colin McColl, Jacqueline Coats and Sara Brodie.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Lindis Taylor, 'Opera and musical theatre', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 5 December 2020)

Story by Lindis Taylor, published 22 Oct 2014