Down Under In The 19th Century

"There's a little group of isles beyond the wave-so tiny, you might almost wonder where it is"

The beginnings | Instant success | Non  stop  hits | The partnership | Big Boxoffice | Revivals and  more | Approaching  a new Century

Although the operas always opened in Australia very shortly after their London productions, New Zealand was never very far behind.

In 1887 the Royal Comic Opera Company returned to New Zealand with revivals of Patience and The Pirates of Penzance and productions of two new works, Iolanthe (read review) and The Mikado (read review). The touring cast included Howard Vernon, Albert Brennir, W.H. Woodfield, Alice Barnett, Ida Osoborne and Elsa May who took the roles of Phyllis and Yum-Yum. According to the Evening Post at the opening of 'The Mikado', in Wellington, she "was the most conspicuous figure, and she acted and sang with great spirit."

Elsa May, courtesy of the State Library Victoria

Elsa May

Not only did the company visit the four main centres but Napier was also added. The company played there for a week in late May. The Hawkes Bay Herald on May 24th said "The dressing and mounting of 'The Mikado' may be described as worthy of unqualified praise, not a single detail being neglected. The grouping was excellent throughout, presenting harmonious and synchronous pictures alone worth a visit to the theatre." A few days 'Iolanthe' was reviewed. "The opera was splendidly staged, the costumes, scenery, and lighting arrangements being perfect. In connection with the scenery the palm must be given to the set for the first act, an Arcadian landscape, which was one of the most artistic examples of stage work ever seen in Napier." There were two performances of 'Patience' on the final day. One was a benefit for the widows and children of the sailors who perished aboard the Northumberland when it had sunk in Napier harbour a couple of weeks previously.

This tour turned out to be one of the most successful ever undertaken in New Zealand.

The company would next return in 1890.

Historic Note:
During the the last part of 1887 and the early part of 1888 Australia had the pleasure of hearing the loved Savoyard, Leonora Braham.
She made her first appearance in Dorothy in Melbourne in August, 1887. This was followed by appearances in The Mikado and Iolanthe. In December, suffering from ill health, she managed just a few performnces of H.M.S. Pinafore. She also appeared, as Mabel, in a revival of The Pirates of Penzance. Table Talk had this to say about her performance: "Miss Leonora Braham took the part of Mabel, and was happily in better voice than she has yet been during her sojourn here. Whatever the course the result was more than satisfactory, and at the close of her first scene the audience broke into a storm of pleased applause for they perceived her effort and were not slow to appreciate it."
Leonora also appeared in three productions by the J.C. Williamson Company in Sydney in 1888. In February she performed in a revival of Iolanthe, in April she was in a revival of HMS Pinafore and took the title role in the first Sydney production of Princess Ida. She returned to England not long after.

Historic Note:
The first performance of The Golden Legend in Australia was on Tuesday the 26th of June, 1888, at the Town-Hall, Adelaide. There were 220 performers on stage and the conductor was Mr. C.J. Stevens.
There was a performance in Melbourne on Saturday the 11th of August, 1888. The Melbourne Philharmonic Society was conducted by David Lee. The critic of the Argus said: "The experience of a first performance was delightful. The society and their conductor deserve high praise. The work has greatly enhanced the fame of the composer."
There were another two Melbourne performances on Thursday November 29th and December 6th. The critic this time said: "Taken as a whole, and excepting one or two minor errors, the performance was most creditable to all concerned."
The first Sydney performance was on Wednesday February 11th, 1891 with a second performance following on the Saturday.

Historic Note:
The whole of the Wellington Opera House was gutted by fire on Friday March 30th, 1888. The fire burned for half an hour after which the roof and a portion of the west walls came crashing down. Immediate steps were taken to re-erect the building.

1888: Check out this year in Melbourne Theatre history

1888: Check out this year in Auckland Theatre history

Musical note: The first performance in Australia of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique was at the Melbourne Town Hall on the 30th June, 1888.

During the years 1887/1888 the Williamson company was not idle. There was a six month tour starting in Melbourne, then continuing to Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane and Hobart. There were productions of The Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S. Pinafore, Iolanthe, Patience, Princess Ida and The Mikado. Also were revivals of La Mascotte, La Fille du Tambour and the ever popular Dorothy.

Silly Fact:
With each revival of 'The Mikado' there always seemed to be a change in the casting of the title role. In February 1889 Arthur Rigby was the seventh representative since the first Australian production. The original John Forde was in 1889 working in theatrical mangement. The second, Denbeish Newton, was a commercial traveller in Queensland. The third, Alfred Brennir, was in poor health. Federici was dead. Edwin Kelly became a farmer, and, Harry Benham (who was in the 1888 revival) was still in Melbourne appearing in the current pantomime.

The Yeomen of the Guard opened at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, on April 20th, 1889, just six months after premiering in London. (read review) The cast included William Elton as Jack Point, Howard Vernon as Wilfred Shadbolt, Nellie Steward as Elsie Maynard and Ida Osborne as Phoebe Meryll. For the role of Dame Carruthers, Williamson secured the services of Miss G. Ameris who was imported from the opera houses of Europe just for the production.

The whole of the original wardrobe came from London. George Musgrove had been there on business and so these particular dresses were the best that could be purchased - Musgrove believed in mounting a production with the best material that could be procured.

The Yeomen continued with full houses until June 7th when it was replaced with short revivals of Patience and H.M.S. Pinafore. For the former the cast included Walter Marnock (Grosvenor), May Pollard (Patience), Fannie Liddiard (Jane) and Howard Vernon reprising his original role.
For the later, William Elton played Sir Joseph, Howard Vernon played Captain Corcoran and May Pollard played Josephine.

H.M.S. Pinafore programme June 1889

When Pinafore finished, there was a short revival of Dorothy. Nellie Stewart appeared on stage again after a long and severe illness.

Silly Fact:
Ada Mary Gardner was only 17 years old when, using the stage name of Ida Osborne, she joined the chorus of J. C. Williamson's opera company in Melbourne in 1881. Starting in the chorus she was always ready to take on anybody's part and to fit herself into anybody's costume. She always seemed to pull through triumphantly and eventually held a good position with the company. During the run of The Mikado she understudied Yum-Yum. Whenever she found herself in that role her part of Pitti-Sing was taken by Josephine Green.

William Elton as Jack Point and Clara Merivale as Elsie in 'The Yeomen of the Guard'. Picture courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.

William Elton and Clara Merivale in The Yeomen of the Guard

On July 8th, 1889, The Yeomen opened in Sydney at the Theater Royal. The cast was the same as Melbourne with the exception of Fannie Lyddiard who replaced Ida Osborne.

1889: Check out this year in Melbourne Theatre history


Messrs Williamson, Garner, and Musgrove's Royal Comic Opera Company are expected to reach Dunedin on Tuesday Evening, and will open their season at the Princess Theatre on Wednesday next in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado". This is to be followed by "Patience", "Dorothy", "The Yeomen of the Guard", and "Princess Ida".

The company is one of the strongest the firm has ever sent to the Colony, including as it does several artists who have made a reputation in London. Those who make their first appearance in Dunedin are Miss Clara Merivale, a young English prima-donna; Mr Laumane, the tenor from the Carla Rosa Company; Mr William Elton, a celebrated comedian, and one of the greatest favourites who has appeared in Australia; and Mr Imao, a powerful baritone. With these and such olds favourites as Mr. Howard Vernon, Misses Fanny Liddiard, May Pollard, and Katie Potter, and Messrs W. Johnson and Thomas Grundy. It will be seen that if talent can command success the present venture should be one.

A full chorus is being brought over, and also a strong orchestra under Mr. Leon Caron. The manner in which the firm stage their productions as regards scenery and dresses is so well known as to require no mention.

Otago Daily Times. Saturday, March 1st, 1890

Starting in March 1890, the Royal Comic Opera Company toured New Zealand with revivals of The Mikado and Patience and new productions of Princess Ida (read review) and The Yeomen of the Guard. (read review)

Programme for the first Wellington performance of 'Yeomen'. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mätauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

Princess Ida, although spectacular in appearance, was not popular and never ran for more than four nights in any centre. The Yeomen of the Guard fared not much better. The 1890 tour however did have one amazing successful comic opera. Dorothy. The Cellier operetta was a major hit.

Silly Fact:
The most tragic event that happened with the touring Williamson company of New Zealand was the loss of Clarence Leumane's moustache. Owing to his performing in 'The Mikado' at certain intervals the facial adornment had to be removed as all good Japanese gentlemen are clean shaven.

Historic Note:
In 1891 the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt toured Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. Under auditorium lighting, the audience tried to keep up with the French texts. They felt all her various moods and although not understanding what she was saying they were reduced to tears. This tour was hailed as the social and theatrical event of the decade.

1890: Check out this year in Melbourne Theatre history

Meanwhile, in Melbourne, the latest G & S work, The Gondoliers, (read review) opened at The Princess Theatre on the 25th October 1890. The cast included William Elton, Howard Vernon, C.H. Leumane and Ida Osborne.

A Sydney season followed at the Theatre Royal on June 2nd, 1891, with a slight change of cast. Sydney Deane played Luiz, Henry Bracy played Marco, Elsie Cameron played the Duchess and the first appearance of Violet Varley "whose singing as Tessa is of material assistance to the piece. She was deservedly encored for her charming rendering of 'When a merry maiden marries'." (Sydney Morning Herald)

Violet Varley had a short but successful career with "The Firm". She was originally a member of Pollard's Juveniles. While singing in The Old Guard her voice charmed Sarah Bernardt and earned her a bouquet. In the early part of her stage career she scored a big hit in La Cigale playing the prima-donna character in Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere. She died, suddenly, at the age of only twenty four.

Revivals of the old favourites were always in the touring repertoire. Always the revival was compared to the original Australian production. "The present revival of Iolanthe is the best of this opera the Williamson and Garner Opera Company have ever given, and in some instances it equals the original production." (Table Talk on a revival in Melbourne in January 1891)

Violet Varley

Historic Note:
As previously mentioned often several productions by the Williamson Companies would be running at the same time. A high point was reached in Melbourne in 1890. Messrs Williamson, Garner and Co. offered The Gondoliers at the New Princess Theatre and at the Theatre Royal the Company played The English Rose by R. Sims and Robert Buchanan. No expense was spared: "Here are real horses, a real Irish jaunting-car and a real stream of water flowing down the stoney channel spanned by the Devil Bridge."
Meanwhile, at the Opera House, Mr George Musgrove was presenting the Nellie Stewart Opera Company in "Paul Jones" by H B Farnie and Robert Planquette with Fannie Liddiard in the title role.

In 1891 financial difficulties forced Garner to sell his share of the business to Williamson and Musgrove temporarily left the partnership. Williamson continued with the company alone.

1891: Check out this year in Melbourne Theatre history

1891: Check out this year in Sydney Theatre history

Auckland Sept 14th 1892

The next tour to New Zealand in 1892 saw solely J.C. Williamson as the figurehead. The Royal Comic Opera Company made their fifth New Zealand tour with the latest G & S romp, The Gondoliers. (read review)

Also in the same season were revivals of The Mikado, the Yeomen of the Guard and the ever popular Dorothy.

This was the largest company J.C. Williamson had yet brought to New Zealand.

This tour included several new faces: Violet Varley, Henry Bracy, George Lauri and Florence Young who played the part of Casilda.

Florence played leading roles with Williamson until shortly before her death in 1920.

Florence was born in Melbourne in 1871. She could sing, act and had a bubbling personality. However she was never a great beauty and was described as being "pleasantly ample". This extraordinary woman, who was queen of the Australian stage for 30 years, had never received any formal musical training. At the height of her career her success as a public favourite rivalled that of Nellie Stewart. After seven years with Williamson she took herself off to Paris and studied under Melba's teacher, Madame Mathilde Marchesi.

Florence Young. Picture courtesy of the Performing Arts Museum of the Victorian Arts Centre.
Florence Young

The 1892 tour also brought a new stage manager. Henry Bracy had worked under Gilbert's supervision for nearly five years, and was fully conversant with the ways the Savoy Operas were mounted. For this tour only, he doubled as the ensemble's leading tenor. He was well qualified as he had sung Prince Hilarion in the first London production of Princess Ida.

Henry Bracy
Henry Bracy

From 1890 to 1907 George Lauri was considered the best comic actor on the Australian musical-comedy stage. He was a remarkable dancer even though he was short and stout. He was a dearly beloved performer in both Australia and New Zealand and even toured the United States in 1890 in a production of Dorothy. He considered his favourite roles to be Jack Point in 'The Yeomen of the Guard' and Hassan in 'The Rose of Persia'

His last years were ruined by ill health, caused by a belief that he was going insane. He committed suicide at his Manly home on January 4th, 1909.

George Lauri. Picture courtesy of the Performing Arts Museum of the Victorian Arts Centre.
George Lauri

In 1891, Maggie Moore, whose relationship with Williamson had been deteriorating, left him for the actor, Henry (Harry) Roberts. Later, after she was officially divorced, Maggie married Roberts, in New York, on April 2nd, 1902.

Historic Note:
Maggie Moore remained a favourite of the Australian stage until she retired in 1924. For her farewell performance she played the same role she had played for her first - Lizzie Stofel in Struck Oil. In 1916 she evidently acted in a film of that stage hit, however no copy has ever been found. After retiring she sailed back to San Francisco where, following a cable-car accident, she had a leg amputated. She died on April 15th, 1926. In an interview about her carreer Maggie Moore said: "In my opinion the only way to make a part convincing is to feel its emotions. In a comedy part I am inwardly amused at the fun just as much as the audience is, and in a pathetic scene I feel all the sorrow. Of course these feelings have to be kept well under control, but they must be genuine, not merely simulated. An audience soon realises whetherr acting is or is not artificial or mechanical." She noted that her favourite role in Gilbert and Sullivan was Josephine.

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