The first professional opera performance in New Zealand was put on by members of ‘The English Opera Troupe’ and the Royal Princess Theatre Company. The troupe, described by Adrienne Simpson, author of Opera’s farthest frontier: a history of opera in New Zealand, as ‘a small concert party’, arrived in Dunedin on 18 September 1862. They had been hired by brothers Tom and Sanford Fawcett to boost their existing company at the Royal Princess Theatre.
On 29 September members of the troupe and company came together in a performance of The daughter of the regiment, a ‘shortened English production’ of Gaetano Donizetti’s French comic opera, La fille du regiment. The opera tells the love story of Marie, an orphan raised by a French army regiment, and Tonio, a peasant who once saved her life. In its original form it is known for the aria, ‘Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!’, which has been described as the ‘Mount Everest for tenors’. The celebrated Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, was branded the ‘King of the High Cs’ for his performance of this aria in the role of Tonio.
In this first New Zealand production the role of Tonio was played by a member of the English Opera Troupe, tenor Walter Sherwin. It appears unlikely Sherwin acquitted himself in the same style as Pavarotti, with reviewers noting that he had sung ‘satisfactorily’. The role of Marie was played by another member of the troupe, the ‘popular and capable soprano’ Marie Carandini. The role of Sergeant Sulpice, Marie’s guardian and head of the regiment, was played by Charles Young, ‘one of the Royal Princess’s favourite actors’.
The troupe performed at the Royal Princess Theatre for several months. After leaving Dunedin shortly after their final performance on 4 December, they occasionally mounted opera performances in other parts of the colony by ‘joining forces with other itinerant artists encountered en route’.
The face of New Zealand opera continued to be dominated by visiting companies and principals from overseas well into the 20th century. New Zealand’s first professional opera company, the New Zealand Opera Group, was not founded until 1954.
Image: Marie Carandini (Wikipedia)