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Opera in Australia

Fireworks over the Sydney Opera House 1988

Don McMurdo, Fireworks over the Sydney Opera House, Japan Week, 1988, slide. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

For a small country like Australia, it is sometimes hard to believe that we hold such a respected and significant place on the international stage when it comes to the world of opera.

It was a series of colourful characters, talented singers and visionary organisations that helped to put us there.

Early beginnings

Australian opera began in the early nineteenth century. English semi-operas were introduced into colonial theatres in the 1840s, and by the 1850s large theatres were built, which allowed for bigger productions and the emergence of Australian opera's first star - touring English singer, Anna Bishop.

William Lyster set up his own opera company in 1861, giving audiences their first full scale productions of European opera. Effectively his company was the first Australian Opera, giving a total of 1459 performances between 1861 and 1869.

In 1878, a young American named J.C. Williamson secured the exclusive performing rights, for both Australia and New Zealand, for all future or past Gilbert and Sullivan operas. He and his wife settled in Australia in 1879 where they lived for the rest of their lives.

H.M.S. Pinafore opened at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, on 15 November 1879. J.C. Williamson himself played Sir Joseph Porter. The original London costumes and scenery were painstakingly reproduced.

Taking Australian opera to the world

Dame Nellie Melba

Portrait of Dame Nellie Melba

Mary H. Livingston, Portrait of Dame Nellie Melba, ca. 1880, painting: oil on canvas on board. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Dame Nellie Melba achieved legendary status during her lifetime. She was the operatic world's most famous diva during a glamorous 38-year career.

Born Helen Porter Mitchell in 1861 in Richmond, Victoria, she later changed her name to Melba - a condensed version of 'Melbourne' - to honour the city of her birth.

Five years after she began studying singing seriously, she made her operatic debut in Brussels in 1887. She went on to win wide acclaim at London's Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera in New York and many other opera houses around the world.

Australians saw Melba perform for the final time in 1928. She died on February 23, 1931 of a blood infection.

Dame Joan Sutherland

Dame Joan Sutherland was one of the world's greatest operatic sopranos and was the reigning soprano of her time.

Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti in concert at the Sydney Opera House 1983

Don McMurdo, Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti in concert, Sydney Opera House concert hall, 1983, photograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Born in Sydney in 1926, she made her first concert appearance in Sydney in Purcell's Dido and in 1951, at the Sydney Conservatorium, she starred in the world premiere of Eugene Goosen's Judith. That same year she moved to London and studied at the Opera School of the Royal Conservatory of Music.

The renowned 1959 production of Lucia di Lammermoor launched her on to the international stage where she embarked on a series of triumphant concerts at the world's leading opera houses.

Her last performance in Sydney in 1990 was as Marguerite de Valois in Les Huguenots. Her final Covent Garden appearance was as guest performer in the New Year's Eve performance of The Magic Flute in 1990, singing duets with Luciano Pavarotti and Marilyn Horne.

Contemporary opera in Australia

Opera has evolved and flourished in Australia in the last two decades. The emergence of new and different forms of opera has challenged our assumptions about the art form and what it should be.


Andrish Saint Clare's Trepang is an indigenous Australian opera which tells the story of an evolving relationship between Aboriginal hunters and the Macassans - originating from Indonesia - in North East Arnhem Land.

Six Indonesian actors and musicians from Indonesia teamed up with ten performers from Galiwin'ku, Echo Island, Northern Territory, to present the story of first contact and trade with the Yolngu.

The story is told through a series of songs and dances from both cultures and revolves around the themes of community development and resource management. Four different languages are used in the production and continual translation is provided.

Susie Spunner, writing for Real Time, said of the production:

While the opera was sung in Macassarese and Yolngu Matha, which includes a repertoire of some 450 shared words ... even to outsiders ... the story was clear in the detailed performances; we just missed out on lots of jokes that had the large Aboriginal audience in stitches throughout.

Yu Lng Ji

Another contemporary opera production is Yu Lng Ji (Moon Spirit Feasting) by Liza Lim.

Described as a 'ritual-action opera', the work was jointly commissioned by the Adelaide and Melbourne international festivals. Lim draws on the traditions of Chinese street opera, and uses puppetry, karaoke and vampiric rituals in the production.

Opera Australia

Opera Australia was created through the merger of The Australian Opera and Victoria State Opera in 1996, to create one of the busiest opera companies in the world. Its main aim is to present great opera for everyone. It has a rich history.

In 1956 the Australian Opera Company was formed in Sydney. The following year it changed its name to The Elizabethan Theatre Trust Opera Company and began raising the profile of opera in Australia. Interest hit an all-time high in 1965 when the company presented the Sutherland-Williamson International Grand Opera Company with Joan Sutherland, Richard Bonynge and distinguished artists from Australia and abroad. From 1970 the company's identity was separated from that of The Elizabethan Trust, and became The Australian Opera.

The opening of the Opera House in 1973 gave the Australian Opera a permanent performance home and helped expand its repertoire and develop its Sydney audiences. Conducted by Edward Downes, Prokofiev's War and Peace was performed on the opening night of the Sydney Opera House Opera Theatre. It was recorded by ABC Television, and subsequently screened in Australia and the UK.

Two groundbreaking events occurred in 1982. The ABC and The Australian Opera presented their first live simulcast, of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus . It reached an audience of more than two million and was the first in a series of simulcasts that reached millions of Australian homes. Later that year the first Opera in the Park was presented in Sydney's Domain. Now known as Seven's Opera in the Domain, it attracts almost 100,000 people each year.

The Australian Opera gained national attention in 1990 when Dame Joan Sutherland retired amid a wave of emotion with farewell performances of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots .

The establishment of Oz Opera in 1996 - the Australian Opera's access, education and development arm - continues the trend of taking opera to the people.

Each year an Oz Opera team takes a specially created production of a popular opera to many remote parts of Australia, dozens of larger towns in every state and territory, and most Australian capital cities. So far the company has travelled more than 50,000 kms of the Australian landscape by road and air.

Opera Queensland

Opera Queensland (formerly Lyric Opera of Queensland) was founded in 1981 with funding from the Queensland State Government.

Opera Queensland's charter includes the presentation of all forms of operatic works including light operas as well as musical comedies.

Now the second largest opera company in Australia, Opera Queensland presents three major operatic productions each year in Brisbane, and a number of smaller productions, concerts and tours of operatic and lighter musical materials throughout Queensland.

State Opera of South Australia

The State Opera of South Australia was formed in 1976. From 1976 to 1988 State Opera operated in the Opera Theatre in Grote Street (now Her Majesty's Theatre), moving to the larger Adelaide Festival Theatre in 1989 where the majority of performances now take place. State Opera performances feature the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

In 1998, the Company was first in Australia to stage one of the most important cultural events in the history of music theatre in this country - Wagner's epic opera Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring Cycle). The $8 million production was presented in association with the Paris based Chatelet Opera and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. In 2001, State Opera followed this momentous production with the first Australian staged production of Wagner's Parsifal, paving the way to the company's Australian production of The Ring Cycle in 2004.

West Australian Opera

West Australian Opera, which was formed in 1967, is the state's premier producer of opera and music theatre. The Company is located in His Majesty's Theatre in Perth, a beautiful Edwardian theatre which celebrated its centenary in 2004.

In partnership with the West Australian Opera Chorus and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, West Australian Opera aims to make opera an accessible and stimulating part of western Australian cultural life with an annual program of main house sessions, recitals and outdoor events.

Useful links

Dame Joan Sutherland

Dame Nellie Melba

Last updated: 5th March 2007