Henry Harper

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Henry Harper (fl. 1868-1899) was an operatic singer, actor, musician and theatre manager.


He appears to have been born and raised in England, where his theatrical career started, inter alia at the Royal Opera House, London.

Contribution to SA theatre, film, media and/or performance

He first came to South Africa as an opera singer, but then remained there to become prominent in the county as a musician and company manager, with at least five references to a company involving the actor-manager Henry Harper and a partner (or on his own), using (variations of) this name.

The Harper-Leffler Opera Company

Henry Harper, miss Annette Hirst and Mrs J.H. Leffler from the Royal Opera House, London performed six concerts of opera selections in the Commercial Exchange and the Mutual Hall, Cape Town from 5 August - 9 September 1868. They were sometimes billed as the Harper-Leffler-Hirst Company.

The Miranda-Harper Company

From December 1868 to January 1869 the Harper-Leffler Company was back for a new season, now with the addition of David Miranda (the husband of Annette Hirst, and the stage manager of the company, in addition to his role as singer and co-manager), hence the company became known as the Miranda-Harper Company. A full season of new concerts were performed during August 1869, making them not the first to perform opera in SA, but the first opera company to do so for an entire season. They also performed in Rondebosh, Simonstown, and various rural towns, travelling as far as Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth.

The full company of five consisted of David Miranda, Mrs Leffler, Miss Hirst, Mrs Smith and Mr Campbell, with a Mrs Morris as accompanist, and on occasion a locally sourced chorus.

Their repertoire for the 1869 season included performances in the Mutual Hall and the New Market Building, Cape Town, of selections from various operas, as well as performances of La Somnambula (Belini), The Bohemian Girl (Balfe), Il Trovatore (Verdi), Maritana or Don Caesar de Bazan (Wallace), Lucrezia Borgia (Donizetti), The Messiah (Handel)[1] and Martha (Flotow/Riese). They also participated in two sacred concerts in the St Aloysius Hall with local amateurs and a Grand Fête and Fancy Fair in the Company Gardens, as part of the Agricultural Show of that year.

By 1870 the company had disbanded.

The Henry Harper Company

An interlude with Mabel Hayes

He is next mentioned when he was recruited locally by the Mabel Hayes company, probably to help out with musical matters for her productions when she and her company which visited South Africa in 1882, inter alia appearing in the Theatre Royal Cape Town.

His own company

In December 1883 Harper took over the remnants of the Mabel Hayes company after she had decamped for Port Elizabeth, to put on a production of a Christmas pantomime Humpty Dumpty. He had taken a lease on the new Theatre Royal, Cape Town, and opened it on 18 June 1884 with a production of Faces in the Fire (Bayard & Laurencin/Buckingham) and The Two Gregories (Sewrin/Dibdin). This evening constituted the opening production in the newly reconstructed Theatre Royal, built to replace the one destroyed by fire in July 1883.

The members of the company

Besides Harper himself, the company included the performers H.C. Sidney (his leading player), Fred Ferrani, Charles Lobbett, J. Fox Turner, Mr Burton, Mr Herbert, Constance Moxon, Bella Murdoch and Miss Williams. His set designer was usually William Thorne, mechanical stage matters arranged by Mr Kelly and the musical director was William Ramsden.

The repertoire

According to Boonzaier (1923), the rest of his first season (1884-5) there consisted of plays such as:

Aladdin (Anon.),

The Bells (Erckmann-Chatrian), The Bohemian Girl (Bunn and Balfe),

Les Cloches de Corneville (Clairville and Gabet),

Dead to the World (Conquest and Pettitt), Delicate Ground (Dance) , Dick Whittington and His Cat (Blanchard), Diplomacy (Sardou/Stephenson and Scott), The Duke's Motto (Feval/Brougham),

East Lynne (Wood),

Fedora (Sardou/Merivale), The Field of the Cloth of Gold (Anon.), Forget-me-Not (Merival and Grove),

Henry Dunbar (Taylor),

Impulse (Stephenson),

Lost in London (Phillips),

The Marquis and the Cobbler (d'Ennery/Dance), Meg's Diversion (Craven), My Uncle's Will (Theyre-Smith),

Nita's First (Warren), Not Such a Fool as He Looks (Byron),

The Octoroon (Boucicault), The Old Love and the New (Howard and (Albery), Our Boys (Byron), Guy Mannering (Terry and Bishop), Ours (Robertson),

Proof (D'Ennery and Cormon/Blanchard), Pygmalion and Galatea (Gilbert),

Queen's Evidence (Conquest and Pettitt),

Still Waters Run Deep (De Bernard/Taylor), Society (Robertson), Sweethearts and Wives (Kenney),

The Ticket-of-Leave Man (Brisebarre and Nus/Taylor), The Two Orphans (Oxenford),

The Wanderer's Return (Anon.), The Wreck of the Pinafore (Searelle and Lingard),

They also did about six one act farces.

The Harper-Leffler Repertory Company, Kimberley

According to Du Toit (1988), a Harper-Leffler Company also performed as permanent ‘repertory’ company, and was active in Kimberley during the 1890s.


D.C. Boonzaier, 1923. "My playgoing days – 30 years in the history of the Cape Town stage", in SA Review, 9 March and 24 August 1923. (Reprinted in Bosman 1980: pp. 374-439.)

F.C.L. Bosman. 1980. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel II, 1856-1912. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik: 184-6, 243-9, 274, 286, 292-5, 299, 375-380.

P.J. du Toit. 1988. Amateurtoneel in Suid-Afrika. Pretoria: Academica

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