Port Elizabeth Opera House

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The Port Elizabeth Opera House is a purpose-built venue dating from the 19th century.

It was renamed the Mandela Bay Theatre Complex in 2018, and declared a cultural institution in terms of the Cultural Institutions Act 119 of 1998, on May 31, 2021, by the Arts and Culture Minister, Nathi Mthethwa.

Originally named the Alexander Theatre and Opera House, (named after Alexandra of Denmark, Queen of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions), it became known as the Port Elizabeth Opera House, (and is often referred to as the P.E. Opera House, the Opera House Port Elizabeth and The Opera House Nelson Mandela Bay).

It is claimed in several sources that the venue is the oldest theatre still in active use on the continent of Africa and in the Southern Hemisphere. The oldest surviving theatre building is The African Theatre in Cape Town, dating from 1800.

For information post-May 2021, see Mandela Bay Theatre Complex


See also the section on Opera Houses.


The Mandela Bay Theatre Complex (previously known as Port Elizabeth Opera House) is located on the corner of John Kani Road and Winston Ntshona Street, Central, Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth). In 2017, the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality changed the names of the streets surrounding the Port Elizabeth Opera House to mark the 45th anniversary of three Gqeberha thespians who won the prestigious Tony Award in the USA in 1975. The municipality saw it fit to change Whites Road to John Kani Road, Chapel Street to Winston Ntshona Street and Belmont Terrace to Athol Fugard Terrace.


Initially, the building housed only one performance venue (the Opera House), but in 1985 an additional performance space was created in the building (The Barn, now The Barn Theatre).


Design, building and opening (1891 - 1892)

In 1891, a group of Port Elizabeth businessmen met to draw up the articles of a company to be formed for the purpose of erecting a theatre to meet the needs of the rapidly-growing city. The old Theatre Royal had opened in 1862 at the bottom of White's Road, had long since become outdated and its primitive facilities had earned it the nickname of "The Barn".

The man who started the movement for the building of the Opera House was Mr Melville Kennedy and he was appointed Secretary of the new company. Some of the city's most distinguished citizens were among the shareholders - James Brister, a former Mayor; Sir Charles Frederick Blaine; Matthew Loubser, a cultural leader; John Holland and Robert Pettit. The scheme was put into effect right away.

George William Smith, the city's leading architect and surveyor, was given the task of designing the building; the contract was given to the local firm of Small & Morgan; Mr. Felden of the Lyceum Theatre, London, was brought out to design the stage and the interior in the plush-and-gilt style of the period was designed by a Mr. Caffin. The new building was opened on 1st December, 1892, with full ceremony, the Mayor and Councillors proceeding in full regalia to line up in front of the curtain, while the Mayor (Mr. J. Mcllwraith) read out a dedicatory ode specially written for the occasion by Mr. F. McDermott.

The Opera House preceded the railway line by two years. It took 16 more years before artificial lighting - in the form of Gas - came to The Opera House. The building was run candles and limelight during this period. When the theatre opened it was recognised as “The finest theatre in all the World” according to press reports.

The Beginnings

The theatre was first leased to the Wheeler Brothers, entrepreneurs who used to bring out overseas companies to perform in South Africa. The opening play was J. M. Barrie's (Peter Pan) “Walker London” (Published 1892) a highly successful comedy. From then on the theatre was well used by visiting companies and local societies. After the Wheeler Brothers' season, the theatre was taken over by the Port Elizabeth Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society with a season of Gilbert & Sullivan - The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance.

Other companies came along with popular plays and melodramas - East Lynne, The Silver King, Little Lord Fauntleroy and others. South Africa's first outstanding actor-manager, Leonard Rayne, always included the Opera House on his tours. Charles Hawtrey produced the popular Charley's Aunt. In 1896 the shape of things to come was foreshadowed when the American entertainer, Owl Hertz, included P.E.'s first cinematograph show in his programme. The outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War did not stop the flow of entertainments at the Opera House. The P.E.A.O.D.S. put on Gilbert & Sullivan operetta’s to raise money for various war funds, something which their successors, the P.E. Gilbert & Sullivan Society, were to repeat during the Second World War.

In 1902, The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company came out from England to present a season of Gilbert & Sullivan, and the same year was the arrival of Wilson Barrett of The Sign of the Cross came. The first successful play by a modern South African playwright, Stephen Black, - Helena's Rape ~ was put in 1909, and in the same year the Wheeler Brothers brought out the Gaiety Company to perform Our Miss Gibbs. As part of the celebrations for the founding of the Union of South Africa in 1910, the George Edwards Company put on The Dollar Princess.

Meanwhile cinema shows were becoming more frequent. "Wolfram's Bioscope" paid visits at regular intervals, and between the wars the number of cinema shows increased until by the end of the Second World War the theatre had become mainly a cinema with occasional live shows. Typical of his early film shows at the Opera House was the one on October 27, 1904, when he screened The Invasion of England "a graphic reproduction of the recent military and naval manoeuvres in the English Channel", The Motor Boat Race "between Dover and Calais,", The Great Fire at Toronto, "The biggest conflagration in the history of Canada; 14 acres destroyed. Buildings dynamited, scenes of ruin and desolation".", A Drama in the Air "A terrible experience of two aeronaut's balloon encounters in a storm, struck by lightening and consumed by fire. The car and its occupants fall into the sea. A timely rescue."The International Congress of the Salvation Army while "General Booth reviews his soldiers, (black and white) men, women and children from all parts of the world, amidst the wildest enthusiasm," and Mrs Brown's Holiday Adventures "The most side-splitting comedy ever presented".

In 1913 two famous English actors performed here - Matheson Lang and H. B. Irving, son of the more famous tragedian.

Pre-1916 it was owned by Mr Andrew Cloag.

African Consolidated Theatres (1916 - ?)

In 1916, The Opera House was acquired by the recently founded African Consolidated Theatres Organization (ACT).

In the inter-war years, several famous stage personalities played here - Sir Frank Benson, the great Shakespearean British actor-manager who’s touring company and acting school were important influences on contemporary theatre; Phyllis Neilson-Terry and her brother Dennis; Sybil Thorndike acted St Joan, in 1928. Others recalled are Owen Nares, Angela Baddeley, Zena Dare, George Robey, Gracie Fields, Will Fyffe and Emlyn Williams.

During the Second World War, South African theatre was revived by the return of the famous South African actress Marda Vanne who brought with her the famous English actress Gwen ffrancon-Davies. They went on tour presenting such plays as Twelfth Night, The Merry Wives of Windsor, What Every Woman Knows and Quality Street.

Some years after the Opera House was erected the building was altered to allow back-drops and scenery to be "flown" and the rear of the building was altered to facilitate loading and unloading of scenery and "props". Throughout the inter-war years the most regular and faithful users of the theatre were the P.E.A.O.D.S. aforementioned, and later the Port Elizabeth Gilbert and Sullivan Society who succeeded them.

The postwar years

At the end of the war, the cinema appeared to be paramount but then several promoters arose to bring back live theatre - Taubie Kushlick, Brian Brooke, Pieter Toerien, Leonard Schach and Brickhill/Burke. It seemed as though the Opera House might regain its proper role. Plays such as Worm's Eye View, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Corn is Green (with Dame Flora Robson), and Johnny Belinda were staged. Marcel Marceau, the famous French mime, made two appearances within a few years.

Perhaps the most memorable event in the history of the Opera House during these years was the production of King Lear, in 1960 with Andre Huguenet in the title role. This was regarded as the highlight of his career, sadly only one year before his death.

The troubled years

By the 1950's the character of the African Consolidated Theatres organization had changed. They were concentrating more on the cinema side. They decided to dispose of the Opera House and this sparked off a movement, beginning in 1961, for the purchase of the building as a civic theatre. The main protagonists of this movement were Mr E.D. Hill, Councillor J. Graham Young and Bruce Mann and Helen Mann of the Theatre Guild. The support of other theatrical societies was enlisted, meetings were held, and many letters for and against appeared in the local press. Finally it was decided to put the matter to the test at a meeting of ratepayers on 4th February, 1963. The anti-civic theatre block, unfortunately carried the day.

However, the Opera House survived.

In 1965 The Theatre Guild organised a production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Margaret Inglis, as part of the University of Port Elizabeth inaugural celebrations.

Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB) (1966 - 1996/1997?)

In 1966, the Cape Provincial Administration bought the building, chiefly with the idea of using it as a venue for performances by the recently established Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB), but also making it available for professional and amateur companies. It was thoroughly renovated, the facilities improved and at a glittering function on 14th November, 1967, it was officially opened by the Hon. the Administrator of the Cape, Dr J. N. Malan, followed by a performance of Swan Lake by CAPAB Ballet.

CAPAB has presented many fine productions since the Opera House became a civic theatre. Remembered are Candida, The Chalk Garden, The Lion in Winter, The Cherry Orchard (with Bernard Brown), The Way of the World (with Leslie French), Hedda Gabler, The Impor­tance of Being Ernest, A Collier's Friday Night, Hadrian VII, The Misanthrope, Arms and the Man, and Mr Rhodes and the Princess (by Theo Aronson, who regard almost as a "local" writer). Both classical and modern ballets were performed. Music was not been neglected. Overseas artists, and although the stage is not really large enough for operatic productions, The Opera House had a taste of operatic selections and the more easily staged operas such as Cosifan tune, and The Marriage of Figaro.

In 1969, Theatre Guild (East London) put on Romeo and Juliet, starting the then local star, Alice Krige. Gilbert & Sullivan and Theatre Guild, combined, were responsible for the productions The Student Prince and The Desert Song, with Ge Korsten and Nellie du Toit. For the 1820 Settlers 150th Anniver­sary Festival, Twelfth Night, with Leslie French and Bernard Brown, was performed. In 1973 Helen Mann of the Port Elizabeth Shakespearean Festival directed the production of Carmen with Ge Korsten in the leading male role and with Robert Selley as musical director.

The Port Elizabeth Shakespearean Festival have also staged straight plays at the Opera House - Children of the Wolf and Veronica's Room, while the junior members of the society have staged Anouilh's Antigone and Wilder's Our Town.

The Theatre Workshop staged Richard III in August, 1968, the first Shakespeare to be played there after the take-over. The Port Elizabeth Gilbert and Sullivan Society have made use of the theatre until their own Savoy Theatre was brought into use. In the past years they have staged Annie Get Your Gun, Cox & Box and Trial by Jury, South Pacific, Show Boat and The Gondoliers, the last as part of the Centenary celebrations of the Collegiate School. The University of Port Elizabeth staged Guys and Dolls, while a professional company gave us West Side Story. The Port Elizabethse Afrikaanse Amateur Toneelvereniging, (PEAAT) keep the Afrikaans theatre tradition alive and there productions include, Die Romanse Oor Die Muur and Sganarelle. Black protest theatre saw early works of Ipi Tombi, Umabatha and Meropa.

Eastern Cape Provincial Government (Department of Public Works) (? - 2021)

In 2010, the Port Elizabeth Opera House was owned by the Department of Public Works, which is the custodian of government buildings. In 2010 as part of the FIFA World Cup Legacy projects the Department of Arts and Culture, predecessor to DSAC, contributed R31million towards the renovations and extensions to the Port Elizabeth Opera House.

In 2012, Monde Ngonyama appointed as general manager.

Since 2016, the Port Elizabeth Opera House received three bailouts from the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality in order to continue operating (R1.5 million in 2016, R6.8 million over 2016-2019, and a further R7.2 million over 2020-2022).

The Opera House building was renamed Mandela Bay Theatre Complex in 2018.

Cultural Institution for Performing Arts (2021 - present)

The Mandela Bay Theatre Complex was declared a Cultural Institution in May 2021. For information post-May, 2021, see Mandela Bay Theatre Complex.

Building and renovations

The Port Elizabeth Opera House was originally designed by local architect George William Smith and opened its doors on 1 December 1892. Five additions followed - the first in 1911, followed by extensions in 1927, 1934, 1985 and 2016. The current Mandela Bay Theatre Complex is thus made up of six distinct parts. At present, the Opera House is the oldest theatre in Africa and also one of the oldest functioning theatres in the Southern hemisphere.


The original building was designed in a neo-classical style with three storeys and articulated corners including a heavy parapet. The main entrance was from Western Road (later Whites Road, now John Kani Road) under a pediment supported by pilasters.


A larger volume was created for the theatre.


A new entrance was created along Western Road, accentuated by a double storey veranda.


The fly tower was added as well as dressing rooms for the performers. The dressing rooms were executed in a utilitarian style with Modern Movement overtones.


In 1985, a major extension followed that extended the size of the theatre, added another entertaining space (The Barn) and creating a large foyer space for the theatre. This was, however, executed in a style very similar to the old building thus blurring the boundaries of new and old.


In 2011 the Port Elizabeth Opera House Board decided to rationalise circulation in the Opera House and to extend The Barn and improve its access. In order to achieve this, the following formed part of the Project scope:

  • Addition of Foyer space and passenger lift to The Barn
  • Extensions to The Barn
  • Renovations to existing Opera House, including internal/external painting and damp damage repairs
  • Upgrade of Staff offices, including new circulation core
  • Replacement of Carpets and Wallpapers
  • Major upgrade of Air-Conditioning, Lighting, Fire Detection and Ventilation systems
  • Compliance with National Building Regulations in terms of access for disabled persons, as well as fire escapes

The design approach taken is based on three principles:

Contrast: In line with contemporary heritage practices to avoid re-creating a false impression the ‘new’ is intentionally contrasted with the ‘old’. The vertical proportion of the ‘old’ is re-interpreted in a steel screen module supporting an elegant stainless steel screen, The new Foyer Extension is also intentionally spatially extroverted in nature further contrasting the largely introverted old building.

Background Building: The Foyer Extension is distinctly contemporary, however, far less articulated compared to the old building thus achieving a background aesthetic instead of competing with the richly decorated ‘old’ building. The extension further recedes ‘behind’ the old Opera House while the height is kept lower than the existing. A clear glass ‘break’ is deliberately established clearly separating the ‘old’ from the ‘new’ both spatially and visually

‘Green’ Principles:The new Foyer Extension is naturally ventilated by means of a stack effect. Cool air is drawn into the building at lower levels through ducts and a stack effect is used to circulate hot air out at the top through a system of motorised louvres. It was further decided to acknowledge the history of the building throughout the years by creative use of colour and painting the various additions in different hues from the same palette. The colours vary from light (oldest) to dark (newest) thus depicting a visual timeline of the Opera House throughout the decades.

The venues reopened in February 2016. The works cost R28 million.

National Monument

The Port Elizabeth Opera House was declared a National Monument by Teunis Nicolaas Hendrik Janson, Minister of National Education, on 4 January 1980.


Eastern Province Herald, November 23, 1904.

Official website of the P.E. Opera House: http://www.peoh.co.za/

History on the website, by A. Porter

Eric Atwell. 1992. Port Elizabeth Opera House. The first 100 years. Published by the Cape Performing Arts Board.

The Herald, "Curtain Rises on Mandela Bay Theatre Complex" by Zamandulo Malonde, Tuesday, June 1, 2021.

Address by Minister Nathi Mthethwa at the Declaration of Mandela Bay Theatre Complex as Cultural Institution for Performing Arts, 31 May 2021 http://www.dac.gov.za/content/address-minister-nathi-mthethwa-declaration-mandela-bay-theatre-complex-cultural-institution

Renovations and additions to Port Elizabeth Opera House, https://thematrixcc.co.za/project/renovations-and-additions-to-port-elizabeth-opera-house


DA Bhisho, 3 September 2010

Herald Live, 19 March 2020



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