Opera House

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For the theatrical form, see the entry on Opera

Opera House as concept

Technically the term opera house refers to a custom built theatre building used for opera performances and the venue usually consists of a stage, an orchestra pit, audience seating, and backstage facilities for costumes and set building.

While some such venues are constructed specifically for the rehearsal and performance of operas only, most venues referred to as opera houses are actually intended for a range of performance forms, usually events of a large scale. In some cases the opera house may be more akin to a large performing arts centre, containing more than one venue of varying size and function.

Opera venues in South Africa

Over the years there have been a number of custom built venues intended for operatic (or large scale musical and balletic) perfomances, that have either borne the name Opera House or (if a dedicated venue for this kind of work within a theatre complex) The Opera.

Opera Houses as venues

This usually refers to a free standing venue, custom built for the presentation of large-scale productions. Among them are (or have been):

The Opera House, Cape Town (1893 – 1937)

The Opera House, Cape Town was opened on 31st August, 1893, in the presence of His Excellency the Governor General and most of the members of Parliament, by the then Mayor of Cape Town (J. Woodhead), with a performance of the musical Dorothy (Stephenson and Cellier), performed by the Lyric Company.

Also called the Cape Town Opera House, it was at the time considered the finest theatre in the Southern Hemisphere.

Opera House Johannesburg

[Was there one??**]

Opera House, Port Elizabeth

Also known as the Port Elizabeth Opera House, the P.E. Opera House, the Opera House Port Elizabeth and today as The Opera House Nelson Mandela Bay, it claims to be the oldest theatre still in use on the continent of Africa and in the Southern Hemisphere.

For more on this venue and its history, go to Port Elizabeth Opera House

Opera House Pretoria

Conceptualised in 1902, but finally opened on 27 February 1904. Designed by the company McIntosh and Moffat for the entrepreneurs Ben and Frank Wheeler. Described by McIntosh as follows on 18 February, 1904: "The main front will be on Pretorius Street, of classic architecture in the rennaissance style, showing an elevation of three storeys. At either side of the entrance there will be two shops, one intended as a first class buffet. A long corridor with a marble tiled floor willlead from this entrance into the foyer, above 35 feet square, from whence by mounting a few steps directly in front of the entrance corridor access will be had to the stalls. On either side of the foyer there is a marble staircase leading to the dress circle. The total seating capacity is 1016." On the stage he said: "The proscenium opening is large, leading on to a stage 57 feet by 38 feet, with ample dressing room accomodation… the orchestry will be a sunken one." It was meant for opera, but was only used for such for the first two years. Taken over by McKay Bros, the music firm, in 1907, it was mostly used for gramaphone concerts and operettas. It was also long a favourite venue for shows and meetings in Pretoria. Besides the many English and Afrikaans productions done there. These included the first productions of plays such as [An African Millionaire by Edgar Wallace, by Leonard Rayne Pretoria/Cape Town (??*) in 1904.], Ou Daniel by Harm Oost by the Afrikaans-Hollandse Toneelvereniging on 9 March, 1906, Piet s'n Tante (Brandon Thomas, tr by Gustav Preller) in April, on 1908, Afrikaner Harte ("Afrikaner Hearts") by M.M. Jansen by students of the Transvaal University College in 1918, under the direction of Stephanus Maré?*, Die Heks (C.L. Leipoldt) by Stephanie Faure and Paul de Groot on 2 May 1925, Huis Toe (Heimat by Süderman) by Paul de Groot in 1925, Ampie by Jochem van Bruggen, starring André Huguenet directed by Stephanie Faure on 18 April 1930, ** Spoke (“Ghosts”) by Ibsen (1947), Romeo and Juliet (Johannesburg Reps, 1949). A watershed production there was the Afrikaans version of Hamlet, produced by André Huguenet and African Consolidated Theatres, directed by Anna Neethling-Pohl and Siegfried Mynhardt on ** 1947. Others include Spoke by Ibsen (1947), Romeo and Juliet (Johannesburg Reps, 1949). Other notable events taking place there include the Kruger-day (10 October) political meeting in 1914 which set off the the armed resistance to participation in the war (the so-called Rebellie - "Rebellion"). Like many such theatres it was later managed by African Theatres and used as a part time bioscope (cinema house). For example, over the years the film Di Voortrekkers was regularly shown there on December 16th (Day of the Covenant). In 19** it was converted into a full time bioscope?*, and in 197* the interior was stripped to make way for a mall, though - in response to a public outcry - the façade was retained and still stands in Pretorius Street. Pretoria Opera House: Romeo and Juliet was performed here and in the Wits University Great Hall in 1949. It was produced by the Reps to commemorate twenty one years of existance. It was directed by André van Gyseghem, and starred Leon Gluckman, Eugenie Heyns, Muriel Alexander and Herbert Kretzmer. Sets by Len Grosset and costumes by Louis Jacobson impressed. Leonard Schach’s Cockpit Players embarked on a lengthy Johannesburg run of four of their recent Cape Town successes in 1959. The second was Basil Warner’s Try for White, which opened at the Pretoria Opera House before moving to the Intimate Theatre for the remainder of their highly successful run. It starred Marjorie Gordon, Nigel Hawthorne, Zoe Randall, Michael Turner. Joyce Grant and Fiona Fraser replaced Minna Millsten and Heather Lloyd-Jones respectively, from the Cape Town cast. ****

The Opera as a venue

Besides the various custom built Opera Houses in the country, many other large theatre venues, especially those intended to house larger scale productions (e.g. of opera, operatta, ballet and musical presentations) have, over the years, also been referred to as "The Opera" or "The Opera House" by locals, journalists and even in adverts and other publications. (See for example The African Theatre in Cape Town.)

In the case of the venues built for the four provincial Performing Arts Councils (PACs) (1963-1994) by the provincial performing arts councils in the 1970s-1980s, the name The Opera was specifically given to the largest venue in each of the four theatre complexes. These were all well-equipped venues for the staging of a full scale operatic production. For more on these venues, see the entries on the four state theatres: the Nico Malan Theatre ((later known as ArtsCape); the State Theatre Pretoria; The Playhouse, Durban and the Sand Du Plessis Theatre, Bloemfontein.)


Binge, 1969,

Vermeulen, 1971,

Tucker, 1997)

[TH, ABr]

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