Port Elizabeth Opera House
The Port Elizabeth Opera House is a purpose built venue dating from the 19th century.
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 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)
TO BE EDITED
See also the section on Opera Houses.
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 The old Theatre Royal had opened in 1862 at the bottom of White's Road, had long since become outdated and its primitive facilities had earned it the nickname of "The Barn".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 C. F. 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 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, etc.
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.
Between the world wars
In 1913 two famous English actors performed here - Matheson Lang and H. B. Irving, son of the more famous tragedian. In that year the African Consolidated Theatres Organization (ACT) was formed and became the leading theatrical promoters in South Africa. They acquired the Opera House in 1916. At that time it was owned by Mr Andrew Cloag. 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 Gilbert & Sullivan Society who succeeded them.
The post war 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. From this event stemmed the setting up
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. Then a more benevolent Provincial Administration stepped in and 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.
The CAPAB years
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 Earnest, 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. The Gilbert & Sullivan Society 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 P.E. Shakepeare Festival directed the production of Carmen with Ge Korsten in the leading male role and with Robert Selley as musical director.
The P.E. 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 Gilbert & Sullivan Society have made use of the theatre until their own Savoy Club 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 P.E. Afrikaanse Amateurtoneelvereniging, (PEAART) 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.
Built in 1892, it 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. This is testament to the fact that we can still use the building today. In fact we are not only the oldest theatre in Africa, but also the only Victorian Theatre left on the continent. This means that architecture, if it disappears, will be lost to the children of Africa forever.
This very special place - the home of John Kani, Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona, Nomsa Nkonyeni, Thoko Ntshinga, and Elizabeth Connell (international soprano), and many, many other famous people. In terms of history, culture and the contribution to the Arts during the struggle, no other theatre can claim the role that The Opera House has played.
Another interesting fact about the history is that The Opera House is built on the site of an old gallows. Public hangings took place on this ground before the theatre was erected. So we have had many sightings of ghosts and spooks. Generally no one wishes to be the last person to leave at night.
Day to day activities The Opera House is officially a receiving house for productions that tour around the country. However, with the consent of the Board of Directors more than 75% of our activities are invested in development programmes.
Port Elizabeth. ***It was bought by the state and given to PACT to run. It was revamped and reopened in 1967. **??
History on the website, by A. Porter
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