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Actors in the limelight


Recently MOTAT (Museum of Transport and Technology, Auckland) gifted a cotton handkerchief to the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection. Although seemingly a simple clothing accessory, this particular handkerchief had a surprisingly different use. Printed on it was an advertisement proclaiming the impending Hastings Amateur Operatic Society’s performances of Gilbert and Sullivan's nautical comic opera H.M.S Pinafore, otherwise known as The Lass that Loved a Sailor, to be held between 14-17 October 1895.

The advertisement is divided in two: the left hand side lists members of the Society, dates and performance details in both Hastings and Napier along with an image of the president, Captain Russell, and on the right is a line-up of cast members along with their particular role within the opera and members of the orchestra. Bizarrely, around the edge is a repeated pattern printed in red showing a comical rendition of an adult with two children pulling the reins of a donkey, while on its back lays a sleeping baby. Dividing each repeat is an excited dog and the corners feature a child holding a whip.

The Hastings Amateur Operatic Society was officially formed Friday 28 June 1895, when a “well-attended meeting of musical people” gathered to inaugurate the society. At that meeting a committee was elected and Mr Sheath was unanimously appointed conductor, as he had “music of all the well-known operas at his fingers’ ends” and understood the “difficulties which amateurs often labour”.

At the end of the meeting it was agreed to perform the “ever popular Pinafore” as the Society’s first venture. The initial rehearsal was held at the Hastings Oddfellows Hall on 15 July and casting decisions made known three days later. Prior to the decision, it was widely rumoured, that the part of Captain Corcoran had been offered to a gentleman “who is a distinguished light in sporting circles” and well-known locally for his dramatic ability.

Aotearoa / New Zealand has a tradition of amateur music-making, which from 1870 led to the establishment of many operatic societies throughout the country. These groups performed both light and serious works but Gilbert and Sullivan provided the staple repertoire until about 1900. Librettist William Gilbert, a witty satirist, and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan were a British duo who created fourteen operas in a collaboration that lasted 25 years. One of the duo’s most beloved comic works, H.M.S. Pinafore, tells the classic tale of forbidden love and struggles the hero and heroine overcome before they are finally united.

As opening night inched ever closer, the Hawke’s Bay Herald lyrically wrote on 25 September that, “the good ship Pinafore is now under the musical command of Commodore A.A (Alfred Amory) George”, Hastings newspaper proprietor, editor and controversial journalist. They wished the society every success hoping that “after all their hard work the good ship and its gallant crew will have a very prosperous cruise”.

Opening night was held Monday 14 October at Hastings’ Princess Theatre. The following day, the newspaper critique enthused that the performance was a great success, being brilliant from “first to last”. The staging and scenic effects were exquisite and the choruses “excellently rendered”. A special highlight was the hornpipe dance performed by Petty Officer, P Stuart which was “enthusiastically received and encored”. On the following two nights the performance was held in Napier to give Napierites an opportunity of watching “the musical talent of the City of the Plains” which the newspaper conjected would “no doubt come as a pleasing surprise”.

Napier locals came out in droves to attend the Royal Theatre performance - the dress circle, stalls, and middle seats were packed while the “back seats were a misnomer” there being standing room only. Again the performance by the Hastings amateurs proved an unqualified success and the opera “so superior that it would put professionals upon their mettle”. Mr Thornton was also credited with his “quiet dignified acting” in the part of Sir Joseph Hooker and congratulated on a “very meritorious piece of stage work”.

The write-up did provide a couple of subtle criticisms: J G Hughes who played Dick Deadeye “did full justice to the drollery of the part”, however his singing voice was rather weak; and while S Ridgway’ rendition of Fair Moon “fairly brought down the house”, his acting was slightly stiff.

On what was to be closing night - performed again in Hastings - management arranged for lime-light effects to be shown during two particular scenes. Before the advent of electricity, lime-light effects (an intense illumination) were used to highlight sole performers. The process was created by super heating a cylinder of quicklime (calcium oxide) with an oxy-hydrogen flame which gave off a bright greenish tinted light. From this technique evolved the term “in the limelight”.

The scenes chosen to be illuminated were when Captain Corcoran sang “Fair Moon to thee I Sing” and during the elopement of his daughter Josephine with sailor Ralph Rackstraw. Keen not to disappoint those previously unable to get tickets, and at the request of “many leading residents”, the Society added an extra performance the following evening. To encourage Napierites to attend, a special train was run leaving Napier at 6pm and returning 11.30pm.

Although H.M.S. Pinafore proved very popular, financially the Society suffered. In February the following year the group determined to perform Iolanthe also by Gilbert and Sullivan. The Society’s intention was to stage the opera in early October and to “sustain the reputation of their previous production or better still to eclipse it” the cast was encouraged to attend every rehearsal. Although Iolanthe was again a noted success, the Society never regained financially and by 3 May 1897 the newspaper was asking, “Is the Hastings Operatic Society dead and if so, where is it buried?”

By 29 May, a new group, made up of virtually the same people, had been formed. Officially named the Hastings Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society, its committee agreed to sell off any assets from the previous society to help pay off creditors and to donate a portion of future performance proceeds until all debts were paid off. Surely a courageous beginning for a group of passionate Hastings musical and dramatic amateurs.

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today newspaper on 2 September 2023 and written by Gail Pope, Social History Curator at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

Image: Hastings Amateur Operatic Society handkerchief, 14-17 October 1895.


4 September 2023

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