Happy 70th Birthday Rockdale Opera Company

Rockdale Opera Company is about to celebrate its 70th anniversary.

Rockdale Opera is a rather unique body on several levels. To start with, it “does” opera.

Many community theatre groups out there perform the current popular musicals.  They may even extend to the repertoires of Gilbert and Sullivan, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Rogers and Hammerstein and maybe the odd well-known operetta.

But not opera! It is a highly complex and expensive art form if it is to be done properly and, in many people’s eyes, an elitist type of theatre which doesn’t attract big audiences.

In addition to this, the company performs out of Rockdale Town Hall in Sydney’s southern suburbs in the newly amalgamated Bayside Council area.

This is an extremely culturally diverse area, whose residents don’t necessarily include opera, operetta and Gilbert and Sullivan as their favourite form of entertainment.

Rockdale is an unlikely place to find an amateur opera company but, of course, the demographics of this area have changed considerably since the post-war era when the company came into being.

It was formed by the Rockdale Council in 1948, making it the oldest still-operating opera company in Australia and pre-dating Opera Australia by almost a decade.

The driving force behind the company’s formation was Alderman Norman Guess. His grand vision of the existing Municipal Orchestra playing to happy ice-cream licking, day trippers on Brighton-Le- Sands Pier quite come off, but the Rockdale Opera Company as an extension of the orchestra did.

Now years later, it is still here and celebrating this significant milestone. In the last 70 years, Rockdale Opera has staged 200 productions and afforded opportunities to over 800 aspiring principals and approximately 1,300 enthusiastic chorus members.

The heart and soul of the fledgling Rockdale Opera Company was a group of four visionary people - noted conductor Cedric Ashton (MBE), tenor Allan Ferris, accompanist Megan Evans, and cellist Rupert Orchard, who together set about realising their dream of a suburban company bringing high quality opera to local audiences at an affordable price. The demographics may have changed but the Company philosophy remains the same.

The Company’s first opera production was Faust in May 1948. Although no known photos of the production exist, a newspaper article says that “competent critics hailed the performance as a definite success and praised the organisation that had made possible such a venturesome step into the higher realms of music.”

It went on to say that “if there were faults in the presentation, and there were, they were graciously overlooked by most of the audience who realised that here was something to be encouraged rather than condemned.”

That Faust audience numbered 2,500 over three nights Obviously a very successful venture!

The critics praised Mr Allan Ferris who not only had the lead role but directed the opera and described the chorus as having “more wandering arms and legs than the smallish stage could accommodate”

1949 saw a production of Carmen and a photo of the cast in action proves the critics right regarding the number of arms and legs on stage.  

The following year, the Company staged Rigoletto and in 1951 took the bold step of producing two operas – a new production of La Boheme and a revival of Faust.

A subscription to these operas, plus a Concert by the Rockdale Municipal Orchestra and a performance by The Polish Australian Ballet cost the grand sum of 1 pound and 1 shilling.

The chorus consisted of 30 ladies and 20 gentlemen, many of whom were “borrowed” from the local musical societies.

There was a core of regular principals to call upon – tenor Allan Ferris and baritone William Diamond appeared in the majority of operas until 1958.

Cedric Ashton remained the Musical Director until 1979 when the role passed to John Leeman.

In 1954, Gilbert and Sullivan appeared for the first time and in 1956, The Merry Widow marked the inclusion of operetta in the Company repertoire. The following year saw productions increase to 3 and by 1974 this was the norm.

A quick look at early programs turns up some well-known names – Rosalinde Keene in Rigoletto, Geoffrey Chard (AM) in La Boheme and Neal Easton in Carmen, Rigoletto and La Boheme.

So began the especially unique role Rockdale Opera continues to play to this day – a community organisation where up-and- coming opera singers can learn their craft in fully staged productions, using this experience as a springboard into successful national and international careers.

Both Easton and Chard went on to sing with the English National Opera and Rosalinde Keene achieved TV stardom through Bobby Limb’s Sound of Music.

This in itself is not unusual, most musical theatre stars begin their careers in local theatre groups, but for opera performers, conductors and musicians the opportunities are extremely limited.

The list of Rockdale performers who went on to greater things is endless – our patrons include Jose Carbo and Daniel Sumegi, Robert Gard (OBE), Deborah Riedel, Paul Ferris, Barry Ryan, Doreen Morrow, Roslyn Dunbar, Jonathon Welch (AM), Stuart Skelton, Alan Light, Reginald Byers, Simone Young, and Moffatt Oxenbould.

SBS personalities Silvio Rivier and Silvia Colloca both appeared at Rockdale and even celebrity chef Bernard King turned up as the Viceroy of Peru in the 1975 production of La Perichole.

Stranger still, Bernie Willingale, secretary of the State Railway Union, sang in several Rockdale Opera shows in between calling train drivers out on lightning strikes.

The 1950s and 1960s saw the arrival of three Rockdale Opera giants – Gilbert and Sullivan exponents Mary Blake, Rob Hatherley and Brian Phillips.

Blake and Hatherley notched up 55 shows (many together) and Hatherley produced 11.

Phillips produced 62 and was responsible for clothing many a Rockdale performer from 1971 to 2011.

In fact, accurately dating many photographs by the costumes worn is near impossible, as the same costumes, with variations, turn up time and time again.

Of course, it hasn’t been all beer and skittles for Rockdale Opera. The company has had several “resurrections” from near-death situations during its 70 years.

The first occurred within two years of its formation. Council decided it couldn’t afford an opera company and was on the point of disbanding it when it was discovered the council’s “cultural reputation” had spread as far as North Queensland.

 Shame-faced, it agreed to fund the 1951 season and the Company survived.

In 1971, the end seemed inevitable once more when the Council voted 9-6 to abolish the Opera company. “COUNCIL SACKS OPERA COMPANY” screamed across the the local paper.

Irate performers, devastated customers and the general public were mobilised to petition the Council. Under the leadership of Alderman Ron Rathbone and as a result of the efforts of Betty Byrne, the opera company was “reprieved from threatened extinction.” HMS Pinafore was the first production “under the new regime” and the Town Hall “was sold out to an audience that expressed its appreciation with fervour.”

Most recently, the Company “shut down” for two years while the Town Hall underwent urgent renovations. Not only did the Company lose its venue for that period, but most of its extensive costume collection (predominantly from Brian Phillips) which was stored at the Town Hall and therefore deemed “asbestos contaminated” and subsequently destroyed.

Since the re-opening of the Rockdale Town Hall in 2014, Rockdale Opera Company has worked hard to re-establish itself. With a tireless committee, our supportive patrons, a loyal band of chorus and a never-ending stream of young talented principals, the Company has picked up where it left off in 2011.

To its established repertoire of opera, operetta and Gilbert and Sullivan, it has added a very popular Opera Cabaret and last April held a Gala Concert starring Jose Carbo and Emma Matthews playing to a packed house.

In November 2017, audiences were left totally stunned by the power and beauty of the final chorus in Suor Angelica as the women’s voices soared and filled the Cedric Ashton Auditorium.

If recent auditions for The Tales of Hoffmann are anything to go by, this production in August 2018 should be equally as thrilling and a fitting way to celebrate 70 years of glorious music. And who knows? The next international opera star could be about to step onto the stage in suburban Rockdale.