Royal Comic Opera Company-
The Royal Comic Opera Company was one of Australia’s most popular theatre companies for almost five decades. The Company was the idea of theatre entrepreneur, James Cassius Williamson ( JCW), who became the most influential figure in Australian legitimate theatre management. An American, Williamson came to Australia as an actor who owned the rights to a Gilbert and Sullivan production. With this as a platform he founded a comic opera company and a theatre dynasty.
JC Williamson came to Australia for the second time in 1879 and he brought with him the Australian rights to HMS Pinafore. By 1881, he had added the rights of The Pirates of Penzance and that same year he formed a separate comic opera company to take advantage of the investment.
The Comic Opera Company began as a vehicle for Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Whilst Williamson and his wife Maggie Moore played in one place, the company could play in another. It was Williamson’s first foray into management. In 1882, the adjective ‘Royal’ was added to the company’s name. The ‘Royal’ Comic Opera Company however, was not patronised by Queen Victoria, but was named instead for the theatres Royal in Sydney and Melbourne. J C Williamson had a lease on these theatres and was beginning to form the company which would dominate the Australian theatrical scene for decades.
Originally, Williamson personally selected the casts and played a large role in the direction of the Royal Comic Opera Company. He soon delegated stage management and other tasks to reliable friends such as Henry Bracy whose name became synonymous with the comics. Several actors also became indelibly associated in the public mind with the company, Howard Vernon, a tenor from Melbourne, was one of these. Vernon was one of many local stars nurtured through the Royal Comic Opera Company. His specialty was Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and he and others became expected performers in JC Williamson productions.
In the early years the company was designed to be a traditional repertory company. However, inevitably, the public soon began to pick favourites. Nellie Stewart was perhaps the most famous actress to emerge from the company during the late 19th century. Nellie, an Australian, rapidly became the company’s leading diva. She was so popular that her appearance on stage could halt the action, as it did in 1888 when she appeared in Dorothy in Melbourne. Eventually her fame eclipsed the company and she, with Williamson partner George Musgrove left to pursue an independent career.
The members of the Royal Comic Opera Company had a hectic schedule. They were continuously busy, and toured Australia and New Zealand for 48 weeks a year. They were incredibly versatile and soon began to vary their Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire with musical comedy. In the 1887-88 season the company performed a long season of Gilbert and Sullivan, including The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance, and HMS Pinafore and added performances of La Fille Du Tambour Major and Faust. In the mid 1890s they varied their musical comedy productions with pantomimes such as Djin Djin and Robin Hood. The result was a talented repertory company of singers, dancers, actors and comics with the ability to perform a wide variety of roles. In these years the stars were performers such as Howard Vernon, Ida Osborne, Aggie Kelton and Nellie Stewart. Later ,stars such as George Lauri and Carrie Moore were added to the mix.
The versatility of the company ensured that they could support any overseas stars that travelled to Australia. This meant that Williamson’s could save on import costs by paying international headliners and providing their supporting players from the predominantly Australian Royal Comic Opera Company. For example in 1908, the company could seamlessly provide support to a returning Carrie Moore in the Merry Widow.
Although the company consisted of primarily Australian performers, Williamson often imported foreign talent to maintain its high standards. On one of his scouting trips to London he spotted George Lauri, a man who was talented but not widely recognised. Williamson signed him to replace William Elton, the Royal Comic Opera Company’s resident comedian. Lauri’s experience in pantomime and musical comedy in England and America was ideal for the Royal Comics. He came to Australia in 1891 and performed with the company almost continuously until his death. George thus attained a success that he would never have enjoyed in either London or the US.
When it came to local talent Williamson thought that Australian female actors worked harder then their male equivalents. According to him, they were ‘ quicker and more adaptable.’ This may have due to the fact that he indoctrinated them into the JCW work ethic as children. Carrie Moore was a schoolgirl when she began working with the Royal Comic Opera Company. This was typical. The company would take a young girl from the acting or dancing schools, give her some small parts, observe her and take note of the audience’s reaction. If the result was favourable the girl had theatre work for the rest of her life. Both Carrie Moore and Ivy Scott had their start in the theatre by serving this apprenticeship.
For many, the frantic pace and constant travel of the company was too much. Carrie turned to vaudeville in later years, citing the impossible workload of comic opera as the cause. Florence Young, a faithful Williamson employee and diva of the Royal Comic Opera Company said that the large number of productions and associated workload had ‘a wearing effect on the nerves.’ George Lauri was one of many who could not stand the strain.
The company was more than its stars, it also consisted of a tightly knit group of choreographers, stage managers, and musical directors. The two Minnie’s, Hooper and Everett ,were tireless ballet mistresses, whilst Henry Bracy took on the thankless role of stage manager. Musical directors such as Leon Caron and set designers such as Phil Goatcher were integral members of the company. In many cases it also became a family concern, both Carrie Moore and Minnie Everett had sisters who worked for the Comics, whilst Florence Young had family connections throughout the Williamson organisation.
The Royal Comic Opera Company was a Williamson creation and he was proud of it, saying that ‘you cannot hear such chorus voices anywhere else’. For almost fifty years between 1881-1925 it was the pre eminent musical comedy company of Australia. It had many changes of personnel through that time, but managed to maintain the highest standards of production and musical talent. It was the home of Australia’s elite performers, the birthplace of stars such as Nellie Stewart, Florence Young, Howard Vernon, George Lauri, Dorothy Brunton, and Gladys Moncrieff. It also nursed an Australian dance tradition providing Minnie Hooper and Minnie Everett with forums to develop their choreography. Above all, it was an Australian company loved and patronised by audiences through two generations. A history of Australian music and theatre would be empty without acknowledgment of its influence