Opera on the Goldfields


Dorothy Wickham


Walter Sherwin
State Library of Victoria

Soon after the discovery of gold when hordes converged on the goldfields of Victoria the Ballarat Star commented upon the contrast between the rough and ready life on the goldfields to the refinement of opera that audiences were flocking to experience.

Ballarat’s first operatic season took place in September 1856. Anna Bishop a British soprano played to packed houses for fifteen nights. Forty five year old Madame Bishop whose costume and jewellery complemented her performances sane the exciting aria Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma and thrilled Ballarat audiences with her voice. She was an accomplished international performer having sung in thirteen countries prior to touring Australia.

Entire operas with elaborate scenery, theatrical stage effects, full orchestras and larger choruses performed to enthralled audiences who wondered at the extravagant costumes of the performers.

Soprano Julia Harland and tenor Walter Sherwin performed at the Victoria Theatre, the building now reconstructed at Sovereign Hill. Prior to grand buildings and theatres like Her Majesty’s in Lydiard Street South, opera was performed at The Star Music Hall, the Montezuma Theatre, the Theatre Royal and the Charlie Napier.

Madame Carandini,
c1863-65, SLV

Madame Carandini was another well-known star and singer who performed in Ballarat and toured the goldfields. In May 1855 she had performed with Emile Could in the Golden Fleece concert room. At the Charlie Napier also reconstructed at Sovereign Hill, Carandini performed a ten night series which included five Italian operas. The 1860s saw the Italian Opera Company in Ballarat with Giovanna and Eugenio Bianchi. They performed many of Guiseppe Verdi’s famous operas such as Il Trovatore, Ernani and Attila. Eugenio Bianchi was a world renowned tenor with a resounding voice. The Macaroni Factory at Hepburn is a tribute to Verdi with scenes from his operas painted on the walls and ceilings throughout the living areas.

Audiences were varied paying around one shilling to four shillings (equivalent to around 10-50 cents) per seat in 1858. Dogs and babies were allowed into the theatre and sometimes the leading soprano had to compete with them in volume until they were quietened or were ejected.

Poster 1855
State Library of Victoria

On 6 November 2007 opera was again brought to Ballarat for one night only by the Victorian Opera, a professional company. The performance on Tuesday 6 November in Her Majesty’s theatre was enjoyed by all who went. They experienced the art of Mozart and the thrill of the opera Cosi fan Tutte (All Women act like that) with Ballarat born Mezzo soprano performing the role of Dorabella, one of the sisters whose fidelity is tested. Typical of Mozart the music was glorious and the plot devious, hilarious and twisted. The opera on this occasion was sung in English, the music by Orchestra Victoria with musical director of the Victorian Opera, the late Richard Gill on the harpsichord.

With the lockdowns still in operation because of COVID 19 we look forward to future operatic performances and the experience of live music. Arts like opera are music for the soul.