From the MTG: Actors in the limelight

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The handkerchief proclaiming the impending Hastings Amateur Operatic Society’s performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, in October 1895.

Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology (Motat) gifted a cotton handkerchief to the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection recently.

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 October 14-17, 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.

On the right is a line-up of cast members and their roles, and members of the orchestra.


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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 lies 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 on Friday, June 28, 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 July 15 and casting decisions made known three days later.

Before 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.


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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 Sir William Gilbert, a witty satirist, and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan were a British duo who created 14 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 the struggles the hero and heroine overcome before they are finally united.

As opening night inched closer, the Hawke’s Bay Herald lyrically wrote on September 25 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.

It 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 on Monday, October 14, 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 conjectured 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”, with 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 credited with his “quiet dignified acting” in the part of Sir Joseph Hooker and congratulated on a “very meritorious piece of stage work”.


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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”, though his singing voice was rather weak; and while S Ridgway’s rendition of Fair Moon “fairly brought down the house”, his acting was slightly stiff.

On what was to be closing night – again in Hastings – management arranged for limelight effects during two particular scenes. Before the advent of electricity, limelight effects (an intense illumination) were used to highlight individual performers.

The process was created by superheating 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, the society suffered financially. In February the following year, the group determined to perform Iolanthe, also by Gilbert and Sullivan.


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With the intention of staging 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 May 3, 1897, the newspaper was asking, “Is the Hastings Operatic Society dead and if so, where is it buried?”

By May 29, 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 creditors and to donate a portion of future performance proceeds until all debts were paid. Surely a courageous beginning for a group of passionate Hastings musical and dramatic amateurs.

Gail Pope is the social history curator at the MTG

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