Selections from operas were performed from the earliest days of settlement. The first complete opera, Rob Roy, was mounted in December 1839 in a makeshift theatre on the site of the former Fowler Factory on North Terrace.
In 1861 Adelaide saw its first Italian opera when a company led by Signor and Signora Bianchi ran an ambitious 16-week opera season. By the late 1890s, in the early days of cinema, theatre was booming. Several new venues such as this theatre were built, even some distance from the commercial parts of the city.
After this was built as the Princess Theatre, Hugh D. McIntosh, governing director of Harry Rickards Tivoli Theatre Limited, took over the lease and changed its name to the Tivoli Theatre. The Green Room reported on September 1,1913, that as soon as McIntosh inspected the new theatre he asked “How much?”
Harry Rickards first appeared in music halls in London. His career took off when he sang T. MacLangan’s song Captain Jinks of the House Marines, which captivated London and lifted his salary from £5 to £20 a week – an enormous amount for a variety artist. He was promoted to performing at London’s leading variety theatre, The Shaftsbury Theatre, which opened up opportunities for him to visit Australia in 1872. He returned several times, staying for “some years” and creating a vaudeville circuit that took him regularly on tour around Australia. This theatre was only one of the many leased theatres in his circuit.
The Tivoli was officially opened as a home for vaudeville on September 5, 1913. It was built on an open paddock with a stream running through it, where market gardeners and stallholders parked their carts and fed their horses.
An earlier Tivoli Theatre on King William Street was referred to as the old Tivoli once the new Tivoli opened. The new Tivoli Theatre was designed by architects Williams & Good, and built by Messrs W. Essery and J. Henning. “Sumptuously equipped”, it was opened by the mayor, Lavington Bonython, in the presence of “a large number of representative citizens”. The building was described as “appealingly chaste” in its white and gold decor, and its appointments were thought be “lavish”. The Critic of September 10, 1913, described it as “unquestionably the most up-to-date building of the kind in the Commonwealth”.
However, the new Tivoli Theatre never succeeded in becoming the principal theatre in Adelaide. Perhaps it was too far out of the way, or too big for the Adelaide of 1913.
For its first few years it was a “live” theatre in every sense. Performers appearing at the old Tivoli were retained to perform at the opening night of the new Tivoli. One of them was the vivacious Lillie Langtry, described as an “electric spark” who “had quite taken Adelaide by storm”. Applauded for her dancing, singing and “frocking”, Langtry was equally famous for her public love life.
The new Tivoli housed long seasons of plays, vaudeville, and a quaint feature, Tango Teas. Tango Teas came to Adelaide for a short time in 1914, and combined fashion parades, entertainment and light refreshments. “The absolute rage of every city in America and England”, they were early examples of audience participation.
In 1962 the theatre was extensively altered and renamed Her Majesty’s Theatre after the closure and demolition of the Theatre Royal in Hindley Street. The foyer was altered, the original dress circle and gallery (the gods) were removed and replaced by a single upper circle. The building was altered again in 1978-9 when backstage and foyer facilities were improved and the scene tower raised. It was renamed The Opera Theatre, as the home of the State Opera Company of South Australia.
The company, brought about by the State Opera of South Australia Act of 1976, had developed out of Adelaide’s first professional company, the New Opera South Australia, formed in 1973. This had developed from the Intimate Opera Group formed in 1957, although there had been earlier unsuccessful attempts in 1924 and in 1933 to create a professional opera company. In 1989 the State Opera moved to the Festival Theatre.