Since 1914, the Hamilton Operatic Society has been delighting the Waikato region with high quality musical theatre. Those who make the society sing tell Sam Brooks how it’s survived for more than a century.
There’s only one theatre company in New Zealand with a programme that reaches back 109 years. There’s also only one that counts Dame Malvina Major, Richard O’Brien, Kimbra and Max Cryer among its casts. And no, it’s not Auckland Theatre Company (established 1994) nor Christchurch’s Court Theatre (1971).
It’s the Hamilton Operatic Society, who’ve been bringing musical theatre, opera and concerts to Kirikiroa since 1914, when their inaugural production was the very off-its-time The Geisha Girl. Today the society is not just one of New Zealand’s biggest companies of its kind, but undoubtedly the biggest and most significant purveyor of musical theatre in the Waikato region. In March it debuts a new show, Cut!, comprised entirely of songs cut from popular musicals; in September it stages Jersey Boys, its first large-scale production since 2020.
The Hamilton Operatic Society is, broadly speaking, an amateur theatre company – but that term comes with a lot of unwarranted baggage. It is probably more accurate to call it a pro-am musical theatre company, one where most of the cast and creatives are amateurs drawn from the community, with professional actors often hired to play the leads. Companies of this sort often pool their resources to fund sets and costumes, resulting in production values that are surprisingly high, often higher than you’d find in urban semi-professional theatres.
There’s an unfair perception of theatrical outfits like this – that because they’re populated by non-professionals the work they put on is not as good or as worthy as their peers’. And to be fair, the shows aren’t always as perfectly turned out as those in professional theatre. But there’s something that just hits differently when you see a performer doing it for the love of the game, rather than a jobbing actor from overseas doing their hundredth performance of ‘Defying Gravity’.
Sarah Hughes got involved with Hamilton Operatic Society at the end of 2020, when the organisation had pivoted to doing regular concerts rather than a few big shows. Having started as a performer, she joined as business development manager in 2022. She says the role is pretty much the same as in a professional theatre company, albeit with more of a community focus. “It’s not just about letting people know what we’re up to,” she says, “but also creating ways … to have more interactions with the community, and come up with events separate to our big shows, and other ways to engage that community.”
Last year the society wasn’t able to put on a full-scale show so those events became crucial. The society ran a series called ‘Downtown Musicals’, “basically like little cabaret style, semi-open mics, where people could sign up no matter what level of performing they were at, to have the opportunity to sing and just perform for people”.
That grassroots engagement is key to the society’s success; it’s not just about getting people literally into the shows, but making sure they’re creating shows that people want to be part of. “We can try to put on the best performances, but we can’t do it without [the community] getting involved and auditioning to be in shows or putting their hands up to volunteer and work on shows,” she says. And then, “we also we need them to turn up and engage with the programmes we’re putting on”.
Community is essential to theatre, but it’s especially crucial to groups like the Hamilton Operatic Society. Without the community, there literally is no society. Nick Braae, who has been involved with three major shows as a musical director and fills the same role in the upcoming Cut!, says is a key part of the musical theatre ecosystem of the city. Theatre in Hamilton “tends to focus on the big arena shows that can be produced in a semi-professional environment,” he says. “This offers one particular pathway for practitioners and audiences alongside, say, comparatively experimental shows or community-driven theatre.”
“It’s a vibrant place to be!”, enthuses David Sidwell, who got involved with the society in the ‘70s when he was studying music at university. “Hamilton Operatic, back in those days, was the biggest amateur society in the country,” he remembers. “They were doing all the big premiere productions of shows you’ve heard of, they did Jesus Christ Superstar, and then they did Annie.”
Sidwell started as a pianist for the society, and has since worked as musical director, conductor and director – he estimates that he’s “probably” directed every show they’ve done for the last 35 years. While he’s done theatre across the world over the years, he always comes back to the society because of the “high standards they demand”.
While Sidwell obviously loves being involved with the shows themselves, it’s the lifestyle the society affords him that he appreciates most. “I used to love getting on a plane and doing a show somewhere else, but as you get older, you get a family, you have to maintain that sense of stability,” he says. “To be able to do that in your own city is pretty special.”
The society is unique in that sense. In larger cities, companies like these can gradually harden into institutions, becoming their own cottage industry with as many barriers and hoops to jump through as a professional theatre company. Hamilton Operatic Society remains, at its core, a community-led organisation that serves its city while still putting on high quality shows.
Hughes, the business development manager, points to a show the society staged at the end of last year. For the first time, they had a host, Scott Hall, one of the most well-known voice teachers in the Waikato. His presence wasn’t just a boon for the audience, it was a validation for the performers that someone of his calibre would share a stage with them. “It showed us how important it is to have nights where the purpose is not perfection,” she says. “With full-blown stage shows, you want it to be the best thing that it can be, but what grows community is not expecting perfection from everyone every single day.
“Having him there brought to life that this is a good thing to have as part of our arts scene. It’s the learning. It’s getting people comfortable with what they’re doing. It’s getting people involved.”