Spotlight on the collection: Silk Theatre Handbill

Fryer Library is fortunate to hold in its collection a silk theatre handbill. With black print on cream silk and a fringed edging, it is a very early example of this genre in Brisbane.

The handbill dates from the earliest days of Brisbane's first permanent theatre and music venue. Mason's Theatre (also known as Mason's Concert Hall) was built in Elizabeth Street by George B Mason, music and dance teacher. The theatre opened on 25 January 1865 with the farce Poor Piccadilly. Six months later, Lyster's Royal Italian and English Opera Company performed there.


Lyster's Royal Italian and English Opera Company. Subscription season of three nights,
commencing July 20 1865 [F3690] Brisbane : Courier General Printing Office, 1865. 39 x 15 cm.

The arrival of Lyster's Opera Company in Brisbane was reported on with much excitement in the newspapers of the time, and was seen as a mark of Brisbane's progress. William Lyster had brought his opera company to Australia from the USA in 1861. A Melbourne-based company, it toured Australia and New Zealand with great success, presenting about 42 full-length operas between 1861 and 1868. In July 1865 the company visited Brisbane. The Brisbane Courier of 7 July 1865 referred to 'the bona fide appearance of the best opera company that has yet attempted the lyric drama in the Australian colonies'. It continued, 'The advent of the Lyster Opera Company might almost be recognized as one of the significant signs of the rapid progress of the colony'. The Darling Downs Gazette & General Advertiser of 12 July 1865 enthused in similar vein, 'It is scarcely 6 years since we were separated from New South Wales, and yet our city is now deemed worthy of a visit by the Lyster Opera Company'.

The performances advertised over the nights of 20th to 22nd July 1865 at Mason's Theatre were Gounod's Faust, Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, and Bellini's La Sonnambula. These were three of the company's most popular performed works, with Les Huguenots, which premiered in Melbourne in November 1862: 'regarded as inaugurating a new epoch of the Australian stage'. (Margaret Seares, 'Opera', Currency Companion to Music and Dance in Australia, Sydney : Currency Press, 2003 : 470.)

It is not clear whether or not the citizens of Brisbane were as appreciative of Lyster's Royal Italian and English Theatre Company as the critics of the time thought they should be. There are reports of less than full houses, and hints that Mr Mason was taking a risk in bringing the company to Brisbane. But the silk handbill, with its fringed elegance, is a striking record of the early days of Brisbane and one of Australia's first touring opera companies.


- Cathy Leutenegger.

Last updated:
18 January 2017