Ulster Operatic Company

History

 

Uster Operatic Company is the oldest amateur musical company in Northern Ireland.

Madame Gertrude Drinkwater who founded the Company just after the turn of the century, had many distinctions throughout her long career, but none was closer to her heart than the Society she founded in 1910. It was then called the Ulster Amateur Operatic Society, but for many years was thought of by Madame as a Gilbert and Sullivan Society.

As a child, Madame studied the violin, but her real ambition was to sing, and she secured a place to study under Madame Claire Novello Davies, mother of Ivor Novello. At the Royal Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, she won all the possible Scholarships and Prizes, and when presenting her with the Academy’s most coveted prize for the third successive year, King Edward VII remarked – ‘Can it be you again?’

In 1909 Madame joined the professional ranks as a teacher of singing, which laid the foundations of what was to become the Ulster Operatic Company. Having staged various Operettas and Operas of Gilbert & Sullivan with her many pupils, she never looked back.

In 1946 at the Empire Theatre, the Company presented two Gilbert & Sullivan Operas - Ruddigore and The Mikado, which marked the retirement of Madame Drinkwater , the same year in which she was awarded the M.B.E..

Madame Drinkwater was elected President of the Company and remained an office she held until her death in 1955. Many distinguished people followed:-  Presidency: J. Nelson McMillan C.B.E. 1955-1961; Sir Robin G.C. Kinahan E.R.D., J.P. 1961- 1966; Councillor Irene McAleery 1966-1972 and James T. Kernohan O.B.E. 1972-1981. Long time member of the ‘Ulster’ Denis Suffern M.B.E. was elected President in 1981 where he remained until his death in 1997. We are honoured to have another member, David McWilliams, as our current President

Harold V. Taggart became the Company’s first Chairman in 1947 and was followed by Richard T Evans, Denis Suffern M.B.E., William (Billy) Kennedy M.B.E., Joe Morrison, David McWilliams and currently Les Harrison, who has seen the Company through some difficult times.

In 1951 the Ulster Operatic Company broke with tradition to present Lilac Time in the Grand Opera House, Belfast. Succeeding years saw presentation of musicals by Coward, Novello, Romberg, Friml, Lehar, Lerner & Lowe, Rodgers & Hammerstein and many more too numerous to mention. One of the highlights was in 1958, when the Company was honoured by the presence of Her Royal Highness the Princess Margaret at its Gala Performance of  Brigadoon  in the Opera House.

Unfortunately, the troubles saw the closure of the Opera House from 1972-1980, and as a result, the Company was forced to seek alternative accommodation for its productions, and a new dimension entered into its history. ‘The Ulster’ (as it was now affectionately known) moved into its own premises at Balmoral following negotiations with the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society, and the Harberton Theatre was born. On October 21st 1972 it was officially named and opened by Lord Grey of Naunton, Governor of Northern Ireland.

Numerous Directors have worked with the Company to present to the public many excellent shows, from the early Gilbert & Sullivan classics right up to our last production Little Shop of Horrors earlier this year. Leslie Jones, Alice Dalgarno and Peter Kennedy are only three of the esteemed Directors we have had over the years.

To work alongside its Director, a Company needs a good Musical Director, and in its time the Company has been fortunate to have had the services of William Cairns M.B.E., Lorraine Stanley, Geoffrey Cherry, and of course our current Musical Director Wilson Shields, all of whom have wielded the baton with great aplomb.,

No company survives without the dedicated members who give of their time and talent both on and off stage, and we have been fortunate to have had many such people associated with the Company, some of whom were nominated and brought trophies back from the prestigious all Ireland AIMS Awards.

It was a sad day when the Harberton Theatre eventually closed in 1989 with a very nostalgic production of The Merry Widow, but there was light on the horizon. We moved to the Arts Theatre on Botanic Avenue, but this of course did not last, as the City Council unfortunately called time on the theatre and it eventually closed its doors. The early ‘noughties’ saw the Company at a very low ebb, and the possibility of closure was looming. Thankfully, the new blood on the Committee made sure that this did not happen, and fourteen productions in the last six years alone are testament to the tremendous amount of hard work that has been undertaken. Over that period the ‘Ulster’ has performed shows in the Island Hall, Lisburn and Stranmillis College, before returning to the Grand Opera House in 2008 after an absence of over 30 years with its sell out production of West Side Story. Last year the company staged Boogie Nights in the Opera House and performed Guys and Dolls in the same venue in its Centenary Year. Although we are over 100 years old, the revitalised company is as strong and vibrant as ever with a membership of over 100 and an average age of under 25. It certainly augers well for the next 100 years!