PE Opera House
The Opera House is the oldest theatre on the continent of Africa and the Southern Hemisphere. On June 6, 1860 land in White’s Road was granted to ‘P.E. Dramatic Amateurs’ on condition a theatre was erected within one year – this period was extended the next year.
In 1891, a group of Port Elizabeth businessmen met to draw up the articles of a company to be formed for the purpose of erecting a theatre which would meet the needs of the rapidly-growing city. George William Smith, the city’s leading architect, was given the task of designing the building; and a Mr. Felden of the Lyceum Theatre, London, was brought in to design the stage and the interior in the plush-and-gilt style of the period. The new building was opened on 1 December 1892. It preceded the railway line by two years and it took 16 more years before artificial lighting – in the form of Gas – came to The Opera House. In the mean time it was lighted by candles and limelight. When the theatre opened it was recognised as ‘The finest theatre in all the World’ according to press reports.
The theatre was first leased to the Wheeler Brothers, entrepreneurs who used to bring overseas companies to perform in South Africa. The opening play was J. M. Barrie’s (Peter Pan). Some years after the Opera House was erected the building was altered to allow back-drops and scenery to be ‘flown’ and the rear of the building was altered to facilitate loading and unloading of scenery and ‘props’.
After World War II, films appeared to be the paramount interest of the owners, African Consolidated Theatre, but several promoters brought back live theatre – Brian Brooke, Pieter Toerien and Brickhill/Burke. Despite this revival it was decided to dispose of the Opera House and this sparked off a movement for the purchase of the building as a civic theatre. The support of other theatrical societies was enlisted and eventually the Provincial Administration stepped in and bought the building, chiefly with the idea of using it as a venue for performances by the recently established Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB), but also making it available to professional and amateur companies. It was thoroughly renovated, the facilities improved and at a glittering function on 14 November, 1967 it was officially opened with a performance of Swan Lake by CAPAB Ballet.
In 1994 the whole South African landscaped changed dramatically after the release of Nelson Mandela and the first democratically elected Government took over the reins. After the publication of the White Paper on the Arts the Opera House became a Section 21 Company with funding from the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture in Bhisho, who is also the legal owner of the Building.
The Opera House is a very special Theatre and has hosted performances by household icons such as John Kani, Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona, Nomsa Nkonyeni, and many, many other famous national and international stars. It was officially nominated a receiving house for hosting productions only, however, with the consent of the Board of Directors a large part of its budget is devoted to development programmes.
Address: Whites Road, Port Elizabeth
Phone: 041 586 2256
Fax: 041 585 2908