Opera Hunter was formed in 1986 by a team including Mercia Buck as President, Colleen Potts, Tom Naisby, (the Newcastle Herald music critic) , Susan Hart, Karen Hawkins( now Walmsley ),Philip Sketchley, Barry Walmsley and Rob Langley. It was then called Hunter Opera, a name which many still use.
After fundraising and planning, workshops were held at Newcastle High School in 1987 and directed by Alan and Janice Light.
Among the many artists in that first workshop were Michael Saunders, Walter Blundell, Linda Barcan, Hesta Hanna, Sue Hart, Karen Hawkins, Colleen Potts, and John Bunton. Pianists were Philip Sketchley, Helen Smith and Mercia Buck. The program contained excerpts from well known works including Gianni Schicci by Puccini, Louise by Charpentier, and Carmen by Bizet.
In June 1988, the company presented Act 1 of each of Julius Caesar by Handel, and La Traviata by Verdi under the direction of Mary Louise Ambler. The venue was the Belmont 16 foot club, and it was sponsored by Lake Macquarie Music Society.
In October 1988 Hunter Opera presented The Magic Flute at Newcastle City Hall. It gained major funding from both Lake Macquarie and Newcastle’s Bicentennial committees. Conducted by Neil Flottman, and directed by John Sienczuk, this production won CONDA awards for: the Commonwealth Bank Award for Outstanding Achievement in Newcastle Theatre , Best Production, Best Lighting Design- James Jablonski.
There followed a busy nine years under the helm of president Colleen Potts. 1989 saw productions of Menotti’s The Telephone, and scenes from Humperdink’s Hansel & Gretel and Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Venue was Warners Bay Hall. May and June 1990 saw a production of Die Fledermaus conducted by John Kellaway, and directed by Frank Oakes at The Griffith Duncan Theatre. Dancers from Marie Walton-Mahon Dance Academy added to the great success of this production.
In 1991 two major seasons of Mozart were presented; “Mozart at Elizabeth’s”, a restaurant at the waterfront , hosted Bastien and Bastienne, and Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief; then the Mattara Festival hosted a production of The Marriage of Figaro at the Civic Theatre. Ross Fiddes was appointed Artistic Director of the company in the same year.
In 1992 the company presented a production of Die Fledermaus in Speers Point Park, an enterprise of Lake Macquarie City Council, billed OPERA ON THE LAKE. Conductor was Ross Fiddes, and director Frank Oakes. The date was September 13, a cold night chosen by Lake Macquarie staff, yet 3,000 people attended. In December 1992 Amahl & the Night Visitors by Menotti was produced at St. John’s Church, Cook’s Hill. It was directed by Greg Gascoine, conducted by Ross Fiddes, with The Novocastrian Arts Orchestra.
1993 was a busy year. First, in March a double bill of Master Peter’s Puppet Show by de Falla, and The Medium by Menotti at King’s Theatre. Director was Kylie Yates, conductors Ross Fiddes and Patricia White. The Medium won a CONDA for best production. In July they presented Carousel at Newcastle City Hall, directed by Ian Skilton, conducted by Kay Lane.
Later in the year the company presented Bizet’s Carmen at Newcastle’s Civic Theatre, as part of the re-opening celebrations of the theatre following a $12m refurbishment. It was conducted by Ross Fiddes and directed by John Wregg. This season of 6 performances was a sell out and the highest earning production for the company to date.
In 1994 Love Lust and Treachery, a program of solos, duets, and choruses was presented at City Hall in Newcastle, then later in the year, the massive Les Miserables at Civic Theatre.” Les Mis” had 12 sold out performances, a cast of 56, an augmented orchestra of 50 players, conducted by Ross Fiddes and directed by Matthew Lazarus-Hall.
1995 produced Oliver at Civic Theatre, directed by Wendy Leis and Kristi Street. The conductor was to be Ross Fiddes but on opening night he was struck down with appendicitis and Brett Pajnic stepped in at the last minute.
1996 was the year of Madama Butterfly at Civic Theatre, starring the lovely Jennifer Barnes, a role she was to take further with her career at Opera Australia. The conductor was Roland Peelman, Director John Wregg and used The Hunter Orchestra in the pit.
In 1997 the company presented a concert version of Ross Fiddes’ and Paul Kavanagh’s Abelard and Heloise at the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music. Paul and Ross were jointly awarded the CONDA for Outstanding Achievement in Newcastle Theatre in that year.
From 1997 the company now named Opera Hunter ( a term coined by pianist Helen Smith) has been under the presidency of Mercia Buck. 1997 saw a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor by Nicolai at City Hall. Director was Andrew Coombes and conductor John Kellaway.
1998 was another busy year with concert programs; Arias and Roses at Lake Macquarie’s Awaba House in June, and Great Moments from Opera at The Highfields Azzuri Sports Club in August.
In October at City Hall, a double bill of Suor Angelica and Cavalleria Rusticana played to good audiences with a cast of all Hunter singers and musicians directed by Kate Sweeney, conducted by Brett Pajnic, and featuring Patricia Brindle (now Woods), Hilary Oliver, James Bonnefin, Peter Brock and Joanna Cashin (now Andrew).
In 1999 The Merry Widow was produced at the Griffith Duncan Theatre, directed by Fay Sharp, and conducted by Michael Bell. The “widow” was the lovely American soprano Patricia Rhodes, with Andrew Coombes as Danilo, Joanna Cashin as Valencienne and John Dickeson received a CONDA for his role as Baron Zeta.
There were also five other programs of concerts in 1999 taking opera to The Shortland Wetlands, Warners Bay Community Hall, Newcastle City Hall, and Awaba House, and the Lake Macquarie Art Gallery.
2000 and a new millennium saw an increasing commitment to larger budgets supported by increased funding from donors , businesses and corporations. A pattern emerged of using popular musicals to support financially the mounting of opera productions. Audiences grew and were becoming two distinct categories; opera and music theatre. The company continued to be truly Hunter in it’s ability to move to many different venues.