Early Melbourne's opera was largely Sydney's opera on tour. Core groups formed around visiting stars of the magnitude of the sopranos Catherine Hayes and Anna Bishop, drawn to Australia by the gold rushes and the promise of easy pickings. But in 1861 William Saurin Lyster arrived in Melbourne with a company of seven singers, a conductor and a stage manager, recruited in America. For the next 20 years he made Melbourne the home of an extensive touring operation with a repertoire of English, Italian, German and later French grand opera, the orchestras and choruses raised locally. The Lyster legend is formidable, but he did not run a single company continuously, as is often claimed. Lyster managed some five companies over this period, absorbing any new troupe that dared show itself as a rival, though there was one 18-month break prior to February 1870 when no opera was produced.
Lyster's death in 1880 brought an end to what later became known as 'The Golden Age of Australian Opera' and opened the field to the smaller companies, the Montague-Turner and the Simonsen companies in particular. Lyster's mantle fell to his nephew George Musgrove who in 1882 joined with Arthur Garner and James Cassius Williamson to create the Melbourne-based triumvirate which specialised in the new Gilbert & Sullivan operas. This nationally organised group also managed the Cagli (later Cagli & Paoli) company. When the triumvirate dissolved at the turn of the century, an opera war broke out between its now separated members, giving the city's theatregoers a bonanza. The death of Williamson in 1913 and that of Musgrove three years later ended the battle, but The Firm lived on, leaning more and more towards the fashion for operetta. JCW alias The Firm eventually controlled the musical stage nationally. Just prior to World War I the entire Quinlan Opera Co. was imported by Williamsons, which touted it in Barnum & Bailey style. In 1911 and again in 1924 and 1928 there were memorable seasons given in partnership with Dame Nellie Melba. When The Firm merged with J & N Tait, the major rival was Sir Benjamin Fuller who promoted the Gonzales Opera Co. against the Melba seasons with only modest success. In 1934-35, with the depression at its height and opera in abeyance, Fuller's Centenary Royal Grand Opera Co. celebrated the centenary of Melbourne with the great Wagnerian soprano Florence Austral as its star. World War II put an end to opera for the duration, but in 1948-49 and again in 1955 JCW mounted grand opera seasons yet again, this time with Italian singers. The 1955 season proved a disaster. Costs had spiralled and tastes had changed. If opera was to survive in Melbourne it required an international star of Melba's magnitude. In 1965 such a star was found. Joan Sutherland opened the Sutherland-Williamson International Grand Opera Co.'s season in Melbourne with Lucia di Lammermoor to acclaim. Around her were the Australian singers who would carry opera forward nationally for a generation, an astonishing array of talent made possible by the opera schools of Melbourne and Sydney, the attraction of an emerging national opera movement and, much later, the pull of the Sydney Opera House.
In 1935 Gertrude Johnson founded the Melbourne-based National Theatre Movement with the aim of giving local talent training and local professional opportunities. Its opera school produced a fledgling national opera company. In 1952 it joined with Clarice Lorenz's Sydney-based opera company for a season in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. A genuinely national company seemed about to be formed but rivalry between the two groups intensified in 1953 when Johnson's National Theatre Coronation Festival in Melbourne outstripped Lorenz's efforts in Sydney. Unable to compromise on amalgamation, both went to the wall when the Elizabethan Theatre Trust was formed in 1954, this time with government backing.
In 1956 the Australian Opera Co. was formed in Sydney, its core recruited from the remnants of both groups. Under various title changes it is this touring company that now provides professional opera in Melbourne. In 1962 the Victorian Opera Co. was formed by Leonard Spira from the amateur Gilbert & Sullivan-oriented Victorian Light Opera Co., its short seasons gradually gaining critical notice. It was not until Richard Divall was appointed its conductor and Dame Joan Hammond its artistic director in 1972 that its rising standards and widening repertoire - baroque, neglected 19th-century and contemporary works - began to draw audiences. It was renamed the Victoria State Opera (VSO) in 1976. From 1984 it was housed in the acoustically and visually splendid State Theatre of the new Arts Centre, where it presented at least four operas a year, which eventually rivalled those of the Australian Opera given in the same space. In its last years it expanded into elaborately mounted musicals and concerts, stretching its budget to the limit. In 1996 the VSO encountered financial difficulties and was absorbed by the Australian Opera (now Opera Australia). The Elizabethan Trust Melbourne Orchestra, formed in 1969 to support the Australian Opera and the Australian Ballet, survived the merger. In 1987 it was renamed the State Orchestra of Victoria and continues to support opera and ballet in the State Theatre.