On November 26, 1889, in the South Island town of Dunedin, the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition opened to rapturous accolades as “the first great event of our national life.”1 In the official procession to the exhibition building, “fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, sweet-hearts, marched in the grand column,” witnessed by a gathering “[more] representative of the upper and middle social strata of New Zealand [than had ever] taken place before.”2 Inside the concert hall, at the heart of the exhibition building, the women of the choir entered the stage from the right, the men from the left.3 “The wide platform easily held the 370 singers, and a fine mass of positive colour the blue and red sashes of the sopranos and altos made, against the neutral tints and the grey with which the walls and roof are painted.”4 The female choristers were also offset by the “sea of sombre, masculine black coats” in the auditorium, as well as the similarly clad men of the orchestra, which comprised professional musicians brought from Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, and Madrid and from various New Zealand centers, including nine men from Dunedin.5 “Such an array of distinguished performers [End Page 3]
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has certainly never before been gathered together in this colony,” noted the Otago Daily Times.6
Despite the descriptive emphasis on the male orchestral musicians, photographic records of this moment draw our gaze immediately to the three women of the orchestra, who disrupt the otherwise traditional and, literally, black-and-white gender coding of the spectacle. The women occupy almost center stage. Their white dresses connect them to the choristers, especially when we read of the “mass of colouring, in which green predominated” in the dress of the women in the audience; yet their positions on the inside of the stands shelter them from the full gaze directed at the choristers and the women’s male stand partners.7 Their placement in the front three stands of the first violins implies a high level of proficiency, yet, unlike the men, the women were not paid. Nor do their names appear in the Official Catalogue of the exhibition, unlike those of their male colleagues.8 Their names are listed, however, in the Official Record—albeit at the end of the violin section: “Misses Joel, Packer, Nina Schlot[el].”9
Conflict between professional ability and professional enumeration, between public and private, or between visibility and obscurity is characteristic of women orchestral musicians—indeed, of white women in Western nations generally—during this period; however, the visibility the photograph gives to women in a professional orchestra comprising predominantly men is unusual. As studies of women’s orchestras in the United States and Sweden have suggested, the admission of women to “mixed” orchestras had been rare before the final quarter of the nineteenth century, especially on instruments other than the harp, and it was still uncommon at the time of the Dunedin exhibition.10 Even in New Zealand, where a relatively small population necessitated the inclusion of women in orchestras earlier than in many major urban centers abroad, an 1888 listing of the membership of the local Dunedin Orchestral Society was exclusively male.11 When [End Page 5]
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orchestras of this period did include women, their presence was often obscured, and their “backgrounds remain unchartered.”12 To appreciate the full significance of the presence of the women in the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition orchestra thus requires both a wider lens, to take in the aspects of the cultural context that defined this moment, and a sharper focus, to appreciate the backgrounds and experiences of the women themselves...