Established at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont, by founder Brian Doherty, a local resident, as a platform for the plays of George Bernard Shaw. It began with an eight-performance 'Salute to Shaw' at the town's court house in 1962. A professional company established in 1963 flourished under the direction of Andrew Allan 1963-5, Paxton Whitehead 1966-77, Richard Kirschner 1977-8, and Leslie Yeo 1978-80, succeeded by Christopher Newton, and its summer season increased in duration from three weeks in 1963 to 22 weeks in 1976, and 25 weeks in 1990. The 830-seat Festival Theatre was opened in 1973. Though music was introduced to the festival in 1966 with a concert by the Hart House Orchestra, it was only in 1970 that another music presentation was attempted - a new-music series directed by Robert Aitken at St Mark's Church with the Lyric Arts Trio and the Orford String Quartet. The same groups returned for 'Music Today '71' and, with the addition of Nexus, for 'Music Today '72.' In 1973 the NACO, Canadian Brass, the Festival Singers with Lois Marshall, and the Orford String Quartet gave concerts, and in 1974 Camerata began the first of three seasons of concerts on various historical and stylistic themes with such guests as Maureen Forrester and Moe Koffman. Members of the Camerata also gave master classes at the festival in 1974 and 1975. After a season's hiatus, music returned in 1978 with the Huggett Family, the York Winds with Judy Loman, the entertainers Dinah Christie and Tom Kneebone, and the musical melodrama Lady Audley's Secret. The International Concert Series, an impressive winter season, began in 1973-4 with 12 attractions, including Renée Claude, the Contemporary Music Orchestra of Paris, and the COC. This winter series continued with 19 events of similar calibre and variety in 1974-5, 15 in 1975-6, 7 in 1976-7, 10 in 1977-8, and 12 in 1978-9. In 1979 Oscar Peterson, Anna Russell, and Liona Boyd gave solo concerts, the Huggett Family returned to present a series, and the Niagara Symphony gave summer 'lawn concerts'.
The festival acquired the Royal George Theatre in 1980 and, with an ongoing refurbishing program, has transformed it into a small Edwardian opera house, the site (with the exception of 1990) of annual productions of operetta or musical theatre. These began with Puttin' On the Ritz (1980), a revue that originated in the Belfrey Theatre, Victoria, BC, followed by Rose Marie (1981), The Desert Song (1982), Tom Jones (1983), Roberta (1984), Naughty Marietta (1985), Girl Crazy (1986), Anything Goes (1987), Hit the Deck (1988), Good News (1989), Nymph Errant (at the Court House, 1990), and A Connecticut Yankee (1991). These are accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble.
In addition Shaw's one-act play, The Music Cure, featuring two actor-pianists, was produced in 1982; the pianist Marc Widner, the Accordes, the Tim Brady Ensemble, and the Claude Ranger Sextet each gave concerts at the Court House in 1983; Emma, Queen of Song, based on Albani's career and developed by Duncan McIntosh and Mary Lou Fallis, was presented by the latter accompanied by Carl Morey in 1984; Classical Cabaret gave six concerts in 1987 and that same season Peter Appleyard led a tribute to Benny Goodman concert in the Festival theatre. Five Monday concerts during the 1988 season included performances by the Aldeburgh Connection, Marek Jablonski, and evenings of Palm Court music and that of Kurt Weill; and in the 1990 season by William Tritt, the Great Lakes Brass, the Aldeburgh Connection, the NYO, and the Upper Canada Saxophone Quartet. Sunday brunch concerts of light classics also have been performed by company members in 1990 and 1991. Beginning in 1980 Roger Perkins and Christopher Donison have directed festival musical events as well as composing the necessary incidental music for the plays.