Gilbert Sullivan A La Carte

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A history of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, as told by the D'Oyly Carte family. This was written by Chris Boot and performed in 1986, and the original script can be found in the Archive.



Ring forth ye bells

Richard D'Oyly Carte: Pretty little tune don't you think? Of course, if it wasn't for me, you'd have never heard it. I think I am safe in saying that it is due to my artistic knowledge and business acumen that that piece of music ever saw the light of day. My name? Of, of course, let me introduce myself. My name is Carte, Richard D'Oyly Carte. I understand that a few people out there would place all the credit for the Savoy Operas with their writer and composer, Gilbert and Sullivan. They had a lot to do with it, obviously, but it was my business skills that first brought them together.

I was manager of the Royalty Theatre in 1876 when I first approached the two. They wrote a programme filler for me, and it was two years later when they wrote their first full-scale opera 'The Sorcerer'. John Hollingshead had used another piece of theirs some years earlier, but it had minor success.

It wasn't until May 1878 that the partnership of Gilbert, Sullivan and D'Oyly Carte hit the public's attention. Our latest show, 'HMS Pinafore' was doing only modest business, until I managed to persuade Sullivan to include some extracts in the Promenade Concert that he was conducting. Not surprisingly we were soon sold out, and everyone was whistling the tunes, such as those in the Finale of Act I.

This very night

On July 31st 1879 some of my former partners tried to repossess what they considered to be their scenery- halfway through the performance. The cast, led by Little Buttercup, managed to repel boarders, and finish the show. This led me to open my own opera company- The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, naturally.

The following year brought great success, with other Gilbert and Sullivan operas- 'The Pirates of Penzance', 'Patience', 'Iolanthe', 'Princess Ida', and the most successful of them all, 'The Mikado'. I also built my own theatre to hold my opera company- The Savoy- which gave its name to the collective operas.

It was in the year of 1887 that I married my secretary of many years, Helen Lenoir. She had been a constant source of inspiration and support to me. Some people are always saying how there must be a wedding in all the operas. And, as always, when there is a wedding, there is the accompanying madrigal.

Brightly dawns our wedding day

Our years of success passed quickly, with 'Ruddigore', 'The Yeomen of the Guard', and 'The Gondoliers' being added to the repertoire of the Savoy Operas.

In 1890, there came the infamous 'carpet quarrel', (I had asked Gilbert and Sullivan to help pay for the replacement carpet in the foyer- Gilbert refused). Whatever the rights or wrongs of the case, I felt perfectly entitled in asking for money for the upkeep of what was still my theatre. Despite any efforts on my part, the split that developed seemed final, and in the years that follows many operas were produced at the Savoy which, although they met with limited success at the time, have never entered the D'Oyly Carte repertoire.

Eventually our partnership and personal friendship were restarted, and I helped with the last two of the Savoy Operas- 'Utopia Ltd' and 'The Grand Duke'. Neither were critical or popular successes, and so in later years, we found it necessary to revive some of the earlier shows.

Towards the beginning of 1900, my health started to deteriorate, and with great sadness I saw the death of my dear friend, Arthur Sullivan. As I thought back over our joint careers, one of my fondest memories is of the Command Performance of 'The Gondoliers' which the opera company performed at Windsor Castle for Her Majesty. In the special programme that was produced for the occasion, everyone in the cast and production was mentioned; the principals, the chorus, the set designer, the costume makers, the wig maker, Sullivan, myself- everyone, in point of fact, except Gilbert.

Ah yes, that special Command Performance. If only you could have been there.

We're called Gondolieri

Helen D'Oyly Carte: My husband died in the late spring of 1900, and, as his dying wish, I took over the management of the opera company. I had worked with my husband from the beginning of the company. Shortly after Richard's death I sold the Savoy Theatre, and the opera company became more involved with the touring side of the repertoire. All of the most popular of the shows were included, although missing one of my own personal favourites, 'Ruddigore'.

My eyes are fully open

How well I remember the trouble we first had when 'Ruddigore' appeared at the dear old Savoy. Not least of the complaints that were received because of the title. The original spelling that Gilbert insisted on had a 'y' instead of an 'i'. This had some disastrous effects on the more maidenly of our audience.

Both Gilbert and Sullivan had been going through some personal problems during the run up to the first night, and so their relationship had not been at its best. This was not improved when hecklers at the first night demanded the return of 'The Mikado', something which had never happened before. I well remember Gilbert in one of his tempers suggesting that we should rename the piece 'Kensington Gore' or 'Not half as good as The Mikado'.

Still, our touring company was doing great business, particularly with one of our earlier efforts, 'The Pirates of Penzance'.

Hail poetry

As well as the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company producing the Savoy Operas, there were other companies throughout the country also presenting Gilbert and Sullivan to audiences. Amateur societies had discovered the operas, and they had all become firm favourites. In fact, dear old Gilbert had been persuaded to appear in one himself; as the non-singing associate in 'Trial By Jury'. How well I remember him sitting through the entire production with a scowl on his face that got deeper whenever one of the principals stumbled over one of his words.

If anyone of the three partners was responsible for the overall look of the Savoy Operas, it must have been Gilbert. When my husband first gave him permission to stage and direct the operas, back in the beginning, I don't really think he knew what he was letting himself in for. Gilbert certainly could be a tartar. When one of the principal sopranos objected to where he had placed her on stage, with the phrase, 'But Mr. Gilbert I am not a chorus girl', he squashed the poor unfortunate with the line, 'Undoubtedly my dear, your voice is not strong enough, or you would be'.

He was, however, meticulous with his words and stage directions, especially with his more successful numbers, like this one from 'The Mikado'.

There is beauty in the bellow of the blast

Although we were now almost exclusively associated with the Savoy Operas, we did produce others- most notably 'Merrie England' and 'The Emerald Isle'. We continued to tour throughout the early years of the twentieth century, including a very successful tour of South Africa in 1904.

We were still associated most strongly with the Savoy Operas, which we continued to produce using mainly the same costumes and sets that Gilbert himself was responsible for designing. The public still enjoyed our interpretation of the operas, and so we presented them as Gilbert wanted, with his movements and 'business'; although in some of the tours the principals would insist on including new material- including new words. Some of these Gilbert saw and allowed to remain. Others were not so lucky!

One of the most popular of the operas had always been 'Iolanthe', and we always tried to include this opera in our repertoire. I believe that it is still popular today, both with audiences and with amateur societies. In fact, I believe I am correct in saying that the University of York Gilbert and Sullivan Society will be producing this Savoy Opera early next year. So what better way to end the first half of this evening's entertainment than with the finale to Act I of that opera.

Finale Act I- Young Strephon

Act II

When the buds are blossoming

Rupert D'Oyly Carte: My name is Rupert D'Oyly Carte, and I took over the management of the opera company in 1913, shortly after Helen's death. I had been involved in other theatrical productions for some years, and so the new workload came as no shock to me. However, I was appalled at the condition of both the costumes and the scenery that the company was expected to work with. I felt that both London and provincial audiences expected better, so by 1919 I had all the current operas refurbished, including 'Ruddigore', which, although it wasn't popular with audiences, still served as a programme filler.

One of the operas which was still popular was 'Trial By Jury'. Rather appropriate, as it was this opera in 1875 that first brought the names of Gilbert and Sullivan to the public's notice. Commissioned by Richard D'Oyly Carte as a programme filler, it soon became the most well-liked piece on the programme, with the others- Offenbach's 'La Perichole' and the totally forgotten 'Cryptconchoidsyphonostomata' soon disappeared from the public's attention. Although we only used the piece to pad out our programme- either with 'HMS Pinafore' or 'The Sorcerer'. In fact this next song even managed to get itself included in 'Three Men in a Boat', although in a rather roundabout way.

All hail the great Judge/ The Judge's Song

The Savoy Operas now began to reach more and more people, as the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company began to produce recordings of the more well-loved operas. Between 1919 and 1925 ten of the operas were recorded, and I believe that these recordings are still available today.

The next few years were very busy for the company, with numerous tours throughout the USA (during which some of the words had to be re-written), and continuing to tour throughout the country. Our London home was still at the Savoy, which, in the intervening years, its new owners had refurbished. The new decor certainly suited our new-look operas, although many of our critics would not agree.

A great friendship was started in 1926, when Sir Malcolm Sargent first conducted for us at the Savoy. He became a great fan of all the Savoy Operas, and had often been quoted as saying, 'Whenever I conduct a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, I feel twenty years younger'. 'Flash', as he was known to many of his fans, often came under criticism for the different speeds at which he took pieces. He was meticulous, however, in always referring back to Sullivan's original manuscripts for the different tempi and dynamics.

1938 was an exciting year for us. Interest in Gilbert and Sullivan operas in America was at a new height, following our tour in 1934, and so it was decided to film 'The Mikado'- certainly the most popular of the shows. It was not a critical success, something which I think was due to the fact that there were two American 'stars' singing the leads, and the total omission of some of the best songs- including 'The little list' and 'Beauty in the bellow of the blast'.

When the Second World War broke out, we were, like all other theatrical entertainments, disbanded for some time, but during the war continued to tour with six of the operas throughout the country. This didn't include 'Ruddigore', 'The Sorcerer', 'HMS Pinafore' and 'Princess Ida' as the scenery for these was destroyed during the first few years of the Blitz. This is rather ironic, since just before the declaration of war being announced, Princess Ida was playing and we were in the middle of that famous chorus 'Order comes to fight, Ha! Ha! Order is obeyed'. We are not going to hear that now, but instead the finale of Act II- the middle of the opera.

Finale Act II- Oh! Joy, our chief is saved

Dame Bridget D'Oyly Carte: Rupert died in 1948, and I took over the operation of the company in that year. I had been working closely with my father in the running of the company for some years. I felt that throughout my time with the company, that the operas were as close to the original productions as Gilbert had intended. We had already introduced the new productions of HMS Pinafore and Ruddigore, and in 1957, the new production of Princess Ida entered our repertoire. The strange scenery and vivid costumes did not suit everyone, and to be perfectly honest I don't think that Sir William Gilbert would have approved either!

The recordings that my father had initiated had sold well, and between 1949 and 1959, they were all re-recorded with a largely new company, led by Peter Pratt singing the 'patter song' roles. We had also been involved with another film, 'The Story of Gilbert & Sullivan', which received greater success than 'The Mikado', perhaps due to better planning and the introduction of Peter Finch as D'Oyly Carte, Mobert Morely as Gilbert and Maurice Evans as Sullivan. Many scenes in the film demanded that we present pieces in the same way as Gilbert had planned them.

Three little maids

In 1959 a new principal came to the company, who was to become a stalwart member- John Reed. Along with other members, John Ayldon, Donald Adams, Valerie Masterson, Gillian Knight and Kenneth Sandford, he produced a series of performances which many still think are the definitive ones for the Savoy Operas. How well I remember one story that Kenneth Sandford told me. It was during a provincial tour of 'Ruddigore' in Act II when he, as Despard Murgatroyd, and Mad Margaret had to perform a series of strange dances. One of the traditional motions was using the umbrella he carried, which had a sharp spike on the end. This he would stick into the stage for 'comical effect'. He told me it was only halfway through the first chorus that he realised the stage was of concrete, and it would take more than his strength to drive the prop into it!

In 1962 and 1964, we were obliged to appear at the Tower of London, presenting (of course) 'The Yeomen of the Guard'. This surprised some people, since the copyright expired in 1961, and some felt other, more operatic companies would be able to present a better production. This did not stop us from presenting a special version of 'Patience' on the relatively new medium of television. It is from that opera that we present our next piece, 'In a doleful train'.

In a doleful train

I remember when we were travelling with that show when, half-jokingly I hope, we were contacted by someone who pointed out that we could be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act since, he said, there were never twenty rapturous maidens on stage. My stage manager pointed out that nowhere in the song did it state that all twenty had to be on stage at the same time! I must admit, there was no reference in the gentleman's complaint about whether or not he thought that all of the ladies had to be maidens!

We repeated 'The Mikado' film in 1967- with more success this time- as well as touring throughout America during the winter months. There were several Command Performances- most notably, 'The Gondoliers' for Her Majesty in 1968 and 1976. In 1975 we celebrated our centenary, with a special production of 'Utopia Ltd'. Other plans for a production of 'The Grand Duke' had to be cancelled due to rising costs, although a recording featuring John Reed was produced. This made him the only principal of our opera company to have made recordings of all the operas.

Other companies were still producing their own types of Gilbert and Sullivan, including many amateur societies. One professional company, which achieved great success with 'The Pirates of Penzance' was Joseph Papp's company in America, and although many people enjoyed it, I can't help but have a soft spot for our more traditional production.

Poor wand'ring one

In the late 1970s and early 80s, the D'Oyly Carte Company found it more and more difficult to meet the costs of travelling throughout the country. We had some interesting meetings with the Arts Council for funding as the National Light Opera Company, and we were going to tour in 1981 as such, presenting both Gilbert & Sullivan and other operas, when the Arts Council withdrew their backing. Although stalwart efforts by our fans and members were tried, it was not possible for the company to continue, and in February 1982 (incidentally, on the 10th anniversary of this Society), we held our last performance as the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. We finished our 103 years with this piece of music, the finale to Act II of HMS Pinafore.

Rupert: It gives one the chance of shining right through the twentieth century with a reflected light.
Helen: Now with the continuation of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas by both professional and amateur societies…
Bridget: That reflected light will always illuminate three names…
Richard: Gilbert…
Helen: Sullivan…
All 4: And D'Oyly Carte.

Finale Act II- Oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen

Encore- Dance a cachucha



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