The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company

Dozens of people have been described as “the fifth Beatle,” but if there were a “third Gilbert & Sullivan,” it unquestionably would be Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901).  Theater manager, booking agent, impresario, theater owner and hotelier, he brought Gilbert & Sullivan together in 1875, hired them to write operas for him in 1876 and was their business partner between 1877 and 1890, years which not-so-coincidentally represented the golden age of the Savoy operas.

In later years, envious rivals would sneer that Richard D’Oyly Carte was really “Richard Doyle McCarthy,” but in reality the name he used in business was his own.  The son of Richard Carte, a flutist and principal in the company Rudall, Rose & Carte, music publishers and makers of musical instruments, the younger Carte used his middle name professionally to avoid confusion with his father.  “R. D’Oyly Carte” was the name under which he joined the family firm and tried his hand at composing, including three operettas: Doctor Ambrosias: His Secret (1868), Marie (1871) and Happy Hampstead (1876), and at conducting.  He also appeared as an actor with several amateur theater companies.

However, Carte’s gifts ran in the direction of business, not music.  In the early 1870s, first working within what was by now Rudall, Carte & Co. and then on his own, the younger Carte launched a booking agency for operas, concerts and lectures that would remain his primary business for some years.  He would ultimately have some 200 clients, including such still-known names as composers Charles Gounod and Jacques Offenbach, performers George Grossmith, Adelina Patti and Clara Schumann, painter James McNeil Whistler and poet/playwright Oscar Wilde.

Simultaneously he was launching himself as a producer, leasing the Opera Comique in London and staging a series of translations of French operas in 1874.  In the program for the second of these, he proclaimed his hopes in bold terms: “It is my desire to establish in London a permanent abode for light Opera.”  He would achieve that goal, but not at the Opera Comique.

Among the clients of Carte’s booking agency was the opera singer Selina Dolaro, who had leased the Royalty Theatre to star in Offenbach’s La Perichole.  After the failure of Carte’s Opera Comique plan, she hired him to manage the Royalty for her.  Among his duties: to put together a one-act curtain-raiser to fill out the bill in support of La Perichole.

Carte had an idea for where to start.  He had conducted Cox and Box (1866), the F.C. Burnand/Arthur Sullivan one-act, on tour a few years before, and had felt that its music was of an uncommonly high order.  He had also seen and admired Thespis (1871), the first Gilbert & Sullivan collaboration, and saw Sullivan as a possible key to his longer-term ambitions.

Meanwhile, Gilbert had pitched him a one-act operetta called Trial by Jury while Carte was running the Opera Comique; that venture failed before he could take advantage of it, but he remembered Gilbert and Trial by Jury—Carte always remembered everything—and the thought of pairing Gilbert and Sullivan was a natural one.

Trial by Jury debuted on March 25, 1875, and became a tremendous sensation—so much so that it eclipsed La Perichole, and became a hit in its own right.   Never one to let grass grow under his feet, Carte immediately moved to exploit his opening.

He quickly assembled a group of investors to form the Comedy Opera Company, again leasing the Opera Comique.  His first thought was a revival of Thespis, but his partners felt that an original work would have a greater chance of success.  Accordingly Carte signed Gilbert and Sullivan to write a new opera, which turned out to be The Sorcerer (1877).

The financial terms were good, but most significant was that Carte assured both men of complete artistic independence:  Gilbert would have to satisfy Sullivan, and Sullivan would have to satisfy Gilbert, but neither would have to satisfy Carte or anybody else.  This extended to casting:  Unlike Thespis or Trial by Jury, Gilbert and Sullivan would not have to accept a resident company, but could find performers whom they both found suitable.  That arrangement would continue throughout the collaboration between Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte, and would be the foundation of their success.

The Sorcerer was a hit, and Gilbert and Sullivan readily agreed to follow it with another new opera, which turned out to be H.M.S. Pinafore (1878).  After initially slow business, the new opera turned into an international sensation—and, as a result, a casus belli that would lead to years of conflict.

Carte had never regarded the Comedy Opera Company or the Opera Comique as more than means to an end.  He didn’t want to head a partnership—he wanted to own a business, to define the terms on which his dream of an English school of comic opera would be launched.  He therefore proposed to Gilbert and to Sullivan a bold scheme which, if it worked, would achieve most of what he aspired to.

Carte’s plan was based on his faith that what they had done so far was nothing more than a beginning for Gilbert & Sullivan.  He proposed that H.M.S. Pinafore be the last venture of the Comedy Opera Company.  Carte would launch a new company, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and lease the Opera Comique under that name, and commission Gilbert & Sullivan to write a successor for H.M.S. Pinafore, which proved to be The Pirates of Penzance (1880).

He wanted something more from Gilbert & Sullivan, though:  He wanted them to commit not only to a new opera, but to a series of new operas reaching into the undefined future, with each new opera to be begun whenever Carte gave the author and composer word that a new one would be needed six months later.  He already had in mind the idea of building a new theater of his own, and he wanted Gilbert & Sullivan to be its house creative team.

To persuade them to make so massive a commitment, he offered them something that they couldn’t get elsewhere: a true partnership.  Gilbert & Sullivan would run the artistic end, Carte would run the business end and each man would receive one-third of the profits.  If they could produce another H.M.S. Pinafore—or, why not, a series of Pinafores?—this deal would make them rich men.

Neither Gilbert nor Sullivan had any relationship with the other partners in the Comedy Opera Company—their dealings had been entirely with Carte—so they agreed.

Carte’s partners were, predictably, incensed.  They responded by attempting to squeeze Carte out of the partnership, abandon the Opera Comique and take H.M.S. Pinafore elsewhere.  This effort began with tense negotiations, proceeded to legal sparring and culminated in a raid on the Opera Comique during which a gang of men hired by Carte’s enraged partners attempted to carry off the show’s scenery and props.  They were repelled, but nonetheless the former partners launched their own version of H.M.S. Pinafore at the Imperial Theatre and, later, at the Olympic; it ran for 91 performances (versus the original’s 571), but eventually fizzled out.

It would be two years before the legal battle wound down, but in the end the obvious prevailed:  Carte had Gilbert and Sullivan firmly in his corner, and without them the Comedy Opera Company didn’t amount to much.  The Pirates of Penzance duly opened at the Opera Comique on April 3, 1880, under the auspices of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and became another smash.  Patience (1881) followed suit.

By that time Carte’s dream theater, the Savoy, was well underway, and Patience was transferred there, amid much pomp and circumstance, on October 10, 1881.  It was bigger than the Opera Comique, newer and more elegant, and it was lit by electrical lights, the first theater in London so equipped.  Its stage, orchestra pit and backstage facilities had been designed in close consultation with Gilbert & Sullivan, and it was universally agreed to be a great improvement.

It was also owned by Carte, free and clear, and leased by him to the partnership.  At the time this seemed an ideal arrangement; a decade later its flaws would become apparent.

Through the 1880s, however, everything seemed to be clicking.  Gilbert & Sullivan produced a series of brilliant operas that did, indeed, make all three men rich.  Gilbert grew as an artist, as did Sullivan, and their works became progressively deeper and more ambitious.  For his part, Carte plowed his money into a hotel adjoining the theater, and the Savoy Hotel—London’s first with electric lights and electric elevators—became the British institution that it remains to this day.

As the decade progressed, seeds of future trouble were planted.  Gilbert was happy to labor on at the Savoy indefinitely, but Sullivan felt that his art was being cheapened by steady use in light music, and itched to explore grand opera.  Carte felt the same way:  Having built a permanent abode for light opera on a distinctively English model, he now wanted to build a permanent abode for grand opera along similar lines.  His aspirations and Sullivan’s meshed, in a way that inevitably threatened to marginalize Gilbert.

In addition, the gregarious Sullivan and the sociable Carte became increasingly good friends, while Gilbert—who had few personal friends, and none in the theatrical world—remained on primarily professional terms with both men.  When Carte married his longtime assistant, Helen Cowper Black (known professionally as Helen Lenoir), in 1888, Gilbert wished them well, but Sullivan was the best man.

All of these threads came together as a fuse in 1890 when, with The Gondoliers (1889) enjoying a long run at the Savoy, Gilbert decided that the profits weren’t coming through as freely as he’d hoped, and became convinced that Carte’s expenses for the production were inflated.  He consulted the partnership’s books, and announced that he’d found numerous examples of waste and, more significantly, misappropriation of funds:  He charged, for example, that Carte had billed the partnership for carpets in the Savoy’s lobby and corridors, which—since they weren’t production costs—shouldn’t be billed to the partnership but rather covered by Carte in his capacity as landlord.

This dispute might have been settled quietly and amicably, but Gilbert was in no mood to be either, and Carte resented the aspersions on his integrity.  The matter ended up in court, where—to Gilbert’s dismay—Sullivan offered cautious, carefully worded testimony that tried hard not to offend … but ultimately sided with Carte.

Carte felt unappreciated by Gilbert, who in a meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Carte had famously said that, while he knew what he and Sullivan did for their shares, he wondered what Carte did for his.  Gilbert felt that Sullivan ought to have sided with him, since every extra penny he might wring from Carte would be accompanied by an extra one for Sullivan.  The composer’s overall position was a simple one:  The sums of money in dispute were trivial compared with the money that all three had made from the operas, and he felt humiliated that Gilbert had dragged them into the public eye, where all three men were the subject of mockery from humorists and cartoonists.

In the end, the court found in Gilbert’s favor, and Carte had to make payments of several thousand additional pounds to Gilbert—and, as Gilbert noted, to Sullivan as well.  Gilbert’s judgment had been vindicated by the evidence.

However, both Carte and Sullivan were also vindicated, not by the verdict but by the subsequent course of events.  Gilbert sneered at Carte, but the fact was that, from 1878 to his death in 1911, the only real theatrical successes he scored were with Carte’s management—revivals at the Savoy would be more lucrative than anything new which Gilbert wrote.  And, while Gilbert and Sullivan would reconcile their differences and write two more operas together, neither Utopia, Ltd. (1893) nor The Grand Duke (1896) would be more than a short-term success.  With each man taking pains not to offend the other, their last two operas were their longest, their most erratic and their least artistically successful.

(These operas were written under a different arrangement:  Carte and Sullivan continued as partners, but Gilbert worked on a straight royalty basis.  The royalty was pegged to provide him the same money that Sullivan or Carte would receive, but, because he was no longer sharing in the profits, he no longer was allowed to check the books.  The relationship between Gilbert and Carte would never again be better than polite but guarded, and most of Carte’s communications with the librettist went via Helen Carte, with whom Gilbert had a much better rapport.)

Carte was already at work on his grandest project, the Royal English Opera House, when the carpet quarrel blew up.  This elaborate theatrical palace was designed to be for grand opera what the Savoy had become for light opera, and Carte led with his longtime trump card: Sullivan provided the opening attraction, his first grand opera, Ivanhoe (1891).  It was a hit, and ran for a record 155 performances, but Carte had expected it to run much longer, and had no replacement ready to go.  A stopgap production of a non-English opera, Messager’s La Basoche, failed to find an audience, and Carte’s venture died with it.  He sold the theater, which today remains a London landmark as the Palace Theatre.

Throughout the 1890s, along with the runs of Utopia, Ltd. and The Grand Duke, Carte continued to mount light opera at the Savoy.  Some of these productions were successful, some weren’t (one flop, Jane Annie (1893), is most notable for its librettists, James Barrie and Arthur Conan Doyle), but the only substantial Savoy operas during those years came from Sullivan, who remained loyal to his friend and wrote Haddon Hall (1892) with Sydney Grundy, The Chieftain (1894, an expansion of The Contrabandista, an 1867 one-act) with F.C. Burnand, The Beauty Stone (1898) with Arthur Wing Pinero and J. Comyns Carr, The Rose of Persia (1899) with Basil Hood and The Emerald Isle (1901), again with Hood and completed after Sullivan’s death by Edward German.

Between these ventures, however, Carte (and Helen Carte, who took an increasingly prominent role in the company in the late 1890s as her husband’s health failed) turned to revivals of the classic Gilbert & Sullivan operas of the 1870s and 1880s, which proved as popular as ever.  Only Utopia, Ltd. and The Rose of Persia came even close to the appeal of The Mikado or H.M.S. Pinafore, even in revivals.

Carte died in 1901, barely three months after Sullivan had.  Helen Carte took over full operation of the company, initially producing some new operas in addition to revivals.  In 1906, however, she produced a full season of Gilbert & Sullivan revivals, all directed by Gilbert, and scored a tremendous success.  From then onward, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company staged no further original productions, but maintained touring productions of Gilbert & Sullivan and periodic seasons in London.  Helen Carte died in 1913, leaving the company to her stepson, Rupert D’Oyly Carte (whose mother was Carte’s first wife, Blanche, who had died in 1885).

During World War I the company’s operations were limited to touring, but in 1919 Rupert Carte brought his father’s opera company back to London, and a Gilbert & Sullivan revival began.  He commissioned new sets and costumes, and made cuts in some of the less-popular operas, while retaining the original staging and many of the company’s established stars.  He oversaw the company’s venture into recordings, which proved lucrative, and also a redesign and expansion of the Savoy Theatre in 1929.  His series of American tours in the 1930s won the company new audiences and spurred a Gilbert & Sullivan boom in America that continues to the present day.

Rupert Carte died in 1948, and his daughter Bridget D’Oyly Carte took the helm, remaining in charge until 1982, when the company closed after 107 years.  There have been occasional revivals of the name, but without most of the distinguishing features that defined the old company, notably its continuity in personnel, sets, costumes and staging.

The legacy of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company is mixed.  Until 1961 it controlled the British copyrights of the operas, ensuring that no other professional productions would be mounted—but encouraged amateur productions, on the premise (entirely borne out)  that amateur productions would only build the popularity of the operas and the audiences for the touring professional productions.  It operated as a repertory company, requiring its members to commit for years at a time, and proclaimed its devotion to the traditional performance style of the operas.

That the Cartes were a dominant force in the development of a worldwide fan base for the operas, though their touring and their recordings, is undeniable.  To many in the world, the words “Gilbert & Sullivan” and “D’Oyly Carte” were interchangeable, to the extent that many predicted that the expiration of the copyright in 1961 would lead to the end of Gilbert & Sullivan as the world had known it.  That didn’t prove to be the case: There were competing professional productions, but the 1960s proved to be among the company’s most successful decades.

It is impossible to say what the legacy of Gilbert & Sullivan might have been without the presence of the Carte company, but it is fair to note that the company’s insistence on traditional performance ensured that the words “Gilbert & Sullivan” and “old-fashioned” also would seem interchangeable, in a way that the words “Shakespeare” and “old-fashioned” do not.

In 1980, as the Carte company was struggling with the financial woes that would bring it down two years later,  a production of The Pirates of Penzance opened at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s summer stage in Central Park.  With the exception of the interpolation of a song apiece from H.M.S. Pinafore and Ruddigore, it remained faithful to Gilbert’s words and Sullivan’s music, but director Wilford Leach staged it with a broad, dynamic vigor and liberal doses of slapstick humor.  It was a sensation, and in 1981 it moved to Broadway with the same cast and staging.  It again became a smash, winning Tony Awards as Best Revival and for Leach as Best Director of a Musical, and was still running merrily the next year, when the D’Oyly Carte breathed its last.  It opened in London in May 1982, again to rapturous acclaim, and ran for 606 performances (versus the original’s run of 363).  It has remained a mainstay of English community theater ever since.

If the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company had been open to productions that, while broadly faithful to the originals, brought new life and freshness to the Savoy operas, would the company still be with us today?  It is impossible to say.  What can be said for certain is that the success of the “Broadway Pirates” in London, months after the demise of the Carte company, demonstrates that there was and is a continuing appreciation for Gilbert & Sullivan’s operas.

The repertory-company aspect of the D’Oyly Carte was another major obstacle to the company’s long-term viability.  Its would-be stars were expected to start in the chorus and work their way up over the course of years, “paying their dues” and absorbing the company’s traditional style.  This meant that those who made it to the top were very good at what they did, and many of them became beloved icons to G&S fans everywhere; but it also ensured that actors and singers who loved Gilbert & Sullivan but weren’t prepared to devote years of their career exclusively to it—who had the talent to make lots of money on the West End, on Broadway or in Hollywood, instead of trifling amounts singing choruses in high-school auditoriums on tour—would never be seen in D’Oyly Carte productions, or most likely in Gilbert & Sullivan at all.

We happen to know what Groucho Marx’s Ko-ko might have been like, thanks to an NBC production in 1960, but we never saw his Major-General or his Bunthorne—and Marx was a rabid Gilbert & Sullivan devotee.  So was Danny Kaye, and we never saw his Robin Oakapple or his John Wellington Wells.  We never heard Julie Andrews as Mabel or Josephine, Robert Lindsay as Sir Despard or King Gama, Anthony Newley as Jack Point or Grosvenor, Stanley Holloway as Dick Deadeye or the Sergeant …

All of that is speculative, and can never be resolved.  The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company was what it was, and it accomplished the many things that it did because that’s what it was.  That’s inarguable.  That its self-imposed limitations defined what it was, and to much of the world defined what Gilbert & Sullivan was, is also inarguable.  Whether one outweighs the other, or whether it might have been possible to have more accomplishments with fewer limitations, is impossible to say.

It’s tantalizing, though, to think about.


%d bloggers like this: