Saturday 21 April 2018

Richard D'Oyly Carte: man who brought opera to masses

Richard D'Oyly Carte
Richard D'Oyly Carte

George Hamilton

It was on this day 170 years ago that a man of considerable note in the field of English opera was born. Not a composer, performer, or singer, mind you. This was an impresario, the man without whom there would have been no Gilbert and Sullivan.

Not that there hadn't been English opera before. A composer called John Blow had staged the first fully-sung opera in English in the 1680s and his Venus and Adonis was part of the inspiration that brought Henry Purcell's only opera – Dido and Aeneas – to the public in 1689.

Thomas Arne's first opera Rosamond premiered in 1733, but this was something of a straw in the wind. London audiences were mad for Italian opera, and there was a top man in town who would give them just that, the émigré German Georg Friedrich Händel, whose productions – sung in Italian – could have come straight from Naples or Rome.

Richard D'Oyly Carte was just made for the music business. He was born in Soho in London's West End on Friday, May 3, 1840, his father a flute player, whose day job was in a firm that made the instruments. Rudall Rose Carte & Co brought the first saxophones to England.

The D'Oyly part of the name came the mother's side. Her grandmother's roots were in Normandy.

The young Richard dabbled in songwriting himself, and he staged several operettas. But it was as a manager that he had his real success. He ran a talent agency – Oscar Wilde and Charles Gounod were among his clients – and he was in charge at a West End theatre as well.

He already rated Arthur Sullivan, the son of an Irish bandmaster, as a composer, and he'd seen a production of Sullivan's first operatic collaboration with a London lyricist called William Schwenck Gilbert.

This was Thespis – a Christmas entertainment – that ran until the March, but was then forgotten, as was the idea of a partnership between Gilbert and Sullivan. But D'Oyly Carte reckoned they had something, and brought them together again to compose a one-acter to go along with a performance of Offenbach's short opera La Périchole. This was Trial by Jury, and before long, it was the talk of the town.

D'Oyly Carte had a hit combination on his hands.

The Sorcerer, HMS Pinafore, and The Pirates of Penzance followed.

They were doing so well that D'Oyly Carte built the Savoy Theatre as a home stage for Gilbert and Sullivan. The ever-popular Mikado was first staged at the Savoy in 1885.

So successful was the collaboration, D'Oyly Carte was able to fund the building of Britain's first luxury hotel, also called the Savoy, next door. The two venues are still landmarks on London's Strand, while the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company has promoted the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan for well over a century.

Richard D'Oyly Carte himself died in 1901, just a month before his 57th birthday.


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