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The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   Richard D'Oyly Carte

Most people can quote a line or two of W.S.Gilbert's verse or hum a few bars of Arthur Sullivan's music, but while many know the name of their entrepreneur, and may have heard he once quarreled with Gilbert over a carpet, he remains a shadowy figure in the background. Little about his life or personality is known. Yet Richard D'Oyly Carte was a man of extraordinary vision, a talented musician and his business acumen set up a company which made him a richer man than his partners. On his death he left nearly a quarter of a million pounds, twice that of Gilbert's estate and four times more than Sullivan's.

Richard D'Oyly Carte was born on 3rd May 1844 in Greek Street, Soho, London. His father, Richard Carte, was a flautist and musical instrument manufacturer, a partner in the firm of Rudall, Carte and Co. The "D'Oyly", a Norman French name, came from his mother's side of the family. She was born Eliza Jones, and her father was a Welsh clergyman passionately devoted to art and literature. He did not approve of Richard Carte and Eliza was forced to elope and the couple's early married life was fraught with financial difficulties. However their only son received a good education at University College School and he showed an early aptitude for music. He initially joined his father's business but by the age of 25 had started his own theatrical and concert agency. He also had something of a musical career writing operettas1 which he also conducted.

His agency however prospered and he had an extensive list of famous clients, for whom he organised concert tours or speaking engagements. In 1874 Madame Selina Dolaro, lessee of the Royalty Theatre, engaged Carte as her manager. In January 1875 a season of Offenbach's La Périchole opened at the theatre and achieved only moderate business. Victorian audiences expected a full evening for their entertainment and the main production was usually preceded by a curtain raiser and sometimes followed by an afterpiece. Carte decided that the Offenbach could be strengthened by the addition of a new afterpiece. He was separately acquainted with both Gilbert and Sullivan, who despite having collaborated on a Christmas show in 1871 and then produced a couple of drawing room ballads, seemed to have little in common.

By 1875 Gilbert (aged 39) had progressed from being the author of cartoons and comic verse in "Fun" to a position of some eminence as a playwright. He was already staging his own dramatic works in a manner that was then considered fresh and natural. Sullivan (33) was destined for a career in serious music. By this time he had composed a symphony, several overtures (including the Overtura di Ballo), a couple of oratorios and much church music (of which his tune St. Gertrude to "Onward Christian Soldiers" is now the best known).

All this was to change when Gilbert ran into Carte one day. Carte asked if Gilbert could help him with a one act piece and the librettist happened to have a work on hand. It had begun life as a brief comic verse (a "Bab Ballad"), but he had expanded it for the stage at the request of Carl Rosa, who planned to use it as a vehicle for his wife. When Madame Rosa died the planned production was cancelled. Carte immediately proposed Sullivan as a composer and in less than a month the dramatic cantata, as it was billed, was ready. On 25th March the patrons of the Royalty Theatre enjoyed an evening which began with a comedy with the name Chryptoconchoidsymphonostomata, followed by La Périchole and capped off with Trial by Jury. The work was enthusiastically reviewed and remained on the Royalty boards after its original companion pieces finished their runs.2

Its success allowed Carte to realise something which had long been his dream, a school of English comic opera. His initial intention was to commission a variety of librettists and composers, but such was the success of the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership, he had little time to encourage others. To set up his enterprise Carte enlisted four partners, three were in the music business and the last was a manufacturer of water carts. Each man put up £500, a lease was taken out on the Opera Comique, and Carte announced the formation of The Comedy Opera Company. Gilbert and Sullivan obligingly wrote The Sorcerer , which opened in November 1877.

It returned a moderate profit and the directors of The Comedy Opera Company (who had shown some alarm about their capital) agreed to continue with a new work entitled H.M.S. Pinafore, which opened in May 1878. It proved to be an unusually hot summer and initially audiences did not respond. The directors continually got cold feet and put up closing notices several times. Finally Carte dissolved the partnership and took on the risk himself just as the box office experienced an upturn. Soon Pinafore was the hottest ticket in town and the erstwhile directors became incensed at having lost their profit. They decided that they still owned the sets and costumes and one evening during a performance sent a gang of thugs into the theatre to claim them. A pitched battle behind the scenes followed, the stage hands of the Opera Comique winning. Later Carte won a further battle in court.

Carte now formed a partnership with his author and composer. Each contributed £1000 and an agreement was drawn up in which Gilbert and Sullivan undertook to provide a new work as required on six months notice. The great Triumvirate was born! The pair wrote a stream of successes, which not only received lengthy London runs but were toured extensively throughout the British Isles, often with several companies running at once. These were billed as "Mr D'Oyly Carte's Company" until 1889, when the title The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company was introduced and so remained until 1982 when the company closed. The D'Oyly Carte Opera Trust was formed in 1961.

The operas proved equally popular in America, and to stop the numerous pirate productions, which paid no royalties to the authors, companies were sent out to tour the States too.

Soon Carte had the idea of building his own home for English Comic Opera and bought a plot of land that is now so centrally in London that it is difficult to realise it was then an open space. The area was redolent in history. In 1240 the Palace of the Savoy was built there. It became the home of the Dukes of Lancaster but was burnt down during Wat Tyler's rebellion in 1381. All that remains of the original edifice is the Chapel Royal of the Savoy.

Here Carte built the Savoy Theatre, the most modern of its time, the first in the world to be lit entirely by electricity. At the theatre's opening on 10th October 1881, only the auditorium was lit by electricity, gas lighting being employed on the stage and elsewhere. The theatre was completely lit by electricity for the first time at the matinee on 28th December 1881. To assure the audience of the safety of the new electric light, Carte made a rare appearance on the stage. He entered carrying a light globe, wrapped it in muslin and smashed it with a hammer, which obviously extinguished the light but Carte then held up the muslin to demonstrate that it was not even singed. For the first time auditorium lights could be lowered during a performance and stage lighting effects could beintroduced. Gas lamps consume oxygen and cause great heat, so the audience's comfort was greatly increased at the Savoy. Other innovations included the introduction of queues for the cheaper seating, a ban on tipping attendants, and the provision of free programmes and cloak room facilities3.

Of course electricity was not then generally available. Carte used a patch of open ground adjacent to the theatre to house a steam-driven generator which produced 120 horsepower. In 1889 this open patch was used to further glorify the D'Oyly Carte empire when he opened the Savoy Hotel. This had taken five years to build, was the first building to be entirely fireproofed, had one telephone, two "ascending rooms" (the first lifts in London) and seventy bathrooms, which caused the plumber to inquire if the expected guests were amphibious. César Ritz was placed in charge of the restaurant and his chef, Escoffier, created Peach Melba for a distinguished Australian visitor. Later a special suite of rooms was made available to Marconi for his experiments with wireless communications. The hotel is now flagship of The Savoy Group of Companies, which include Claridges and The Berkeley.4

Assisting Carte in his ventures from the time he opened his Concert Agency was a remarkable woman. Born Helen Couper Black, she was the daughter of a distinguished Scottish Judicial figure. She took honours in four subjects at London University and then went on the stage, changing her name to Lenoir. Eventually she applied for the position of secretary to Carte and soon became an indispensable business manager. In 1888 she became his second wife in a ceremony at the ancient Savoy Chapel with Sullivan as best man.

Henry Lytton, who was a member of the Savoy Companies from the 1880's until he retired in 1933, the only member of the company to be knighted for his services to Gilbert and Sullivan, wrote of her in his autobiography: "There was hardly a department of this great enterprise which did not benefit, little though the wider public knew it, from Mrs Carte's remarkable genius. It was not alone that hers was the woman's hand that lent an added tastefulness to the dressing of the productions. She was a born business woman with an outstanding gift for organisation. No financial statement was too intricate for her and no contract too abstruse. Once when I had to put put one of her letters before my legal adviser he declared firmly 'this must have been written by a solicitor'. He would not admit that any woman could draw up a document so cleverly guarded with provisos and qualifications. The New York productions of the operas were often placed in her charge."

This supreme tact often smoothed out differences between her husband and his partners. It was not, however, sufficient to avert the biggest of their problems, the carpet quarrel. When the Savoy was built the partnership agreement was redrawn and contained the following clause: "The said R. D'O.C agrees to pay each of them, the said W.S.G. and A.S., one third of the net profits earned by the representations after deducting all expenses and charges of producing the the said operas and all the performances of the same, including such expenses a rental of £4000 per annum for the Savoy Theatre and all rates, taxes, expenses of lighting repairs incidental to the performances and the rendering from time to time by ordinary wear and tear."

During the run of The Gondoliers Gilbert decided to query the accounts and was astounded at what he felt were higher than warranted production expenses. The figure that amazed him most was £140 for a new carpet for the Savoy foyer. He argued that it was not an expense "incidental to the performance" and that at any rate the clause referred to repairs, not replacements. His temper flared and after a major row he left and confidently contacted Sullivan, expecting his collaborator's backing. To his dismay Sullivan (who had little understanding of business affairs) took Carte's side and matters progressed to the point where Gilbert sued both his partners. A close examination of the books revealed a discrepancy of some £1400 which Carte was obliged to repay. This led to the partnership being dissolved with much bad grace all round. Meanwhile on stage The Gondoliers' cast were singing "Quiet calm deliberation disentangles any knot".

Sullivan's alliance with the Manager was possibly influenced by the fact that Carte was at that time engaged in building a new theatre expressly to house Sullivan's first (and as it transpired, only) grand opera. Having succeeded in his desire to promote English comic opera, Carte now felt that he could do the same with English Grand Opera and commissioned Sullivan to write what he hoped would be the first of a new school. On land purchased in Shaftesbury Avenue The Royal English Opera House was erected and Ivanhoe made a triumphant debut. It soon became obvious that this would not receive the same public favour as Sullivan's works with Gilbert and that no further operatic works would be forthcoming. Within a couple of years Carte acknowledged his failure and sold the theatre, which initially became a music hall.

The quarrel was eventually patched up and two more Gilbert and Sullivan collaborations were produced, but for the most part the Savoy housed revivals of the G. & S. works or original productions either by Sullivan without Gilbert or by a variety of other authors (including one written by J.M. Barrie and Arthur Conan Doyle), but none was a spectacular success.

Through the end of the 1890's Carte suffered ill-health and was not told in November 1900 of the death of Sulllivan. Nevertheless some days later he was found slumped by the window of his bedroom. "I have just seen the last of my old friend, Sullivan" he said as they helped him back to bed, referring to the cortège of the composer which had processed past his home. Six months later Richard D'Oyly Carte was dead.

His wife, Helen, took on the management of the opera companies. Although still doing good business in the provinces, the operas had lost popularity in London. Helen D'Oyly Carte made the bold decision to mount a repertory season of four operas in 1907. Up till then the works had been revived singly, but Helen persuaded the recently knighted Sir William Gilbert (now 71) to supervise the productions. They were a tremendous success, despite the banning of The Mikado lest it give offence to a visiting member of the Japanese royal family!

After Helen's death in 1913 her stepson, Rupert D'Oyly Carte, who had been the chairman of the hotel group since 1903 added the running of the opera company to his resposibilities. For a time Victoriana was old hat and interest in the operas faded. But in 1919 Rupert brought the touring company (another innovation, a special London company had always been cast before) into the Princes Theatre for 18 weeks in a tremendously successful season that placed the operas at the heart of British theatrical life for the next forty years. Rupert remained at the helm until 1948, when in his 70's, he died. His only son had been killed in an automobile smash some years before, so stewardship of the operas fell to his surviving daughter, Bridget.

When the copyright of the operas ran out in 1961 Miss Carte established the D'Oyly Carte Opera Trust, to which she donated the company's rights and properties, stage sets, costumes, band parts, contracts, and recording, film, and television rights, altogether said to have been worth at least £150,000, and a further £30,000 in cash; at the same time Bridget D'Oyly Carte Ltd was formed, with herself as chairman and managing director, to present the operas. In 1975 the centenary of Trial by Jury was celebrated by a two week season at the Savoy Theatre in which each of the operas was presented in chronological order to an ecstatic series of audiences drawn from G & S fans from around the world. Bridget D'Oyly Carte was made a Dame of the British Empire in honour of the occasion.

Unfortunately even in the midst of the celebrations, the future of the company was in doubt. Rising costs had taken their toll and standards were falling. Finally it was decided that the company that had been founded by Richard D'Oyly Carte a hundred years earlier could no longer be sustained and at the end of a well-attended London season the curtain was rung down on 27th February 1982. An encore awaited however. When Dame Bridget died a few years later her she left money to the D'Oyly Carte Opera Trust to reform the company. The New D'Oyly Carte was constituted not to operate continuously through the country, but to mount short seasons on fresh productions in London and major regional centres.

Contemporary accounts of Richard D'Oyly Carte depict him as both generous and mean. George Grossmith, the first of his leading men, was taken to lunch and over a plate of oysters persuaded to drop his requested salary by three guineas a week. He later calculated that over fourteen years this had cost him some £1800. Henry Lytton on the other hand records that Carte would always leave the office with a pocketful of sovereigns to pass one over to any down at heel actor he might meet. He may have drawn up his contracts with his partners to his own best advantage, but it was his foresight, planning and business acumen that made their fortunes and permitted the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas to allow their creators to shine through the twentieth century in reflected light.


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