Richard D'Oyly Carte - Career - Peak Years For The Opera Company

Peak Years For The Opera Company

During the years when the Gilbert and Sullivan operas were being written, Richard D'Oyly Carte also produced operas and plays by other writing teams, as well as other works to fill the Savoy Theatre in between new operas. Many of these were companion pieces to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, as the Victorian audiences preferred long evenings in the theatre. Some, however, were new full-length pieces either for the Savoy or for Carte's touring companies, which toured the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and these new works, extensively. Carte and Lenoir also continued to run his management agency. As an example of their level of activity, an 1881 souvenir programme commemorating the 250th performance of Patience in London and its 100th performance in New York states that, in addition to these two productions of Patience, Carte was simultaneously producing many other projects. These included two companies touring with Patience, two touring with other Gilbert and Sullivan operas, one touring with the operetta Olivette (co-produced with Charles Wyndham), one with Claude Duval in America, a production of Youth running at a New York theatre, a lecture tour by Archibald Forbes (a war correspondent) and productions of Patience, Pirates, Claude Duval and Billee Taylor in association with J. C. Williamson in Australia, among other things.

Carte also introduced the practice of licensing amateur theatrical societies to present works for which he held the rights, increasing the works' popularity and the sales of scores and libretti, as well as the rental of band parts. This had an important influence on amateur theatre in general. Cellier and Bridgeman wrote in 1914 that, prior to the creation of the Savoy operas, amateur actors were treated with contempt by professionals. After the formation of amateur Gilbert and Sullivan companies licensed to perform the operas, professionals recognised that the amateur societies "support the culture of music and the drama. They are now accepted as useful training schools for the legitimate stage, and from the volunteer ranks have sprung many present-day favourites." Cellier and Bridgeman attributed the rise in quality and reputation of the amateur groups largely to "the popularity of, and infectious craze for performing, the Gilbert and Sullivan operas". The National Operatic and Dramatic Association was founded in 1899. It reported, in 1914, that nearly 200 British societies were producing Gilbert and Sullivan operas that year.

After Patience, Carte produced Iolanthe, which opened in 1882. During its run, in February 1883, Carte signed a five-year partnership agreement with Gilbert and Sullivan, obliging them to create new operas for him upon six months' notice. Sullivan had not intended to immediately write a new work with Gilbert, but he suffered a serious financial loss when his broker went bankrupt in November 1882 and must have felt the long-term contract necessary for his security. Gilbert scholar Andrew Crowther comments, "Effectively, made Carte's employees – a situation which created its own resentments." The partnership's next opera, Princess Ida, opened in January 1884. Carte soon saw that Ida was running weakly at the box office and invoked the agreement to call upon his partners to write a new opera. The musical establishment constantly pressured Sullivan to abandon comic opera in favour of serious music, and after he was knighted in 1883, the pressure only increased. He soon regretted having signed the five-year contract. In March 1884, Sullivan told Carte that "it is impossible for me to do another piece of the character of those already written by Gilbert and myself."

During this conflict and others during the 1880s, Carte and Helen Lenoir frequently worked to smooth over the partners' differences using a mixture of friendship and business acumen. Sullivan asked to be released from the partnership on several occasions. Nevertheless, Carte was able to coax eight comic operas out of his partners in the 1880s. When Princess Ida closed after a comparatively short run of nine months, for the first time in the partnership's history, the next opera was not ready. Gilbert first suggested a plot in which people fell in love against their wills after taking a magic lozenge – a scenario that Sullivan had previously rejected. Gilbert eventually came up with a new idea and began work in May 1884.

Carte produced the first revival of The Sorcerer, together with Trial by Jury, and matinees of The Pirates of Penzance played by a cast of children, while he waited for his partners to finish writing the new work. This became the partnership's most successful opera, The Mikado, which opened in March 1885. The piece satirised British institutions by setting them in a fictional Japan and took advantage of the Victorian craze for the exotic and "picturesque" Far East. The Mikado became the partnership's longest-running hit, lasting for 672 performances at the Savoy Theatre, and supplanting Patience as the second-longest-running work of musical theatre up to that time. It was extraordinarily popular in the U.S. and worldwide and remains the most frequently performed Savoy Opera.

The partnership's next opera was Ruddigore, which opened in January 1887. The piece, though a financial success, was a relative disappointment after the extraordinary run of The Mikado. When Ruddigore closed after nine months, Carte mounted revivals of earlier Gilbert and Sullivan operas at the Savoy for almost a year. After another attempt by Gilbert to persuade Sullivan to set a "lozenge plot", Gilbert met his collaborator half way by writing a serio-comic plot for The Yeomen of the Guard, which premiered in October 1888. The opera ran for over a year, with strong New York and touring productions. This was a happy time for Carte, with a long-running opera, new marriage and new hotel and opera house under construction. When Carte asked his partners for a new work, Sullivan again expressed reluctance to write another comic opera, asking if Gilbert would write a "dramatic work on a larger musical scale". Gilbert declined but offered a compromise that Sullivan ultimately accepted: the two would write a light opera for the Savoy, and at the same time, Sullivan could work on a grand opera that Carte would produce at a new theatre he was planning to build to present British grand opera. The new comic opera was The Gondoliers, which opened in December 1889 and became one of the partnership's greatest successes.

During these years, Carte was not just the manager of the theatre. He was a full participant in the producing partnership with Gilbert and Sullivan, involved in casting and finding designers; in charge of publicity; directing and hiring designers for the non-Gilbert works, including the many companion pieces (sometimes with the help of assistants); and casting, directing and rehearsing the touring companies, among other duties. According to Henry Lytton, "Mr. Carte was a great stage manager. He could take in the details of a scene with one sweep of his eagle eye and say unerringly just what was wrong." The quality of Carte's productions created a national and international taste for them, and he sent touring companies throughout the British provinces, to America (generally managed by Helen), Europe and elsewhere. Queen Victoria honoured the company by calling for a Royal Command Performance of The Gondoliers at Windsor Castle in 1891. Following the libretto closely, she noticed additions to the text made by some of the actors and asked Carte to explain why this was done. Carte replied that they "are what we call 'gags'". The queen answered that she had always understood that "gags were things that were put by authority into people's mouths." Carte rejoined, "These gags, Your Majesty, are things people put into their own mouths without authority." George Bernard Shaw, writing in The World in October 1893, stated:

Those who are old enough to compare the Savoy performances with those of the dark ages, taking into account the pictorial treatment of the fabrics and colors on the stage, the cultivation and intelligence of the choristers, the quality of the orchestra, and the degree of artistic good breeding, so to speak, expected from the principals, best know how great an advance has been made by Mr. D'Oyly Carte.

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