Richard D'Oyly Carte
"When there was any fighting, he led his regiment from behind - he found it less exciting."

Picture of Richard D'Oyly Carte

Richard D'Oyly Carte

Without Richard D'Oyly Carte there would have not been any Gilbert and Sullivan Operas. Carte's unique combination of musical knowledge and business sense not only made a beginning possible but he formed a basis from which the whole combination could stand permanently.

Richard D'Oyly Carte was born in Soho on May 3rd, 1844. Sullivan was two and Gilbert was eight. Carte's father, also named Richard, was a partner in an instrument making firm, Rudall, Carte and Company. This company was responsible for bringing the recent invention of the saxophone to England for the first time. The elder Carte was a flute player, and had always been in the music business one way or another. Richard grew up in a family that was familiar with the arts and other cultures. Their house was always filled with musicians, poets, painters and other artists.

While Sullivan was singing in the Chapel Royal, Carte entered the University School of London. He, however, wanted to take a serious part in his father's business and so he left University before completing the course. All through his life he showed his mastery of the business of theater and culture in general. College education would not help him in this respect.

Carte was a bit of an amateur composer himself. At the age of twenty-four he wrote a score for a comic-opera, Doctor Ambrosias - His Secret. Other operettas followed over the next few years. Marie in 1871 and Happy Hampstead in 1877. Throughout his life his dream was to establish a vehicle for getting English Opera and Operetta onto the stage.

His career started by the establishment of an operatic and concert management agency near his father's shop. This little office grew large and important enough to handle some of the best performers who visited England. This clients included Adelina Patti, Oscar Wilde and Charles Gounod.

At an early stage in the business Carte hired a young girl to run the office. She was Helen Cowper-Black, or Helen Lenoir. She married Carte in 1888 and took over the running of the Opera company after his death in 1901.

Picture of Helen Lenoir

In 1870 Carte suggested to Sullivan that he compose a comic-opera. The composer was far too involved in oratorio for any interest in that avenue. So Carte composed one himself but nothing came of it. Then he saw Thespis. John Hollingshead had brought Sullivan and Gilbert for their first production. It was a flop but Carte saw something in this combination and kept the thought at the back of his head for four years.

In 1875 Carte became the business manager of a little theatre in Soho, the Royalty. It was Carte's plan to build up a repertory of comic operas. He began with Offenbach's La Périchole, which would be the first performance in England. As it was too short a work for one evening he needed something else, preferably English.

Gilbert had a script which had originally been expanded from one of his Bab Ballads. It was called Trial by Jury. Carte immediately suggested that they approach Sullivan to compose the score. Gilbert agreed. Thus

the triumphant triple career of Gilbert, Sullivan and D'Oyly Carte began.

Trial by Jury was such a success that it embarrassed its partner, La Périchole, which Carte soon replaced with a less famous English work. The run could have gone on and on had not the leading man, Fred Sullivan, the composer's brother, taken sick. The production could not continue for he had a superb comic technique around which he had built the characterization of The Learned Judge.

Picture of Fred Sullivan

With a success on his hands carte had no trouble interesting a few people to back a large company which would devoted to the production of english comic-operas. He formed the Comedy Opera Company, which leased the Opéra Comique. He commissioned new works. There were three teams: Burnard and Cellier, Albery and Clay and Gilbert and Sullivan. The first two produced nothing much of note, but the last brought out The Sorcerer late in 1877.

The cast for this first opera was chosen with an eye towards future productions, and the personalities of the people thus hired helped to determine the types of characters in later plays. Gilbert and Sullivan were allowed free reign, with no interference in matters of script, casting, rehearsal or production. carte managed the business of the theatre with an efficiency that rendered its mechanics invisible to the authors.

After The Sorcerer came H.M.S. Pinafore, which sailed along so merrily that a touring company was sent to the United States to produce an authorized version there under the personal supervision of Gilbert and Sullivan. There were several versions of Pinafore going on already in New York and Philadelphia, and there was no legal way to stop them. But when the real thing hit the Fifth Avenue Theatre, the American's flocked to see the authorized production. Things went so well that the authors premiered their next work in New York. There was a single performance in England for copyright purposes.

The climax of the early period of Gilbert and Sullivan was Patience. This was Gilbert's satire on L'Art Nouveau, in which Oscar Wilde figured importantly. carte discussed the possibility of an American tour with Wilde, pointing out that the forthcoming opera would contribute to the artistic causes that Wilde toyed with and that it might increase the size of his own audience. Wilde did undertake the tour and he became a travelling advertisement for the opera that would follow.

Picture of Oscar Wilde

Patience was an immediate success and Carte decided that a new theatre was necessary. It was not a Company matter; he would build it with his own money and lease it to the Company t a rate lower than it was actually worth. On the 10th of October the Savoy Theatre opened with a redressed production of Patience.

Carte's theatre seated 1292 people and was the first public building to be lit entirely by electricity. There were 1200 bulbs in the house powered by a steam generator in a separate building The savoy Theatre was a success. Carte later built a hotel next door.

During the period of Princess Ida, The Mikado and Ruddigore, the two authors began to have personal difficulties that tended to stretch their working relations to a dangerous point. Carte, although he sometimes sided with Sullivan, managed to keep himself pretty well out of it. Gilbert continually interfered with his part of the operation by demanding to be allowed to approve and disapprove of every business expense.

In 1888 carte married the girl who had been with him in the business from the beginning, Helen Lenoir. They lived ion a very large, very fashionable house. This included the first private lift.

At the time of The Yeomen of the Guard the relationship between the author and the composer began to deteriorate. Carte had to keep the peace and get the two to work together again.

What finally accomplished the reconciliation was Carte offering to stage the first English grand opera and to get Sullivan to compose the first work. Sullivan jumped at the chance and also allowed him to work on another comic opera with Gilbert. They decided on The Gondoliers and the rift was temporary healed.

When the expenses for The Gondoliers were tallied, Gilbert exploded. He objected to the costs of several items including £500 for a carpet in the front of the house! He could not see why the company should be responsible for the expeneses of the building Carte owned. Carte argued that was normal for a lesse to return a building to its owner in the condition in which he found it, and thta therefore the carpets that hd been worn down by the thousands who came to see Gilbert and Sullivan productions should be replaced by the Company that benefited from the sale of those thousands of tickets. Gilbert refused to accept the argument and demanded a full accounting from Carte. Carte pointed out that he had taken all the risks of putting up the building, had rented it at a figure below the normal rental to the Company, and had even included all the profits from concessions within the theatre as part of the receipts of the producing company. He was offended by Gilbert's outburst and told him so. The affair burst into court, where Gilbert proved the legal point and Carte proved the moral one. The result was no major chnge in the financial operations of the Company.

It was Helen Lenoir who stepped into the uproar. Both had spoken in anger and both had said things that neither would have said under normal circumstances.

Gilbert would have nothing to do with the new theatre Carte built for Sullivan's serious opera. Ivanhoe played a while and died. The home of English Grand Opera would fade into relative oblivion.

The Savoy was in a bad way also. There was no new opera to replace The Gondoliers. For the first time Carte permitted a different team of authors to write for it. They brought out The Nautch Girl with music by Edward Solomon. It closed after 199 performances. There followed The Vicar of Bray, also by solomon. It did a little better, but nothing compared to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.

It 1893 the old team reunited with Utopia Ltd. Gilbert refused to work on the same contractual basis as before but preferred a definite percentage of the receipts as his share of the profits. Utopia Ltd did not last long enough to make a difference.

The last collaboration was the Grand Duke, also a failure.

The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company lived on. For a few years the money continued to flow in and Carte continued to distribute the profits as before. On the 7th of November, 1900, Carte wanted the three partners to take the stage for a bow together. He and Gilbert made it, each on canes, but Sullivan lay at home in bed in pain. He died near the end of the month.

Carte followed him, on the 3rd of April, 1901. He left his wife in charge of the Company, which she managed with continued success until her own death in 1913. His son, Rupert, then took over He rebuilt the Savoy Company. He died in 1949 and Bridget D'Oyly Carte took over, keeping the management within the family that has made the Company famous.

Without Richard D'Oyly Carte, the successes of Gilbert and Sullivan would never have taken place.

Check out the history of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company