THE D'OYLY CARTE Opera Company, after 107 years of producing virtually nothing but the comic operas of Sir W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, closed its doors in London last night, perhaps forever, a victim of what some have called "Thatchernomics," which lost the group the government stipend that permitted its continued existence. Its final performance was of one of the pair's all-time (you'll pardon the expression) greatest hits: "H.M.S. Pinafore."
To think that the D'Oyly Carte is closing forever. Somehow it is rather like the demise of a species--a whale, perhaps. You might never see one, but it is rather comforting to know there are still some out there.
D'Oyly Carte was the mother lode of Gilbert & Sullivan. It was the standard by which all other productions and phonograph records were judged. If it wasn't D'Oyly Carte, it simply wasn't the real thing. Oh we G&S aficionados (never "freaks") were some kind of snobs.
Richard D'Oyly Carte, who founded the company in 1875, had his work cut out for him. It was he who had to keep the peace between the abrasive and litigiousWilliam Schwenck Gilbert and the self-important Sir Arthur Sullivan who was always more than a little contemptuous of the comic operas that are (except for "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "The Lost Chord") his only ticket to immortality. (Queen Victoria reinforced that conviction, so you can't really blame the man for believing it.)
But D'Oyly Carte was the one who squeezed each major G&S success out of two men who, after all, never really liked each other much, and worked together as would, one would imagine, Begin and Arafat.
In recent days, maybe it is true that the old standards were getting a tad loose. Maybe it's true the venerable company had gotten a little shabby around the edges. Last time the company was in Washington, some people in the audience had trouble hearing the words as clearly as they should have. The staging seemed a bit, well, tedious.
And there were whispered complaints from cast members (you know, "don't-quote-me-but" complaints) that "the old lady" would brook no changes. The old lady was Bridget D'Oyly Carte, granddaughter of Richard, daughter of Rupert, who took over from his father. Dame Bridget insisted on precise verisimilitude. It was regarded more recently as absolute stultification.
Nevertheless, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company was a class act in its day. And even though the Joe Papps of the world will ensure the immortality of that lovable nitwit Frederic and all his pals in all those other operas, still, the loss of an institution that has provided more than 100 years of still-sharp satire and lovely, sometimes even breathtakingly beautiful music . . . well, something's wrong somewhere.
Even when the chorus seemed as ragged as the decades-old costumes, the D'Oyly Carte was a sellout everywhere it went. Last here in 1978, it still sold out the Kennedy Center. And there still were people who learned for the first time that "Hail, Hail the Gang's All Here" was really the Pirates of Penzance's "Come Friends Who Plough the Sea." You could tell from the audience buzz when it turned up in the overture. (Fancy not knowing that.) For families it was often almost a generational cult thing. You indoctrinated your kids young. Gilbert's kind of humor was important to "get." An appreciation of Sullivan's pseudo bel canto inevitably led to love of Donizetti, Verdi. . . .
And there was something special about the company. It was John Reed and Kenneth Sandford and earlier it was Martyn Green. It is impossible that any Sir Joseph Porter KCB got more "Bell Song" curtain calls than did Green that last time we saw him in New York with D'Oyly Carte some time in the early '50s, just months before the tragic accident that ended his onstage career.
It was Edith Blau who hooked me on Gilbert & Sullivan.
She was my first piano teacher, and besides "The Happy Farmer Returning From Work," she believed in rhythm sticks and flageolets (a kind of elementary recorder). And in Gilbert & Sullivan.
There we would sit, usually cross-legged on the floor, four or five of us, 8- or 9- or 10-year-olds. With our rhythm sticks (sort of fat chopsticks, I recall) we would sing and clack ". . . I'm called clack Little Buttercup clack Dear Little (clack) Buttercup clack . . ."
I remember the absolute delight with which I discovered that Sloan Square and South Kensington were really London Underground stops (". . .a ravenous horde/ and they all got on board/ at Sloan Square and South Kensington Stations"). I spent a week in London humming the Nightmare Song.
I remember using the phrase "many various ways" in a freshman English essay and having the professor call it "a bit much."
I remember singing "Dance a Cachucha" in a Woodrow Wilson High School glee club performance and feeling very superior because I knew they had changed the lines "Xeres we'll DRINK--Manzanillo, Montero . . ." to (idiotically) "Xeres we'll SING--Manzanillo, Montero . . ." and "WINE when it runs in abundance . . ." to "SONG . . ." I sang "drink" and "wine." But very, very softly.
And really, one must admit that the demise of the D'Oyly Carte company doesn't take all that away. Especially because once again there are any number of G&S productions on the boards including a "Mikado" starring William ("Cannon") Conrad and a British series of all 12 major G&S operas being filmed for (get out your Betamaxes) television, even now.
Gilbert & Sullivan, after all, are clearly immortal. And what, in the grander scheme, is one company?
Still. . . .