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Richard D’Oyly Carte
By Paul Seeley
Published 2018, 177pp
ISBN 978-1-138-48628-7

One might think that all has been said about this outstanding Victorian entrepreneur in the vast number of books written about Gilbert and Sullivan. However, previous focus has always been on this man’s dealings surrounding an opera company that bears his name, the Savoy Theatre and the adjoining Savoy Hotel. Paul Seeley’s fresh research has shown that this is far from the truth. This book uncovers a much fuller and rather different perspective on the events that took place leading up to the Savoy operas and beyond.

This enjoyably readable account puts everything in context, contains interesting incidentals and shows how D’Oyly Carte’s early interests and training allowed him to operate a number of companies simultaneously and with unparalleled success. To build a theatre is sufficient for one man’s capabilities in life, but to build two, add an hotel and run both an opera company and theatrical agency has to be an immense achievement for any living person, yet despite bringing large sums of money into Britain from overseas tours and royalties, Richard D’Oyly Carte was never knighted.

New research provides an intriguing examination of D’Oyly Carte’s background and family and clearly explains how the name ‘D’Oyly’ came into being. His schooling was sound and he matriculated from University College, London, but instead of taking up his place for the degree course there he decided to join his father’s theatrical agency. He had been brought up speaking French at home, so the reading of French libretti to assess their worth for staging posed no difficulty. He became a small-time writer of plays and operettas himself. All prepared him well for his later work as a theatre manager and starting an opera company. He was not afraid of raising finance or spending money, yet could be equally thrifty. I expected to see mention of an association with German Reed’s ‘Gallery of Illustration’ since their style of ‘respectable presentation’ and involvement of like-minded writers and composers would have focused on how his and Gilbert’s interests were to develop.

The amount of research done by Seeley is outstanding, as it goes back to first principles to fill in numerous gaps left by previous authors. Quite rightly, it regards Rollins & Witts as invariably inaccurate when it comes to the provision of foundational material. We hear about a number of occasions when the Savoy Theatre was dark and how Carte would engage friends like the Carl Rosa Opera and Saxe-Coburg Court companies to fill the void. It is not widely known that Helen Carte took over the running of the Company before The Grand Duke production was staged when husband Richard became ill. After Richard’s death, Helen, who had sold of two of the three companies, was persuaded to bring back the Savoy Operas to the Savoy Theatre; this she did by renewing the royalties paid to Gilbert and have him direct key rehearsals for her special 1906 and 1908 seasons. Seeley observes that Helen’s management was quite unlike that of her husband, as she preferred to employ mature singers mainly past their prime, whereas Richard had previously always tried to employ a youthful company.

A quite extraordinary fact about the D’Oyly Cartes’ family history is that in addition to the company archives, matter-of-fact correspondence has been retained, whose inclusion adds colour and helps fill in the spaces left by previous commentators. In 1891, an auction of the Savoy Opera scenery had been a disaster when it was virtually given away, raising very little money, and Doyly Carte apparently learnt his lesson to never to repeat such a sale. Consequently, it comes now as a surprise to learn that two costume auctions were held after 1891; one assumes that they did not share the same fate.

I had hoped that more photographs, particularly key portraits, and ground plans (to expand on the English Opera House site description) might have been included to amplify the narrative. Inclusion of the D’Oyly Carte family tree (formerly in Peter Parker’s collection) could have been of interest in such an exacting biograph and where space permits the publishers might have considered enlarging some of the pictures showing fine detail to better sit on the page but overall Seeley’s easy style provides a ‘good read’ and uncovers fascinating detail.

Raymond J Walker

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