People are always asking me what made me become the conductor of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in my younger days, why I stayed with them so long before settling down in Montreal, and whether the performances have changed much over the years.
Well, the answer to the first one is very simple. After I had graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London I needed a job and I was almost about to accept a very good offer from my native New Zealand when Sir Landon Ronald, the famous composer, in reply to a request from Mr. Rupert D'Oyly Carte, recommended me as coach and principal violin. This was in 1913 and in 1918, after I had finished my war service, I returned to the New Company (formed to tour the provinces but now disbanded) but after three months I was transferred to the First Company where I became conductor. I stayed with the company until 1929 because, it was a steady job and the work never lost its interest and freshness.
When I joined the company Fred Billington was playing the Pooh Bah roles, Henry Lytton the Ko-Ko roles, Louie Rene was the contralto (Katisha), Leicester Tunks the Mikado, Clara Dow the principal soprano and Beatrice Boarer the soubrette. The pianist was a Mrs. Russell, who had been pianist when Gilbert and Sullivan were still producing their operettas. Mrs. Russell told me that Sullivan used to arrive at the first rehearsals with the orchestration in his head and only the melody and a figured bass written down on paper. Until she learned to sight-read figured bass Sullivan used to play the accompaniment himself.
Sullivan never wrote a piano accompaniment himself and well-known London musicians used to be engaged to make the piano reductions from the full score. The old man who played first double-bass in the orchestra we used in the London season had been with Sullivan and was one of his copyists. He told me that Sullivan could score so fast that, given a three-page start, he could keep three copyists going full blast.
Because of the lack of proper copyright laws and the extent of the pirating in those days the orchestra parts were never printed and, as a matter of fact, they have never been printed to this day. After I began conducting I would notice obvious wrong notes and James Gordon, the stage director who had been with the company for years, revised the librettos while I revised the orchestra parts of the entire repertoire. Gordon was not only a direct link with Gilbert himself and familiar with all the original products. he was a fabulous student of Gilbertiana.
RULE THE ROOST?
It was discovered that the line "Now wouldn't you like to rule the roost" in "Princess Ida" was incorrect. Gilbert had written "rule the roast" but everyone ascribed this to a misprint and Lady Gilbert was asked to check in the original libretto. She reported that Gilbert had written "roast" but the consensus was that this was a slip of the pen. However, Mr. Carte went to the British Museum and came back with the information that the original phrase actually was "roast," the allusion being to the Squire and his family watching the roast while sitting around the fireplace, and that the word had been corrupted into roost in colloquial speech. Gilbert was an expert in semantics.
He and Sullivan did make mistakes, though. When "Patience" was in rehearsal they discovered that after Patience and Grosvenor had sung "Prithee, pretty maiden" (No 8 in the vocal score) and spoken some necessary dialogue they were still on stage with no excuse for getting off. Sullivan said, "I say, Gilbert, how are we going to get them off the stage?" Gilbert suggested that they write a few lines of coda to "Prithee, pretty maiden" so that the two players could sing themselves off after speaking the dialogue and this one-page song is still listed 8A in the score.
When I consulted Sullivan's original orchestra scores while checking the orchestra parts for copying errors (I corrected some 3,000 blue prints during the 1928-29 tour of North America) I found that although Sullivan scored at lightning speed there were few erasures or deletions in his scores. Like Mozart he had the whole thing worked out in his head and needed only to write it down on paper.
Another curious slip discovered in my time was the line of Dame Carruthers in "The Yeomen of the Guard" when she sings in the finale "Who is the man who in his pride, Seeks to claim thee as his bride?" I pointed out at a rehearsal that Dame Carruthers was one of the few people who were in on the secret of the husband's identity so it was decided to change the line to "Who is the man who in his pride, Appears to seek thee as his bride?"
The matter of tradition in performance is a very knotty problem. No one likes change and all of us consider that to which we become accustomed as the arbiter of good taste. Most of us who have never seen anyone but Darrell Fancourt play the role of the Mikado in a D'Oyly Carte production (and he played it for something like thirty years) will think that any departure from his manner of playing the part is a departure from tradition, but actually Fancourt departed from tradition in playing the role with such frightening intensity.
When Fancourt first learned the part he had great difficulty with it. Jimmy Gordon, the stage director, arranged a special rehearsal with an old understudy who had been instructed by Gilbert himself and the understudy's interpretation was a quite quiet and subtle one, but sinister in its oiliness. Fancourt (who, incidentally, was a colleague of mine at the Academy and a fine Lieder singer) had a great voice and a very strong personality and he found it impossible to play the role in this way. He turned the Mikado into an immensely dignified and regal character which suited his dynamic and forceful personality.
I remember too how upset Jessie Bond, the original Mad Margaret, was when she attended a final rehearsal of a new production of "Ruddigore". She was so perturbed at the changes in tempi and alterations in stage business that she left the theatre in a rage.
There have been three different cachucas in "The Gondoliers" in my time. It is possible that the costume changes have influenced the movements - or it may be the other way round. Certainly the costumes have changed. My wife, who joined the company in 1923, reminds me that the women's skirts in "The Gondoliers", for instance, have been shortened, permitting more freedom of movement, and she also tells me that the authentic Japanese costumes they had to wear in the 1924 production of "The Mikado" were frightfully heavy and that Bertha Lewis always had a terrible headache after playing Katisha because of the immensity and weight of the headdress.
Not many people know that "Cox and Box" was originally a longer production. When "The Sorcerer" was put into the repertoire of the company after the first war it was found to be too short for an evening's programme and a curtain raiser was needed to be used as "Trial By Jury" was being used with "H.M.S. Pinafore". Mr. Carte decided to use "Cox and Box" and asked Mr. Gordon and me to cut it from over an hour to thirty minutes. We had to transpose some of the songs but we managed it.
Another change in the original score was the substitution of a phrase from "The Girl I Left Behind Me" for what Sullivan wrote as the little piccolo embellishment of Pitti-Sing's "He whistled an air did he" in "The Mikado". No one could tell me where Sullivan got his original phrase and it was not until I ran into an old man who played the seven-keyed flute in the orchestra pit at the theatre in Hanley, that the mystery was solved. "Why, sir," he said. "That was from the introduction of the Waltz Cotillion. Very popular at the time, it was"
We had a great many amusing accidents and incidents during my time as conductor of the D'Oyly Carte Company. Two in particular stand out in my memory as being extraordinary. We were opening at Golder's Green when, fifteen minutes before the performance, we discovered that the band parts had not been sent over from the Savoy Theatre. The orchestra players were all regular men, familiar with the operettas, but it was still a remarkable feat for them to play the whole of the first act from the vocal scores hastily recruited from the travelling trunks of the cast. The other outstanding incident occurred during a performance of "Ruddigore" when all the lights on the stage went out during the first act.
The theatre happened to be an old-fashioned one that still retained its original gas-jet foot lights and we carried on with these. Of course the set could not be changed for the second act and the lights came on again just as the figures should have stepped out of the portraits. As there were no portraits the audience were treated to the spectacle of most of the figures stepping out of the sea that forms the back ground of the first act.
I suppose the outstanding incident in my wife's experience on stage came just after she had joined the company in 1923 and she was standing in chorus waiting to hail the entrance of the Mikado in the second act. The Mikado was preceded by four supers who marched on stage and stood still. The oldstager standing next to Mrs. Norris hissed "Down, down, you fools," meaning move downstage, but Mrs Norris thought these instructions were directed at the chorus and immediately prostrated herself on the stage. It took her a long time to live that one down, but the company forgot much sooner than she did.
These reminiscences could not end on a more appropriate note than that sounded by an experience I had when we were playing Liverpool during a widespread influenza epidemic. Just before one of the performances the stage manager told me we would have to play with five understudies. The manager of the Company, noticing my distress at the alarming piece of information turned to me and said "Don't forget, Norris, that we always have the two great artists with us - Gilbert and Sullivan".
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