In 1875, British theater impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte had dreams of establishing a school of English comic opera and so brought together the contentious librettist W. S. Gilbert and the queen's favorite composer, Arthur Sullivan.
They were asked to create a companion piece for Offenbach's "La Perichole," then playing at a theater D'Oyly Carte was managing, and their new one-act opera--"Trial by Jury"--proved a triumph. D'Oyly Carte had found his ideal team and worked hard over the next 20 years to keep the partnership together. By 1881, on the profits of the operas, Carte was able to build the Savoy Theatre to permanently house the company. (With profits still rising, he built the Savoy Hotel eight years later.)
The duo's efforts came to epitomize comic opera, but when the copyright on the Gilbert and Sullivan works ran out in the 1960s, newfangled directors declared open season on the famous team.
They created new productions--some with jazzed-up scores and hyped-up jokes, and some even laden with the best of intentions. Suddenly, the tried and true productions of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company seemed tired and trite.
Alas, after 107 years, the company devoted to G&S shut its doors in 1982, victim of the new era. But after death came the resurrection.
The new D'Oyly Carte, reconstituted in 1988, is marking its first engagement in the United States with productions of "The Mikado" today, , and "The Pirates of Penzance," Friday through Sunday, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. The run is part of the Festival of Britain, an arts festival and retail promotion.
Officials of the new company are understandably nervous.
"This is probably the most important single engagement the company's had since it was re-formed," Michael Bishop, chairman of the new company, said while inspecting the center in August. Bishop is chairman of British Midland Airlines, which provided half the capital to re-establish the company. The artistic director of the company is Bramwell Tovey, previously with the Sadler's Wells Ballet (who did not accompany Bishop to Costa Mesa).
"It's quite a challenge to come back to America. . . . I would say we were chased away last time. And there are good reasons why we shouldn't come back too soon. "
Indeed, Times Music Critic Martin Bernheimer--writing of the company's demise in 1982--recalled its previous local tour:
"In the summer of '76, the company already had fallen on hard times. It was, in fact, a thing of shreds and patches. A small, brave band of singers, generally more dedicated than talented, lumbered through ritualistic paces in the hostile confines of the Greek Theatre. The productions looked old and cheap and worn. Everyone--well, almost everyone--seemed tired. Inspiration was conspicuously absent."
Bernheimer did allow, however, that "as always, there were flashes of excellence, even amid the artistic doldrums."
What also tipped the scales against the old company was the refusal of the Arts Council of Great Britain to give it a grant, complaining that the productions were "tired and wooden."
"The (old) company really got to the stage where it couldn't carry on because it got too mechanical," Bishop said. "Yes, it was a faithful interpreter of the words and the music, but the company would deliver it in a way which had become repetitive. It became obviously unsuitable to the pressures that had been building up by people who were bringing in new versions."
He added that "superfluous gags, staging and jokes crept in over the years."
"They had become very popular and, in fact, almost had become expectations. People had begun to imagine that they had been originally intended. And that's not the case."
The new company, however, has trimmed those sails, cut what Bishop called "the institutionalized encores" and has acquired a leaner and younger look.
"The approach of the company is a youthful approach," he said. "The average age of the company is now under 30. Some of the principals, of course, are older. But it doesn't betray any immaturity when you see the production in terms of the age of the people represented on stage. The actual balance is absolutely right.
"The old company were permanent. They would have sung with them forever, for two or for 25 years. We are now a company that is re-formed every season. We've had people with us now for three seasons. But nonetheless they had stood down (re-auditioned) at the start of each season, and new people come into the company every year."
The new company does not necessarily regard itself as the guardian of the authentic G&S tradition.
"It sounds very pompous to say that we are the 'guardians of tradition,' " Bishop said. "I don't really see ourselves in that way. I think you have to earn this accolade rather than say that this is what we are.
"But we do hope that we will be that over a period of time. The public and the critics will judge whether we achieve what we set out to do."