On the BBC's Radio 4 one morning recently, two daring young men flew through (or "sang," if you prefer the term) a five-minute version of "The Mikado." In actual fact it took them just over four minutes -- a record. Such a hilarious liberty could only be taken with a tremendously popular and well-known classic: Its funniness relied on the briefest snatch of virtually every song in the show being instantly recognizable to a high proportion of listeners.
The considerable London success of the "Black Mikado" (a rock-cum-jazz revitalization of the old Victorian favorite) was surely also based on the great familiarity of Gilbert's words and Sullivan's music.
What the famous librettist and composer would have thought of these explosions of respectful disrespect is hard to guess. Like their Queen, they might not have been amused. But Richard D'Oyly Carte would surely have though them very good for business.
Richard D'Oyly Carte?
He was the entrepreneur who brought Gilbert and Sullivan together in 1875, more or less held them together for over 20 years of partnership, was the first to present and promote their comic operas, and even built a theater for their performances. D'Oyly Carte's name has always been inextricably bound up with Gilbert's and Sullivan's. And it has gone on and on being bound up with them. For a 105 years the D'Oyly Carter company has ceaselessly sold the repertoire of a dozen lighthearted shows to the British public. It has traveled up, down, and around the British Isles, and it has toured America and Australia, doing eight performances a week, 46 weeks a year.
Thousands of now serious lovers of great music and grand opera were weaned from milkier musical tastes on the intermediary fodder of Gilbert and Sullivan. Thousands of Children have become fascinated and obsessed with these witty, tuneful, fanciful, harmless operettas. Thousands of these children have found it hard to shake the habit later in life. There is something indelible about Gilbert and Sullivan. A survey once showed that their songs were the most frequently played music on BBC radio.
Parodies and spoofs on them abound. Like it or hate it, there's no denying that Gilbert and Sullivan are as British as cricket and Rolls-Royce and The Times. and D'Oyly Carte has kept them rolling.
This is why the threat that D'Oyly Carte may now have to stop in its tracks is considered something of a looming national disaster. But its management says it will certainly have to close down in July unless immediate financial support is found.
The company has kept going only with an increasing struggle in the last few years. Maintaining a proper size and high enough quality of performance in the face of rising costs has, it admits, been hard. But miraculously not a single penny of British taxpayers has been used to support the company. Now, however, the D'Oyly Carte management says it desperately needs no less than L200,000 sterling a year. The Arts Council of Great Britain was approached but has refused to give any assistance at all. It didn't even follow the recommendations of its own team of inquiry to provide "sparing" support. Light opera has always been considered "commercial," and is put in a lower class than serious opera. The attitude seems to be: If it can't swim by itself, it might as well sink.
The total lack of government support forthcoming was justified by the arts Council simply on the grounds that the D'Oyly Carte company doesn't "reach the required artistic standard."
This judgment was presumably based on the "inquiry into light opera" published by the council early in the year. This report lists as D'Oyly Carte's "shortcomings" such things as:
Technically unsophisticated productions.
Underrehearsal of new revivals.
Orchestras that are too small and thinsounding.
The rigidity of the repertoire resulting in occasionally "wooden or tired performance."
Slavish and automatic "business."
Excessive devotion to the printed word.
Audiences that are getting older rather than younger.
The members of the inquiry also sweepingly claim that "20th-century marketing techniques have passed D'Oyly Carte by."
Frederic Lloyd and Peter Riley, the company's general manager and deputy general manager, seem to feel that most of these problems are the direct of indirect results of a tight budget. Vast increases in the price of gasoline alone have become an inconceivable burden ot a touring company. On the whole they seem unimpressed by the catalog of criticisms.
In other places the report is more favorable, anyway. It commends the company's ability to survive. It points to audiences that are numerically "still very substantial." It even seems to contradict its own carping by stating:
"The productions are trim and exceptionally when maintained: Some of the soloists are first rate: The chorus work is sound." They also see promise in the recent appointment of two young directors of production and of music.
One claim they make, however, Peter Riley is quick to demolish. That is that D'Oyly Carte still has sufficient funds to keep going for several more years. "They have been grossly misinformed," he says curtly.
The artists have been asked (and have agreed) not to look for other work until May 1. Before then there is to be a national appeal. Also, a new charity , Friends of D'Oyly Carte, has just been started in Britain and another in New York. Membership in Britain costs L7 pounds sterling. The addresses are PO Box 189, One Savoy Hill, London W.C. 2, and Susan B. Hirschorn, 17 East 76 Street, New York.
The question is: Will Gilbert and Sullivan survive if D'Oyly Carte goes under? One thing Frederic Lloyd pointed out: "Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas are the eggs and bacon --the standard food -- of school musical productions." He finds he is forever meeting bank managers and respected clergymen who confess to having played the Duke of Plaza Toro or even "Dear little Buttercup" when they were schoolboys. In British schools and in amateur operatic clubs, gilbert and Sullivan are sure to live on.
On the other hand, there has been surprisingly little successful production of even the tried and true operas by other professional companies since the sole performing rights were taken from D'Oyly Carte in 1961. "It seems," Mr Riley said, "that the arts council inquiry is right when it says: 'There is real evidence that if it is Gilbert and Sullivan you want to see, it's D'Oyly Carte you like to see doing it. The record companies further confirm this.'"
It is clear that the company sees its job as preserving a tradition. Part of this may mean a rather endearing Victorian amateurism. It also means no tampering. Mr. Riley again: "You can't really play around with the text or the music. Of course, it is possible to 'point' a line sometimes -- for example, the line in 'Iolanthe' which goes, 'This is what comes of women interfering in politics' did take on a rather funny significance when we were in Scotland just when a new woman MP was elected. Small alterations can be made to that list of 'society offenders, who never would be missed' in 'The Mikado,' for instance. And there are certain moves that performers have been making for years that even wem wonder about. But then again, if we take them out, the public goes mad. They write in letters about it."
From Mr. Riley's description, it seems to be a remarkably friendly company, and he has done just about every job there is except actually perform on stage. Some people join the company because they want to sing, others because they like Gilbert and Sullivan. They have always been referred to as "Ladies and Gentlemen." Mr. Riley likes that. But they are also known as the "vagabonds of the profession" because they are forever on the road. Supporting and training young singers has been a D'Oyly Carte function for a long time. But not everyone leaves this "Sunday School" for other companies. Jimmy Marsland the present assistant manager, for example, has been 32 years with them. "We're very proud of him," said Mr. Riley. "He's in his late 60s, looks 45, and acts like a kid of 30."
"And he's as keen on Gilbert and Sullivan as ever?"
"Yes. If anything, he's even more fanatical than he used to be."
There is a slight element of fanaticism about followers of Gilbert And Sullivan. With the most popular operas, audiences can be one step ahead of the performers because they know them so well. Gilbert and Sullivan really is an institution.
D'Oyly Carte a number of years ago became, rather oddly, a charity -- "presenting the words and music of Gilbert and Sullivan to the British public for no gain." The only sizable sponsorship it does receive is L50,000 sterling from Barclay's Bank. But for the most part it is the box office which brings in the cash -- 80 percent of the takings. This, today, is very unusual. It points strikingly to a strong and abiding popularity. Perhaps it is this groundswell of affection for D'Oyly Carte that will, in fact, save it from extinction.
"I have always said I wouldn't have anything personal against the arts council," Mr. Riley told me. "But if we do go undeR, I just hope that there will be a hugem march through London. I would like to see those 300,000 people who come to see us each year block up the streets in Whitehall. Not to annoy people. Just to make the point. I mean: Who has consulted the 'court of public opinion'?"
At the moment things are in the balance. But D'Oyly Carte is on so many people's lists of things that wouldm "be missed" if it disappeared, that it is hard to imagine they will let it go easily.