One February evening in 1982, leaving London’s Adelphi Theatre by the stage door, I am keenly aware of huddled, anxious faces waiting in the wind scouring Maiden Lane.

‘Any Arts Council funding yet?’ calls a man at the back of the crowd, his little daughter on his shoulders.

‘Will the Company survive?’ pleads a white-haired lady at my left elbow.

A stricken family is gathering around the sick-bed of an invalid one hundred and seven years old – the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, nearing the end of its final season – and I recall a comment made by John Reed during a broadcast in 1975. He was in his sixteenth year as the D’Oyly Carte’s principal comedian. I was the new principal tenor; our interview on local radio advertised the current season.

‘The D’Oyly Carte is a family,’ John said.

A few weeks after the interview I experience the family in action. On New Year’s Eve the words of Auld Lang Syne, in the handwriting of tenor Meston Reid, appear on the stage door notice board. Most know the first part by heart; now Meston – a true son of Aberdeen – reminds us of a later, difficult line: And we’ll tak a right gude-willy waught. The show ends, the curtain stays up, the auditorium lights come up, the orchestra strikes up and the audience stands up to sing Auld Lang Syne. They, and all the company, cross their arms in front to hold hands with their neighbours. Wooden panels bridge the ends of the orchestra pit; the front line of performers can link with the front row of the audience. Thus joined in heart and voice, the family sings, with the Sassenachs (‘the English’, to the Scots) mystified by a gude-willy waught.

A year or two later, in Norwich, the family-feeling becomes more personal. I am standing against the orchestra-pit rail of the Theatre Royal, about to address a group of opera enthusiasts gathered, post-performance, in thestalls. I draw breath to speak but sense a sudden presence at my side; a young, portly figure in a voluminous dress, with a crew cut and a grin as wide as the Royal’s stage.

‘Hello there. I’m pregnant.’

The opera-lovers, eager before, are now on the edge of their seats.

I have not seen the young woman for over two years. A fan from her teenage years, she is known to the company for her enthusiasm and mild eccentricities. At a Patience curtain-call she lobbed toffees onto the stage, inspired by the Duke of Dunstable’s line: ‘toffee for breakfast, toffee for dinner, toffee for tea.’

‘Are you driving home tonight?’ she asks. My listeners’ attention wavers. This is not the titillating confrontation promised by its opening. ‘Could you drop me off in London?’

‘Yes. I’ll meet you in the foyer later.’

Some lady choristers overhear us and one approaches after the talk.

‘The lift is not a good idea,’ she says. ‘We think she’s unpredictable and might make wild accusations afterwards. At least take one of the London- based choristers with you, as your witness.’

Though torn between umbrage at her suspicions and gratitude for her concern, I do feel part of a caring family.

‘We’ll be on our own for this trip,’ says the selected ‘witness’ as she joins me in the foyer.

‘Why is that?’

‘Our friend’s in the cells tonight. They say she got merry this evening and waved a gun about.’

Leaving Norwich, I worry about the exuberant teenager I remember and the business of the alleged gun.

The D’Oyly Carte ‘family’ considers London its home base. There it plays its longest season – of over two months. There Richard D’Oyly Carte commissioned the dramatist W. S. Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan to collaborate in creating Trial by Jury for him. It opened at the Royalty Theatre on 25 March 1875 – when the history of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company began.

In 1881, during the run of Patience, D’Oyly Carte opened his Savoy Theatre on the Strand, to house the further series of operas that Gilbert and Sullivan were to create. In 1889, on an adjacent site, he opened his Savoy Hotel, where the opera company had its suite of offices.

Returning to the late 1970s, however, we find that Sadler’s Wells Theatre is a more convenient London venue than the Savoy Theatre. It is there that I again experience the truth of John Reed’s metaphor, expressed in response to a threat against the D’Oyly Carte family in all parts of the building.

Terrorists are attempting to disrupt West End theatres with bomb warnings, forcing managements to clear buildings while bomb squads search. The turn of Sadler’s Wells came during a performance of Princess Ida.

Playing the part of Cyril, I crouch with Hilarion and Florian behind scenery depicting a wall of Castle Adamant, where Princess Ida has founded a ladies’ university. Her Act Two exit, with her undergraduates, is our cue to enter by scaling the wall. I hear the ladies leave, then a long silence instead of the gentle introduction to our entrance trio. I stretch up, peer over the wall and report to my colleagues that the curtain is down on an empty stage.

‘Perhaps it’s one of those bomb scares?’ Florian says. ‘What are we supposed to do?’ I ask.

‘The notice at the stage door says to gather in Arlington Way,’ says Hilarion.

We find Arlington Way crammed wall to wall with a jolly mingling of audience, orchestra and company members in costume. I chat with a New Zealand couple while the wife scrutinises my garb: wig, exotic eye make- up, short grey tunic – quartered, with black and white fleurs-de-lys – woollen tights, one yellow leg, one grey, and white leather boots reaching four inches above my knees.

‘Are you in this opera?’ she blurts.

As I admit that I am, I can only think she has heard of Carnaby Street, and presumes my tailor has premises there.

There is no bomb and we may re-enter the theatre. The curtain rises, the orchestra begins the trio and we climb over the wall. I sing, sensing powerful emotions held back in the darkened auditorium. Many of the audience know the words as well as we do, but they let us sing the first eight – ‘Gently, gently, evidently we are safe so far’ – before erupting into a huge yell of triumph. In football terms – British Audience: 1 – Terrorists: Nil.

At the Sadler’s Wells stage door, where some audience members customarily wait to meet performers, I learn of the place the company holds in their families’ lives.

‘May I introduce my daughter?’ a woman in her mid-thirties says. The girl is about ten. ‘She is the age I was when my parents brought me to see Martyn Green, and my mother was when her parents brought her to see Sir Henry Lytton.’

‘I’m an only child and lived with my parents all my life,’ an unmarried middle-aged woman confides. ‘They died recently, but I feel close to them here because we often came to D’Oyly Carte performances together; ever since I was a little girl.’

Like many families, the company treasures traditions, which I discover after a performance in which Nanki-Poo’s fan slid from my sash onto the stage. As I clean off my make-up, a passing male chorister pauses at my open dressing-room door.

‘If I had dropped my fan,’ he grinned, ‘I would have had to buy a round of drinks for the men’s chorus in the Shakespeare’s Head tonight.’

When our contralto, Patricia Leonard, asks to borrow my dressing room for a few minutes, before a Saturday matinee, I am made aware of another custom. About seven colleagues join her and, from outside the room, I hear mutterings followed by a unison chant of, ‘A moment on the lips – a lifetime on the hips’. When the door opens, Patricia sees my puzzled face.

‘We’re the DC-DCs – the D’Oyly Carte Decreasers – helping each other lose a little weight.’

Our Family Album – snapshots of life in the company – consists of anecdotes rather than photographs. Whenever colleagues reminisce, or have visits after shows with former company members, someone is sure to say, ‘Do you remember when …’

One such tale concerned The Yeomen of the Guard. In the Second Act a scene between Elsie and Colonel Fairfax is interrupted by the sound of ‘an arquebus – fired from the wharf’. This explosion happens offstage, achieved by using a ‘bomb-tank’ in the wings – a metal cistern, about two feet cubed, into which an explosive device is placed and triggered electronically. The hollow cistern magnifies the sound hugely. Our stage manager usually sites this in the wings, stage left, but in our present venue the wing space is limited, so he puts the tank in the ‘flies’ above the stage. However, he forgets to mention this arrangement to the stage crew. Yeomen is an easy show for them; once they have built the Tower of London their time is their own, and their favourite pastime is a game of cards in their favourite place – the ‘flies’.

The moment arrives for the arquebus to be fired. A cataclysmic din explodes close to the game, filling the air with dust, cobwebs and colourful language from the startled players. Most conspicuous to the audience is the flight of playing cards fluttering down onto the stage like autumn leaves, to be remembered down the years, and long pondered for their dramatic significance.

There were also shared comedic moments. The customary ‘Last Night’ of the D’Oyly Carte’s London season became so popular that the audience had to be chosen, from the thousands keen to attend, by drawing names in a raffle. The programme was a closely guarded secret; it began with the first act of one opera, and continued with the second act of another. Great liberties were taken with the style of production – the only time this was permitted by the strict D’Oyly Carte management – creating an atmosphere of mystery and surprise similar to a family game of charades. One year the evening began with the first act of The Mikado in the style of a Western. Nanki-Poo was dressed as the Lone Ranger. Peter Lyon, as

Pish-Tush, entered as Tonto, with an arrow laterally through his left knee, bearing the letter from the Mikado. The manner in which he was forced to walk – his right foot lifted high, his left leg swinging wide, to avoid the arrow – was a comic highlight.

Perhaps the company feels like family to me because singing takes me away from my wife and three young children for extended periods. I begin looking forward to meeting families at stage doors and staying with families instead of using hotels. Occasionally the Company enjoys civic receptions, birthday parties and social events as a family, and I am reminded that I am more than a performance machine.

On 27 February 1982, soon after my encounter with the huddled stage door group, the Grand Old Lady dies and her family is dispersed.

But the family spirit continues. It may be that Gilbert’s genius for wit and innocent fun attracts those who value family life, and draws together new generations of interpreters of the Savoy Operas, sharing his humour and his sentiment with fresh audiences in the old familiar way.

Teenage performers have made their mark encouragingly in recent years. The Gilbert & Sullivan group of St. Mary’s School, from Leigh in Lancashire, were brilliantly innovative at the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival held in Buxton, Derbyshire. By one of life’s merry quirks, I was, for three weeks – thirty years before the school’s triumph – the stand-in music teacher there. But that is quite another story.

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