The opera impresario and hotelier Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901) will be commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque today (14th December) at 2 Dartmouth Park Road, Kentish Town, NW5, at 2.30pm. Carte was the driving force behind the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, which are still performed by professionals and amateurs around the world, and founded the Savoy Hotel, recently reopened following extensive refurbishment. The plaque will be unveiled by British Film Director Mike Leigh, and commemorates Carte’s family home, where he lived from 1860-1870.
Born in Soho, Richard D’Oyly Carte (the named D’Oyly was his preferred forename) began his career as a theatrical agent in 1870. His association with W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan began in 1875 when he was appointed manager of the Royalty Theatre in Dean Street, Soho. To supplement the main entertainment of Jacques Offenbach’s La Périchole, he encouraged the composer Sullivan to write a score for Gilbert’s comic libretto, Trial by Jury. First performed on 25 March 1875, it proved an immediate success, enjoying a run of 131 performances. Correctly forecasting that there would be more hits to come, Carte formed the Comedy Opera Company (later known as ‘Mr D’Oyly Carte’s Opera Company’), which went on to present every subsequent work by Gilbert and Sullivan, from The Sorcerer (1877), through HMS Pinafore (1878), Pirates of Penzance (1879), Patience (1881), Iolanthe (1882), to The Mikado (1885) and The Gondoliers (1889). The operas proved extremely popular, and by 1880, the three men were sharing annual profits of £60,000 (almost £3 million in today’s money).
Carte’s long-held ambition of establishing a ‘permanent abode for light opera’ in London came to fruition on 10 October 1881, when he opened the Savoy Theatre, Strand, with a performance of Patience. Built to designs by C. J. Phipps, it was claimed it was the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity. Carte assembled a near permanent company of singers, led by soloists such as Jessie Bond and George Grossmith, and delighted audiences with colourful and innovative sets and costumes, thereby ensuring continued critical and popular success.
The luxurious Savoy Hotel – a new business venture by Carte, built on a vacant plot of land next to the Savoy Theatre and designed by Thomas Edward Colcutt – opened its doors in 1889 and, with César Ritz as manager and Auguste Escoffier as head chef, went on to become the favourite meeting place of London's high society, led by the Prince of Wales. The hotel boasted a number of innovations such as electric lights and lifts, and its bar was the first in London to serve cocktails. It proved an enormous financial success, and enabled Carte to buy other hotels.
In 1890 strains began to appear in the relationship between Carte, Gilbert and Sullivan. After falling out with Gilbert – who withdrew from the partnership – Carte concentrated on his latest project, which was to provide London with a theatre devoted to grand English opera. The Royal English Opera House (now the Palace Theatre) at Cambridge Circus – designed by Colcutt and completed in 1891 – staged 155 performances of Sullivan’s only grand opera, Ivanhoe, but was sold just a year later, Carte having been unable to find new operas to fill the programme.
English Heritage’s Blue Plaques Historian, Dr Susan Skedd, said:
“A shrewd businessman and outstanding stage manager, Richard D’Oyly Carte succeeded in maintaining his world-wide monopoly over Gilbert and Sullivan productions and set new standards of staging and singing in opera. He also proved an innovative hotelier and was responsible for creating the first luxury hotel in London. Carte was unrivalled in his day as a theatrical manager and will be the first opera impresario to be honoured with a blue plaque.”
Mrs Antonia Leach, the owner of the house – herself an opera enthusiast, and Deputy Chairman of Hampstead Garden Opera – said:
"My husband Peter and I find it thrilling to think of the musical time line running through this house, and also the thought of it as having in some way acted as the creative crucible out of which came the alchemical partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan. My family are grateful to English Heritage for their work in researching and verifying our house as a suitable site for a blue plaque to commemorate the great man."