After a brief concert career, Fancourt joined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, where he starred in more than 10,000 performances over a 33-year period until his death. He regularly played about ten different roles for the company over these years, including the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance, Dick Deadeye in H.M.S. Pinafore, and the title character in The Mikado, which he played more than 3,000 times. Fancourt was famous for his melodramatic style, creating the controversial Mikado laugh that was later adopted by some of his successors. His performances are preserved in nineteen of the company's recordings made between 1923 and 1950.
Fancourt was born Darrell Louis Fancourt Leverson, the younger son of three children of a Jewish family in Kensington, London. His father, Louis George Leverson (1860–1909), was a diamond merchant who had made a fortune in South Africa. His mother, Amelia (Amy) de Symons, née Lewis-Barned (1865–1931), was "a clever vivacious young artist of the musical comedy type". Both were staunch friends of the arts. His father's sister married Brandon Thomas. Fancourt was baptised into the Church of England when he was fourteen years old.
Fancourt was educated at Bedford School and with a private tutor in Germany. He continued his vocal studies in Germany with Lilli Lehmann. Upon his return to England, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. At the Royal Academy, he studied singing with his mother's former teacher, Sir Henry Wood, and Alberto Randegger, and drama with Richard Temple, creator of many of the Savoy roles in which Fancourt was later famous. While a student, Fancourt performed in opera productions at the Academy, creating the role of Tackleton, the toy merchant, in Alexander Mackenzie's opera The Cricket on the Hearth, and playing Colas in Mozart's Bastien und Bastienne, and Benoit in La bohème. The Times thought him "amusing but not noticeably musical" in the last.
Even before completing his studies, Fancourt was building a concert career in London, the British provinces and the European continent. The Times said of an Aeolian Hall recital in 1912, "Mr. Fancourt has some noble notes in his voice, except when he forces it occasionally ... Schubert's Tod und das Mädchen was remarkably well characterized; it was quite his best and he made it into a thing of great beauty." In World War I, Fancourt volunteered for military service and was commissioned in the London Regiment as a lieutenant. In 1917, while still serving in the army, Fancourt married a beautiful Welsh singer, Eleanor Evans, at St Mark's Church, Hamilton Terrace, London. She had been a fellow student at the Royal Academy. After returning to civilian life in 1919, Fancourt sang in a single performance of Prince Igor in Sir Thomas Beecham's opera season at Covent Garden as Prince Galitsky under the baton of Albert Coates. This was his only professional appearance in a grand opera, and his only paid acting experience up to that point. In the same year, he appeared as a soloist at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts and in oratorio elsewhere in London.
Fancourt joined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in May 1920 to succeed Frederick Hobbs, who had announced his decision to leave the company. Fancourt went on for Hobbs as Mountararat in Iolanthe, Arac in Princess Ida and the title character in The Mikado. In June 1920, Hobbs left, and Fancourt took over the bass-baritone roles, including the above parts, Dick Deadeye in H.M.S. Pinafore, the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance, Colonel Calverley in Patience, Sir Roderic Murgatroyd in Ruddigore and Sergeant Meryll in The Yeomen of the Guard. In 1921, when Cox and Box and The Sorcerer were revived, Fancourt added the roles of Sergeant Bouncer and Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre to his repertoire. He also appeared as the Usher in Trial by Jury in 1926, but he thought himself "simply bloody" in the role and soon dropped it. In 1921, his wife, Eleanor Evans, joined the company as a chorister, also playing some smaller principal soprano roles. She was nicknamed "Snookie" in the company; and, according to fellow D'Oyly Carte performer Derek Oldham, "she was so beautiful, was Snookie! We all fell for her, and we gave Darrell a busy time keeping us 'off'." Later in Fancourt's career, his wife was made the company's stage director and director of productions.
Fancourt continued to play most of the principal bass-baritone roles for D'Oyly Carte until 1953. The company performed almost year-round in repertory during these 33 years, and Fancourt appeared in well over 10,000 performances; he played the title role in The Mikado more than 3,000 times. Over the years, he performed with the company on seven tours in North America. Known for his excellent diction and vocal technique, Fancourt was an audience favourite during his long tenure. "Not only does he possess a velvety resonant bass tone but also has a relaxed vibrato that is particularly elegant." J. C. Trewin called Fancourt "the lord of Gilbert-and-Sullivan playing. ... Fancourt is both a fine singer and, within the Savoy convention, a fine and zestful actor with the gift of a dominating personality. Roderic's song 'When the night wind howls', as Fancourt sings it in the second act of Ruddigore, is at the meridian of that opera and one of the glories of Gilbert-and-Sullivan in the contemporary theatre." The Times later said, "nobody who heard it will ever forget his singing of 'When the night wind howls'."
Opinions differed about Fancourt's melodramatic style in his roles, especially his interpretation of his best-known role, that of the Mikado of Japan, and his famous Mikado laugh. Frederic Lloyd, who joined the D'Oyly Carte in 1951 and had studied the company's history, told an interviewer that Fancourt invented his interpretation, concerned that the earlier movements used during the Mikado's song could be taken as a Fagin-like caricature. According to Lloyd, Fancourt had said that, because of his Jewish background, "I just couldn't go through those movements, it would bother me", and Lloyd reported that, when Fancourt showed Rupert D'Oyly Carte and his stage director J. M. Gordon his new business for the song, they were delighted. Jessie Bond, who had played Pitti-Sing in the 1885 première, was unimpressed: "Who, I want to know, intended that the Mikado should prance about like a madman, hissing out his lines like a serpent? ... The raving monster we so often see now is not one bit like the suave and oily Mikado created [by Fancourt's teacher, Richard Temple] at the Savoy." The Times thought that he "undoubtedly loses a good deal of the Mikado's humour... his 'humane Mikado' scene is the one which seems to have travelled farthest from the 'Savoy tradition'." A later Times review commented more favourably: "Mr Darrell Fancourt... can (and did) add a terrifying aspect to the benignity of his humaner punishment manifesto, and left us wondering how his vocal cords ever managed to function normally after those expressions of emphasis with which he punctuated its paragraphs." The Manchester Guardian praised Fancourt's fresh approach and added, "He makes more of the punishment-fitting-the-crime song than we can remember having seen from any other actor." The Pall Mall Gazette said, "Mr Fancourt has recognised that people can do with a 'thrill' in these Grand Guignol days. So he has given us a Mikado who really does curdle the blood, with a voice like a steam hammer slowly crushing a ton of Brazil nuts, and a make up of ghastly villainy, and a fiendish, gurgling laugh, which must be heard to be appreciated." Another critic described the sound of Fancourt's laugh as "a dragon getting up steam". With respect to Fancourt's portrayal of the Pirate King, fellow actor Henry Lytton told an interviewer, "The King should be a story book pirate, not a real one and blood thirsty to boot. But that's the way Mr. Fancourt plays it".
Fancourt was a cricket fan, an avid golfer and a fine bridge player and was popular among his colleagues. By the late 1940s, his health began to fail, and in 1950 he gave up the role of Mountararat. In his last year, he continued to perform although he was very ill. Fancourt received the OBE in June 1953 in the Coronation Honours shortly after announcing his forthcoming retirement. The Illustrated London News commented, "He will be the greatest loss to professional Gilbert-and-Sullivan since Henry Lytton retired … Besides his voice and presence, he has the priceless gift of attack. To watch him attacking The Mikado is to watch high tide flooding across the beach: it is an irresistible surge and swell." Fancourt was too ill to make his scheduled final appearance, and as a last gesture he asked a friend to take his make-up to his successor, Donald Adams.
Fancourt died in August 1953 at the age of 67, 33 days after giving his last performance.
Fancourt participated in nineteen D'Oyly Carte recordings between 1923 and 1950 in the following roles: Mountararat (1922, shared with Peter Dawson, and 1930), Dick Deadeye (1922, shared with Frederick Hobbs, 1930 and 1949), Sir Roderic (1924, 1931 and 1950), Arac (1925 and 1932), Colonel Calverley (1930 and 1952), Sir Marmaduke in an abridged Sorcerer (1933), the Mikado (1926, 1936 and 1950), the Pirate King (1931 abridged set and 1950), and Sergeant Meryll (1950). He also sang the title role in a 1926 BBC radio broadcast of The Mikado and appeared in a four-minute silent promotional film made of the D'Oyly Carte Mikado in 1926.
A photograph of Fancourt and D'Oyly Carte colleagues with the huge recording horn used in the acoustic recording process can be seen here.
- UK official records, including census returns, army lists, and birth, marriage and death certificates, confirm Fancourt's full name as Darrell Louis Fancourt Leverson. The name is incorrectly given in an anecdote by Frederic Lloyd, the D'Oyly Carte general manager, who remembered it as David Levinson, and at the IMDB site and the Memories of the D'Oyly Carte site, which both give his birth-name as Darrell David Leverson.
- 1891 census, PRO reference RG12/1015; England and Wales Death Index, 1837–1915, St Marylebone, Volume 1a, p. 288
- Wood, p. 114.
- The Morning Post, 26 May 1881, p. 8; 1891 census, PRO reference RG12/1015; and England and Wales Death Index, 1916–2005, Marylebone, Volume 1a, p. 496
- Lejeune, C. A. "The High Noon of Darrell Fancourt", July 1953, reprinted at the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, 28 August 2013
- London, Births and Baptisms, 1813–1906, 16 January 1901, Parish of St John at Hampstead
- Ayer, p. 85
- Obituary, The Times, 31 August 1953, p. 15
- The Musical Times, Vol. 52, No. 815, 1 January 1911, p. 29
- The Musical Times, Vol. 55, No. 857, 1 July 1914, pp. 459–60
- The Times, 4 December 1913, p. 12
- Stone, David. Darrell Fancourt at Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, 3 September 2003
- The Times, 30 November 1912, p. 8
- British Army WWI Medal Rolls Index, 1914–1920: Darrell Louis Fancourt Leverson, accessed 25 July 2010 (subscription required)
- London, England, Marriages and Banns, 1754–1921, accessed 25 July 2010 (subscription required)
- The Musical Times, July 1914, p. 469
- The Times, 24 July 1919, p. 12
- The Musical Times, Vol. 60, No. 918, 1 August 1919, pp. 432–33
- The Times, 3 April 1919, p. 15
- Helperin, Ralph. "He Who Laughed First", at the Memories of the D'Oyly Carte website, accessed 23 July 2010
- Rollins and Witts, pp. 136 and 138
- Rollins and Witts, p. 140
- Rollins and Witts, p. 150
- Joseph, p. 261
- "Derek Oldham Remembers" at the "Memories of the D'Oyly Carte" website, accessed 2 August 2010
- Rollins and Witts, pp. 138–50, 152–61, 166–69 and v.
- Rollins and Witts, pp. 136–77
- "Mr. Darrell Fancourt", The Times, 1 May 1953.
- Rollins and Witts, pp. 150, 153, 159, 161, 163, 172 and 175
- Darrell Fancourt profile at the Memories of the D'Oyly Carte website, accessed 2 August 2010
- Walker, Raymond. Review of 1949 Pirates at Music Web International, accessed 4 April 2009
- Trewin, J. C. "Gilbert and Sullivan Then and Now", reprinted from Far and Wide, September 1949
- Bond, Chapter 14, accessed 4 April 2009
- The Times, 21 September 1926, p. 12
- The Times, 25 October 1932, p. 12
- The Manchester Guardian, 16 November 1920, p. 6
- Bettany, unnumbered page
- Trewin, J. C. "The World of the Theatre", Illustrated London News, 11 July 1953, p. 74
- The Times, 22 June 1953, p. 3
- Ayre, Leslie (1972). The Gilbert & Sullivan Companion. London: W.H. Allen & Co Ltd.
- Bettany, Clemence (1975). D'Oyly Carte Centenary, 1875–1975. London: D'Oyly Carte Opera Trust.
- Bond, Jessie (1930). The Life and Reminiscences of Jessie Bond, the Old Savoyard (as told to Ethel MacGeorge). London: John Lane, The Bodley Head.
- Joseph, Tony (1994). The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. Bristol: Bunthorne Books. ISBN 0-9507992-1-1.
- Rollins, Cyril; R. John Witts (1962). The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in Gilbert and Sullivan Operas: A Record of Productions, 1875–1961. London: Michael Joseph.
- Wood, Henry (1938). My Life of Music. London: Victor Gollancz.
- Photo of Fancourt in The Mikado in 1926
- Photos of Fancourt as Deadeye in 1926 and 1934
- Fancourt as the Pirate King in 1939
- Photo of Fancourt as Sgt. Bouncer
- Photo of Fancourt as Sir Roderic in 1926
- Another photo as Sir Roderic
- Postcards, including several of Fancourt in various roles
- More postcards showing Fancourt
- More postcards with Fancourt
- Darrell Fancourt at the Internet Broadway Database