Durward Lely

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
as Nanki Poo in The Mikado

Durward Lely (2 September 1852 – 29 February 1944) was a Scottish opera singer and actor primarily known as the creator of five tenor roles in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas, including Nanki-Poo in The Mikado.

After studying singing in Italy, Lely began his opera career in 1878, at Her Majesty's Theatre, as Don José in Carmen. After two years of touring in opera, he joined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1880, soon becoming their leading tenor. He began there in the role of Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance and went on to create five roles in the famous series of Savoy operas. He remained with the company until 1887.

After this, Lely resumed a grand opera and concert career, appearing often with Adelina Patti, performing frequently at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and touring with the Carl Rosa Opera Company among others. Late in his career, he appeared in the 1911 film of Rob Roy. Lely outlived nearly all of the singers with whom he had performed at the Savoy Theatre.

Life and career[edit]

Early life and career[edit]

James Durward Lyall was born in Arbroath, in the County of Angus, Scotland, the son of William Lyall. Lyall senior became factor of Blackcraig Castle near Blairgowrie.[1][2] He studied singing as a boy.[3] After attending local schools, Durward worked for a firm of solicitors in Blairgowrie. He sang with a local choral society, and a local patron of the arts, impressed by his voice, sent him for training in Milan.[1][4] there, he studied and sang in opera for six years.[3]

Lely made his professional British operatic debut in 1878 at Her Majesty's Theatre, under the name Signor Leli, and went on to appear as Don José in the British premiere of Bizet's Carmen at the same theatre and in first English translation of that opera there in 1879 with the Carl Rosa Opera Company opposite Selina Dolaro.[5][6] While touring subsequently in Carmen with Emily Soldene's company, Lely became engaged to Alice Frances Hurndall, whom he married early in 1881.[1] After two years on tour, including with the Mapleson Opera Company, he joined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company at the Opera Comique.[4] In November 1880, he replaced George Power in the leading tenor role of Frederic in the original London production of The Pirates of Penzance. At Arthur Sullivan's recommendation, he adopted the name of Durward Lely.[4] Of his Frederic, The Times wrote, "His acting and enunciation of the words, with and without music, leave much to be desired.[7]

Principal tenor[edit]

Lely became D'Oyly Carte's principal tenor, creating the leading tenor parts in several Gilbert and Sullivan operas. The first three of these were the Duke of Dunstable in Patience (1881; moving to the Savoy Theatre when the company transferred there), Earl Tolloller in Iolanthe (1882), and Cyril in Princess Ida (1884). He played Alexis in The Sorcerer and the Defendant in Trial by Jury when those operas were revived in 1884.[8] In 1885, he created the role of Nanki-Poo in The Mikado, playing the character until 1887.[9] His role in that opera is dramatised in the 1999 Mike Leigh film Topsy-Turvy. In the film, Lely is portrayed by Kevin McKidd.[10]

Lely as Dauntless

In 1887, Lely created the role of Richard Dauntless in the next Savoy opera, Ruddigore.[9] In a 1926 article for The Gilbert & Sullivan Journal, Lely recalled how Dauntless's famous hornpipe became a part of the piece:

At the first music rehearsal, or rather the first time the music was played over to us by Sullivan at the piano we arrived at Dick Dauntless's "Parlez vous" song. After playing it over Sullivan said "That's your song, Lely." Gilbert happened to be seated next to me, and I said quite innocently "It sounds as though a hornpipe should follow." Gilbert grunted. Nothing more was said or thought – at least by me – about the matter. A few days later at rehearsal Gilbert, without any preamble, said "Lely, can you dance a hornpipe?" I was rather taken aback, as I had quite forgotten having spoken about one. So, trying to be funny I suppose, I said "Well, Mr. Gilbert, as the man said when asked if he could play the fiddle, I've never tried so I don't know." Gilbert answered quite seriously "How soon can you know?" – and I said equally seriously – "To-morrow".[11]

After a few efforts, the ballet master confirmed: "Tell Mr. Gilbert you can". According to Lely, upon being so informed, "Gilbert said 'Right, I'll get Sullivan to write you one.'"[4] The Times noted Lely's improved stage persona: "Mr Durward Lely was at first a very awkward actor, and yet, under Mr Gilbert's training, developed into the dashing tar in Ruddigore'.[12]

Grand opera, concert work and later years[edit]

Lely in 1895

Late in 1887, when the run of Ruddigore ended, Lely left the D'Oyly Carte company and pursued a concert and grand opera career.[4] He appeared with Adelina Patti on numerous occasions, and she said he was her favourite tenor.[1] He frequently sang Don José in Carmen, including appearing opposite Zélie de Lussan at Covent Garden in 1893, and also opposite Minnie Hauk.[13] The Observer wrote of one of his performances in the role, "His acting was pathetic, impressive and natural; his elocution was polished, and he sang delightfully from beginning to end."[14] He had numerous operatic and concert engagements in London and elsewhere between 1890 and 1893. His operatic appearances included several at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, beginning with the Carl Rosa Opera Company in William Vincent Wallace's Lurline as Count Rudolph.[15] In an 1891 interview, while touring with Carl Rosa, Lely stated that he most enjoyed concert work.[3] In 1893, he sang in Goring Thomas's opera The Golden Web at the Lyric Theatre. Lely rejoined Patti, touring America with her in 1893–94.[1] With Savoy colleague Richard Temple, he later toured in Rob Roy. He also spent some time performing with his own opera company, performed on tour with Carl Rosa and sang oratorio.[6][4] In 1905 at the St. James's Theatre he starred in a play called Beside the Bonnie Briar Bush with Henry Ainley and Lilian Braithwaite.[16]

Lely toured with his wife in an entertainment called "Scottish Song and Story" before retiring to Scotland.[1] He also appeared in the 1911 film of Rob Roy. He became a close friend of fellow D'Oyly Carte principal Henry Lytton, even though Lytton's long tenure with the company took place mostly after Lely had left it.[17] Lely outlived nearly all of the singers with whom he had performed at the Savoy Theatre, and newspapers referred to him as the last surviving Savoyard, but younger performers in the original runs of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas lived much longer (for example Decima Moore and Nancy McIntosh).

Lely died in Glasgow on 29 February 1944, at the age of 91.[1] The date of his death is ironic for a Gilbert and Sullivan tenor, in that 29 February, leap day, is the birthday of the tenor character, Frederic, in The Pirates of Penzance, which becomes a key plot point. In Act II of the opera, Frederic promises to claim his bride on his 21st birthday, which will not take place until 1940.[18] Lely thus died one "birthday" after that.[19]


In 2007, Simon Moss revealed a newly discovered pamphlet called Mr Durward Lely, The Eminent Tenor. The 20-page booklet describes Lely's career. It was first published in three installments in March and April 1894 in The Blairgowrie Advertiser and then issued in booklet form. Although the pamphlet does not credit an author, it is patent that it is self-written. Lely praises Gilbert as a director.[2]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g The Times obituary, 2 March 1944, p. 7
  2. ^ a b Moss, Simon. "Durward Lely Remembers Gilbert", W. S. Gilbert Society Journal, vol. 3, issue 21, Summer 2007, pp. 665–66
  3. ^ a b c Mr. Durward Lely. The Musical Herald, 1 May 1891, pp. 131–32
  4. ^ a b c d e f Stone, David. "Durward Lely", Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, 17 August 2001, accessed 25 November 2009
  5. ^ Adams, p. 254
  6. ^ a b Fraser, Stephen. "Durward Lely", OperaScotland.org, accessed 25 July 2014
  7. ^ The Times, 31 January 1881, p. 8.
  8. ^ Rollins and Witts, pp. 8–9
  9. ^ a b Rollins and Witts, p. 10
  10. ^ Topsy-Turvy at the IMDB database, accessed 25 November 2009
  11. ^ Lely, Durward. The Gilbert & Sullivan Journal, July 1926, London
  12. ^ The Times, 19 March 1888, p. 4
  13. ^ The Times, 16 January 1942, p. 5
  14. ^ The Observer, 27 September 1891, p. 6
  15. ^ The Times, 14 April 1890, p. 10
  16. ^ The Observer, 3 December 1905, p. 5
  17. ^ Profile of Lely at the Memories of the D'Oyly Carte website, accessed 25 November 2009
  18. ^ Atkinson, Brooks. "Leap Year Pirate Freed", The New York Times, 25 February 1940, p. 113
  19. ^ Gilbert, W. S. "The Pirates of Penzance" at The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, 1879, accessed 25 November 2009


  • Adams, William Davenport. A dictionary of the drama (1904) Chatto & Windus.
  • Ayre, Leslie (1972). The Gilbert & Sullivan Companion. London: W.H. Allen & Co Ltd.  Introduction by Martyn Green.
  • Rollins, Cyril; R. John Witts (1962). The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in Gilbert and Sullivan Operas: A Record of Productions, 1875–1961. Michael Joseph. 
  • Autobiographical pamphlet: Mr Durward Lely, The Eminent Tenor (1894)
  • Hooey Charles A. "Durward Lely". MusicWeb International, accessed 2 August 2011

External links[edit]