Sylvia Cecil

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Sylvia Cecil (c. 1898[1] – c. 1983) was an English singer and actress. She began her career in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. She soon moved on to musical comedy, including the musicals of Ivor Novello and Noël Coward, as well as variety and radio. Her career spanned at least five decades.


Cecil was born in London, England. She attended the Guildhall School of Music and made her stage debut in 1914 playing Titania in a youth production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.[2]

Early career[edit]

In 1918, Cecil was engaged by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company to play the leading role of the Plaintiff in Trial by Jury, as well as the smaller roles of the Lady Ella in Patience, Peep-Bo in The Mikado and Fiametta in The Gondoliers. In 1919 she added the principal soprano roles of Patience in Patience, the title role in Princess Ida (recreating that role for the company's first London revival of the opera in 1919), Yum-Yum in The Mikado, Elsie Maynard in The Yeomen of the Guard and Casilda in The Gondoliers. In 1920, she added to her repertory the role of Rose Maybud in Ruddigore, recreating that role when the opera was revived for the first time in Glasgow and then in London.[2] Critics from The Observer praised Cecil for her performances as Patience, Princess Ida and Elsie,[3] but Neville Cardus in The Manchester Guardian thought her Yum-Yum, "not quite in the right key.... She sang rather finely but her song at the beginning of Act II does not ask for a full-blown concert method."[4] Another critic of the same paper thought her voice "a little light" for Patience, but added that "she has gaiety and charm, and that is much."[5]

Cecil left the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1921 and began to perform in musical comedy. In 1922 she played Paula in Angel Face by Victor Herbert.[6] Cardus said of her performance in Katja the Dancer, that the piece "will not lose friends in Manchester with Miss Sylvia Cecil in the cast; it will be considered a virtue in her manner that at times it is not unlike the manner of Miss José Collins."[7] In 1928, she played Flora Campbell in Blue Eyes at the then-new Piccadilly Theatre.[8] She rejoined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company for the first half of 1930, playing the roles of Josephine in H.M.S. Pinafore, Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance, Yum-Yum in The Mikado, Rose Maybud in Ruddigore and Gianetta in The Gondoliers.[2]

Cecil performed with the Co-optimists troupe in 1931.[9] She also performed in music hall and variety in the early 1930s.[10] In 1935, she starred in Shout for Joy at the Blackpool Opera House.[11] She also began singing on the radio in the 1930s.[12]

Cecil rejoined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company again in 1936. During D'Oyly Carte's 36-week American tour, she played Ida, Patience, Josephine, Elsie, Gianetta and Yum-Yum.[13] During that visit, she sang the duet "Prithee, pretty maiden" from Patience with Derek Oldham at a White House party before the presidential inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.[14][15] She continued with the company until mid-1937, playing the same roles as she had played on the American tour.[2]

Later years[edit]

Cecil continued to act both in London and on provincial tours for many years and appeared regularly in concerts. She performed in Les Folies des Paris et Londres at the Prince of Wales's Theatre in 1937.[16] In 1941, she appeared in the film Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It (released in the U.S. as Mail Train).[17] In 1942, she starred in the title role of a revival of The Maid of the Mountains at the London Coliseum.[18][19] Together with Martyn Green, she toured Variety Halls during the early years of World War II. They called their act Words with Music, featuring songs from Gilbert and Sullivan.[2] In the 1940s, Cecil continued to sing regularly on the radio with a variety of orchestras. In 1945 she appeared in Perchance to Dream by Ivor Novello.[20] She next starred as Rosa Cariatanza in Pacific 1860 by Noël Coward opposite Mary Martin in 1946.[21] Theatre World wrote of her performance, "it stirs the audience to a semblance of life".[22] In 1948–49 she toured in a long-running revival of Novello's Glamorous Night.[23]

She starred as Rita in Coward's Ace of Clubs with Pat Kirkwood and Graham Payn in 1950. wrote of the cast album, "All three stars shine in this smart, sophisticated and amusing score."[24] In 1953 she appeared in Novello's King's Rhapsody. The Manchester Guardian said, "The production... is worth seeing for the performance of Sylvia Cecil. While all the rest of the cast are straining every sinew to put their parts over (and showing it), Miss Cecil gives the impression of playing with no effort at all. She makes no attempt to take the limelight, but succeeds in being more convincing than all the rest put together. It is a brilliant performance."[25] In 1955, Cecil sang in a revival of Novello's The Dancing Years staged on ice with a cast of 80 skaters.[26]

Cecil appeared at the Savoy Theatre in 1975 with other former members of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in the chorus of Trial by Jury at the last night Centenary production of that opera. After the performance, she spoke before the curtain thanking the audience on behalf of the "old favourites" for their warm reception.[2][27]


  1. ^ No birth record is found under this name. A "Lilian Sylvia Cecil" was born in the Holborn Registration District, Middlesex, Greater London, in the first Quarter of 1898: see GRO 1b/660. In the 1911 census, a Sylvia Cecil of Holborn, aged 13, is indexed as LIYHCIA. Parents are shown as William (a fishmonger) and Emma.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Stone, David. Sylvia Cecil at Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, 23 August 2004
  3. ^ "Patience", The Observer, 30 November 1919, p. 11; "Yeomen," The Observer, 7 December 1919, p. 11; "Princess Ida," The Observer, 4 January 1920, p. 11
  4. ^ "Theatre Royal", The Manchester Guardian, 17 March 1920, p. 7
  5. ^ A. S. W., "A Patience Audience", The Manchester Guardian, 17 November 1920, p. 14
  6. ^ Parker, John. Who's Who In The Theatre: A Biographical Record Of The Contemporary Stage", p. XLI, Small, Maynard & Company, Inc. (1925)
  7. ^ "Prince's Theatre", The Manchester Guardian, 13 October 1925, p. 14
  8. ^ The Play Pictorial 1920-1929, Theatre Collections: London Theatres
  9. ^ The Times, 19 January 1931, p. 10; and 26 January 1931, p. 8
  10. ^ The Times, 7 April 1934, p. 6; and 18 September 1934, p. 10
  11. ^ The Blackpool Opera House Story at the Arthur Lloyd theatre website
  12. ^ The Times, 3 April 1935, p. 25
  13. ^ Sylvia Cecil at the IBDB database
  14. ^ Ayre, p. 57
  15. ^ Derek Oldham obituary, The Times, 22 March 1968, p. 12
  16. ^ "The Week's Theatres", The Observer, 31 October 1937, p. 17
  17. ^ Sylvia Cecil at the IMDB
  18. ^ Green, p. 270
  19. ^ The Times, 2 April 1942, p. 6
  20. ^ Green, p. 333
  21. ^ Lewis, David. "Pacific 1860", The Guide to Musical Theatre
  22. ^ "Pacific 1860", Record Cabinet, Musical
  23. ^ "McHugh's voice has a power and sweetness that seems lacking in that of Gigli", Black Country Bugle, 19 March 2009
  24. ^ "Ace of Clubs", (2006)
  25. ^ E. G., "King's Rhapsody at the Palace", The Manchester Guardian, 15 September 1953, p. 5
  26. ^ The Manchester Guardian, 15 July 1955, p. 7
  27. ^ The Savoyard, Vol. 14, No. 2, September 1975


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