Durward Lely as Nanki-Poo in The Mikado

Durward Lely (1880-87)

[Born Arbroath, Co. Angus, Scotland 2 Sep 1852, died Glasgow 29 Feb 1944]

Born James Durward Lyall, Durward Lely studied singing in Milan before making his stage debut, under the name Signor Leli, in 1878 as Don Jose in Carmen with the Mapleson Opera Company at His Majesty's Theatre. After two years on tour with Mapleson, he joined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company at the Opera Comique, and in November 1880 replaced George Power as Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance.At Arthur Sullivan's recommendation he adopted the name of Durward Lely, which he used, not only on stage, but also in his personal life.

By April 1881 Power had left the Company and Durward Lely became its principal tenor, creating the roles of the Duke of Dunstable in Patience (April 1881), Earl Tolloller in Iolanthe (December 1882), and Cyril in Princess Ida (January 1884). When The Sorcerer and Trial by Jury were revived in October 1884, Lely at first did double duty:serving as the Defendant in Trial while playing Alexis in The Sorcerer. He gave up the Defendant in the curtain raiser to Charles Hildesley in November.

He next created his greatest role, Nanki-Poo in The Mikado, in March 1885, appearing throughout its lengthy run. When the Japanese opera finally ran its course in January 1887, Lely created the part of Richard Dauntless in Ruddygore. In an article Lely wrote for The Gilbert & Sullivan Journal (July 1926), he explained how Dauntless's famous hornpipe was introduced:

"At the first music rehearsal, or rather the first time the music was played over to us by Sullivan at the pianowe 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.'"

After visiting a ballet master who announced, after a few efforts, "Tell Mr. Gilbert you can," Lely did so. Upon hearing the news, according to Lely, "Gilbert said 'Right, I'll get Arthur to write you one.' And it was so."

Lely left the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in November 1887 when Ruddigore's run ended. He went onto the concert and grand opera stages where he appeared opposite Adelina Patti, and in Carmen again opposite Emily Soldene, singing in Liverpool "every night for three consecutive weeks to crammed houses," according to Miss Soldene's recollections. Between 1890 and 1893 he had numerous operatic engagements in London, primarily at Drury Lane. He rejoined Patti on many occasions, touring America with her in 1893-94. He later toured with Richard Temple in Rob Roy, performed with his own opera company for a time, sang in many operas on tour with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, performed oratorio and cantanas, and toured with his wife in an entertainment called "Scottish Song and Story," before retiring to his native highlands.

Page created August 27, 2001 © 2001 David Stone