The G&S Operas on Radio

The D'Oyly Carte Broadcasts
It didn't happen often, but from time to time the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company broadcast part of an opera, or an entire opera, on BBC radio. Until the 1950s, none of these broadcasts is known to survive, though they are of course notable for their historical importance. Those after the mid-fifties, or so, still survive in private copies made off the air.

Chris Webster has provided a comprehensive summary of all the known D'Oyly Carte broadcasts. I have provided separate pages for the broadcasts listed at the right, for which I have substantial reviews and/or background information. The complete listing will be found on Chris's page.

Miscellaneous BBC Broadcasts

Chris Webster has provided a listing of some of the more important non-D'Oyly Carte BBC broadcasts, mostly from the first half of the 20th century. His report is on a separate page.

The BBC Complete Broadcasts
In 1966, the BBC undertook the massive task of recording and broadcasting all of the extant Gilbert and Sullivan operas with complete dialogue. The operas were broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on Sundays at noon, one every two or three weeks. The series was then repeated in late 1967/early 1968. The BBC recruited excellent casts, headed by former D'Oyly Carte patter baritone Peter Pratt. Only a few other singers with D'Oyly Carte experience participated, but most of the artists had top-flight light opera credentials.

Most of the operas in the 1966 series were conducted by Stanford Robinson. Some years later, he told a meeting of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society that he had carefully corrected the orchestra parts D'Oyly Carte provided, rectifying many inconsistencies, traditional “wrong notes,” and other errors. Afterwords the D'Oyly Carte, far from expressing any gratitude for his efforts, carefully removed all his annotations and sent him a bill for the clean-up.

One oddity of the series was the casting of different performers in the music and the dialogue (for most parts, at any rate). At the same Gilbert and Sullivan Society meeting, Stanford Robinson explained that the music and dialogue were recorded at different sessions, and for the latter, actors were used because they were cheaper than singers. As Michael Walters observed, “Presumably those (like Peter Pratt) who did both dialogue and music were those who were willing to be paid a lower rate for the dialogue sessions.” Leon Berger added that most of the the actors used were already in the BBC repertory company and may have been on retainer.

In 1984, the BBC started to record the whole canon yet again. As before, the parts were taken by top-flight light opera singers, including a former D'Oyly Carter here and there. Unlike the earlier BBC series, they spoke their own dialogue. Eight of the operas were conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, one by Ashley Lawrence, and the remaining four by Barry Wordsworth. The project took five years to complete, and none were broadcast until the entire set was recorded. The broadcasts were finally heard in late 1989 on BBC Radio 2.

Chris Webster was able to fill in the recording dates (some of them only approximate) for the 1989 series:

OperaConductorRec. Date
RuddigoreCharles Mackerras1984
Princess IdaCharles Mackerras1984
PiratesCharles MackerrasFeb. 1985
TrialCharles MackerrasMar. 1985
YeomenCharles Mackerras1985
PinaforeCharles MackerrasJan. 1986
MikadoCharles MackerrasJun. 1986
GondoliersCharles Mackerras1986
PatienceAshley Lawrence1988
IolantheBarry WordsworthJan. 1989
SorcererBarry WordsworthMar. 1989
UtopiaBarry Wordsworth1989
Grand DukeBarry Wordsworth1989

Obviously Mackerras's involvement with the series came to an end for some reason as yet unexplained, and there was a considerable time lag before the recordings resumed. The series was undoubtedly intended to be completed much earlier, and one imagines BBC executives getting itchy as the years dragged on. One also wonders at the sequence of the recordings; aside from delaying the three least-popular operas to the end, there is no apparent pattern in the order of the recordings.

To date, none of the BBC recordings has been released commercially. A number of G&S fans have lobbied the BBC for their release. (The BBC has made many important opera recordings over the years, some of which have made it onto disc.) The BBC's current position is that the task of obtaining permission from all the performers is too onerous.

Nevertheless, the recordings are listed here for their historical importance. Many collectors have copies taken off the air, and it is not unreasonable to hope that the series will appear on CD, eventually.

Thanks to Helga Perry and Pete Withey for cast information.

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