The partnership between composer, theatrical agent, impresario and hotelier Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901), composer Arthur Sullivan (later Sir, 1842-1900) and playwright and librettist William Schwenk Gilbert (later Sir, 1836-1911) resulted in some of the most memorable comic operas ever produced, and ranks as one of the most prolific and successful theatrical collaborations of all time.
D'Oyly Carte began his career working alongside his father (Richard Carte, originally Cart; 1808–1891) in his music publishing and instrument-making business. By 1874 he was producing operettas on the London stage, and by the following year was business manager of the Royalty Theatre. He first brought Gilbert and Sullivan together for the one-act operetta Trial by Jury (1875) at the Royalty, the duo having previously been encouraged to collaborate by John Hollingshead in 1871 on Thespis for his Gaiety Theatre. On the Dublin leg of the Trial by Jury tour in 1875, D'Oyly Carte met Helen Lenoir (1852-1913). Working as an actress at the time, she returned to England with him to help realise his ambition of establishing a permanent home for the production of English comic opera. She quickly became invaluable to the running and management of D'Oyly Carte's affairs, eventually managing most of his Company business, particularly tour arrangements. Following the death of D'Oyly Carte's first wife Blanche Prowse in 1885, he and Helen Lenoir were married in 1888.
In 1876 D'Oyly Carte formed the Comedy Opera Company in order to produce more work by Gilbert and Sullivan. The Sorcerer, their first full opera in collaboration, opened in 1877 at the Opera Comique, leased by D'Oyly Carte for the production. Following this came H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) which was such a success that it prompted the three to form a new partnership, eventually known as the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. The success of the production and their desire to combat unauthorised productions of their work in the USA brought about the Company’s first American tour. Their following two works; The Pirates of Penzance (which premiered in Paignton New York in 1879 prior to its London opening in 1880) and Patience (1881) were the final operas staged at the Opera Comique.
In 1881 D'Oyly Carte built the Savoy Theatre which opened with a transfer of Patience from the Opera Comique. Subsequent Gilbert and Sullivan operas premiered at the Savoy; Iolanthe (1882), Princess Ida (1884), The Mikado (1885 – the profits of which funded the building of the Savoy Hotel), Ruddigore (1887), The Yeomen of the Guard (1888), The Gondoliers (1889), Utopia, Limited (1889) and The Grand Duke (1889). The duo's operas became known as the Savoy Operas.
The partnership disbanded in 1890 following a legal dispute between Gilbert and D'Oyly Carte over the payment of maintenance costs for the Savoy Theatre. Sullivan sided with D'Oyly Carte, who went on to produce Sullivan and Julian Sturgis's opera Ivanhoe (1891) as the inaugural production for his newly built Royal English Opera House. Gilbert and Sullivan were reconciled in 1893 and wrote Utopia, Ltd, and their final collaborative work was The Grand Duke (1896).
Gilbert had built the Garrick Theatre in 1889 and continued to write for the theatre after the collaborative partnership with Sullivan had ended. Sullivan continued to compose operas with other librettists, as well as incidental music for dramatic works and a ballet celebrating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee at the Alhambra Theatre (1897). The Rose of Persia (1899) with a libretto by Basil Hood was his final completed work. He died in 1900 leaving an incomplete score of The Emerald Isle, another collaboration with Hood. Gilbert died in 1911, a few months after the premier of his final one-act play, The Hooligan, which played at The Coliseum.
The Savoy Theatre went on to host works by other composer-librettist partnerships as well as producing revivals and repertory seasons of Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Following D'Oyly Carte's death in 1901, Helen Carte leased the theatre to William Greet, but oversaw several productions there including Sullivan's The Emerald Isle (1901) finished by Edward German, and a revival of Iolanthe. On her acquisition in 1906 of the performing rights of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas she leased the theatre to herself and produced successful repertory seasons (1906-1908) with Gilbert as director.
Helen Carte died in 1913, leaving the Company (by this time a touring repertory company) and the Savoy buildings to Rupert D'Oyly Carte (1876-1948) a son from D'Oyly Carte's first marriage. He had the original Savoy Theatre rebuilt in 1929 and ran it until 1948. During this time he commissioned new designs for several of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas and sanctioned a number of official alterations to the original texts. He produced Gilbert and Sullivan seasons at the Savoy as well as the Prince’s and Sadler’s Wells Theatres.
Rupert’s daughter Bridget (Dame Bridget Cicely D’Oyly Carte, 1908-1985) inherited the family businesses following Rupert's death in 1948. In 1961, following the expiry of the copyright, The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company became an independent charitable trust, with Dame Bridget as chairperson and managing director. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company became a private company, of which she was chairperson and managing director. She ran the company until 1982, when mounting costs and a lack of funding forced its closure.
Following Dame Bridget's death in 1985 a new D'Oyly Carte Company was formed with assistance from a legacy in her will. The company presented new productions of works by Gilbert and Sullivan and others between 1988 and 2003, and in 2013 a production of The Pirates of Penzance with Scottish Opera, their last production to date.