Opera Scotland

Durward Lely Suggest updates

James Durward Lyall;  Signor Leli.

Born Arbroath, 5 April 1852.

Died Glasgow, 29 February 1944.

Scottish tenor.

Although he is remembered today largely for creating the role of Nanki-Poo in The Mikado, as well as several other leading Gilbert and Sullivan parts, Durward Lely had a long and varied career embracing serious opera as well as Scottish drama and song recitals.

James Durward Lyall's father was a stonemason employed by Patrick Allan Fraser, a wealthy patron of the arts based in Arbroath, who also had a country estate. Lyall therefore grew up in highland Perthshire (between Blairgowrie and Glenshee).  After leaving school, he worked in a solicitor's office in Blairgowrie, while studying singing for a year in Dundee on Saturday mornings. In this Lyall was sponsored by Patrick Allan Fraser, under the tutelage of Henry Nagel, a Prussian expatriate who dominated musical life in the town. Allan Fraser next paid for him to train in Milan under Trivulzi and Sebastiano Ronconi.  After three years Lyall was given further advice in Rome by Mario, before making his debut in Cremona in 1875. During three seasons in minor Italian houses, singing under the stage name Durvardo Leli, his repertory included roles by Rossini (Almaviva), Donizetti (Nemorino, Gennaro, Edgardo, Fernando, Ernesto), Verdi (Manrico), Ponchielli (Renzo in I promessi sposi) and Gounod (Faust).

In 1878 Lyall returned to Britain where, under contract to Mapleson, he studied several roles in Italian under Alberto Randegger, including Don José, which he covered during the first London run.  His official British debut came in February 1879 as Don José with Carl Rosa, singing in English. He then toured Britain singing under Mapleson's management. When Emily Soldene added Carmen to her repertoire he joined her company under the management of Richard D'Oyly Carte and conducted by Eugène Goossens I. This tour also provided his first experience of Gilbert and Sullivan, when Trial By Jury was introduced to the repertoire.

In 1880 he joined the D'Oyly Carte organisation in London during the run of Pirates of Penzance at the Opera-Comique. At this point he anglicised his stage name from Durvardo Leli to Durward Lely (his real surname being already used by the veteran character tenor Charles Lyall). He remained with the Gilbert and Sullivan organisation, creating roles in the next five operas - Dunstable (Patience 1881), Tolloller (Iolanthe 1882), Cyril (Princess Ida 1884), Nanki-Poo (The Mikado 1885) and Dick Dauntless (Ruddigore 1887).  During this period he maintained an operatic presence by appearing occasionally in charity matinees arranged by his Savoy Theatre colleague Richard Temple. These included Rigoletto at the Gaiety Theatre (1886).

After leaving D'Oyly Carte he sang in several other operas including the premieres of Carina (Woolf 1888)  and Nydia (Fox 1892), as well as a revised version of The Golden Web (Goring Thomas 1893). He toured extensively with the Carl Rosa company in roles such as Don José, Faust, Wilhelm Meister, Don Caesar, Thaddeus, Lionel and Rudolph (Lurline).  Carmen was also the opera of his Covent Garden debut in 1892 (at last singing it in the Italian version he had learned back in 1878).

He worked several times with Adelina Patti, most notably on an extensive American tour which included the first performances of Pizzi's Gabriella (Boston 1893). Patti remained a close family friend over many years and was godmother to Lely's youngest child, born in 1897, and named Elizabeth Alice Adelina Patti Lely. He also sang at the opening performances of the theatre in her Welsh mansion at Craig-y-Nos.

In 1896 he bought a 3-acre estate at Glenardle, Bridge of Cally, near his childhood Perthshire home. The mansion he built there would be his base for the rest of his life.  He was occasionally summoned to provide entertainment at Balmoral.  His three sons were moved from school in Surbiton to complete their education at Fettes College in Edinburgh.  The youngest boy went to Cambridge University and became a Scottish international rugby player. 

The second half of his career was devoted to extensive tours of Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In these Lely delivered programmes of Scottish songs and ballads of his own devising and with his wife's piano accompaniments to large audiences of expatriate Scots and their descendants. These were hugely profitable enterprises, as were two long-running theatrical productions, firstly Rob Roy, then The Bonnie Briar Bush. These were large scale, almost operatic, stage works where the drama was interspersed with popular Scottish songs. Lely collaborated on these (until his death in 1912) with a leading Scottish actor, William Mollison, who had succeeded Sir Henry Irving as manager of the London Lyceum.  Lely continued to tour these regularly all over Britain until his final retirement from the stage in 1922, at which point he published his reminiscences, Memoirs of a Master-Singer, as a serial in the Dundee Advertiser.

OperaScotland will be adding performances to the schedule below as we identify them.

Roles in Scotland

Don José a corporal of dragoons
Carmen 1880
Carmen 1891
Carmen 1891
Don Florio a Portuguese Admiral, Governor of the Naval Academy, Captain of the Fleet
Naval Cadet 1880
Trial By Jury 1880
Lionel Plunkett's foster-brother
Martha 1888
Don Caesar de Bazan
Maritana 1889
Concert Party 1890
Pollione Roman Pro-consul in Gaul
Norma 1892

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