Gilbert & Sullivan:
The Earliest Complete Recordings
In December, 1906, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company launched a celebrated London season of four operas in repertory, under W. S. Gilbert's personal direction. This event provided the impetus for HMV (then called “The Gramophone Company”) to start a series of G&S opera recordings. Although not truly “complete,” these represented the first attempt at issuing substantial excerpts from a single opera as part of a set.
Because of the severe limitations of the new recording technology, HMV decided to make their recordings with a stable of stock recording artists whose voices were known to “record well.” Thus, while Savoy Theatre audiences enjoyed the talents of D'Oyly Carte stars like Henry Lytton, Charles H. Workman, Leo Sheffield, Louie Rene and Jessie Rose, record buyers heard a pick-up group called the “Sullivan Operatic Party.” All of these were capable singers in their own right, but most had no stage experience in the G&S operas.
In those days, it was not unlikely that a singer encountered the music literally for the first time on the day of the recording. Orchestrations were skimpy and invariably were not close to Sullivan's. Little attempt was made at consistent casting, and the same role in a given set might be undertaken by as many as three or four singers. Most sales were probably of individual discs, not entire sets, so the typical buyer would not have noticed this anyway.
The first recording made under these conditions was HMV's 1906 Mikado. It was followed by The Gondoliers and The Yeomen of the Guard (1907). The Pathé Company's 1907 Yeomen was undoubtedly meant to compete with HMV's offering, but Pathé's recordings required special equipment to play and evidently did not sell well in England. Very few copies of the full set are known to have survived.
Pinafore recordings were the rage in 1907-8. The Russell Hunting Company issued a set of excerpts in 1907. A bit later, Russell Hunting teamed up with Odeon in a nearly-complete recording with much the same cast. HMV recorded the opera twice in 1908--the first only of excerpts, and the second that company's first attempt at a truly complete set (well, almost complete) with a consistent cast. It included Amy Augarde, who had understudied Hebe in the 1888 revival at the Savoy. Odeon's final G&S set was the 1907 Mikado, notable for the presence of Walter Passmore in the cast, as Ko-Ko. Neither of Odeon's sets sold well, and only a few of each remain in existence today.
After the flurry of recordings from 1906-8, which roughly coincided with the repertory seasons Gilbert directed at the Savoy, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company departed central London for over a decade, and interest in making new G&S recordings diminished considerably. However, there was one additional recording made in the intervening years, the 1912 Edison Bell Mikado (with two of the same artists as on the 1906 set).