27 Nov

The Operatic Superstar and Rob Roy MacGregor

Archive, Norman Mowatt

As we continue to explore the adverts from the Campbeltown Courier from the years before the Picture House opened we keep coming across amazing characters, and in this case a genuine international superstar.

James Durward Lyall was born in Arbroath on Scotland’s East coast. His father worked for the Artist and Arts patron Patrick Allan Fraser who had a home at Hospitalfield House in Arbroath (now held in trust as house and venue for arts and cultural residences) and a country estate near Blairgowrie in Perthshire. The young James was interested in music and sang in the local church choir and in a singing class locally. He was talent spotted after singing at a local charity concert and after performing for Patrick Allan Fraser and his wife he visited a tenor in Dundee for a while then was sent off to study Opera in Milan where he stayed for five years.

On his return to the UK he made 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 in London. After two years his career took a different direction and he signed with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company at the Opera Comique becoming upon Arthur Sullivan’s recommendation, “Durward Lely.” He went on to create several of the most successful roles in productions of Gilbert and Sullivans works and performed with the company to great success. Those were the glory times for Gilbert and Sullivan with Lely playing no small part in ensuring their triumph. Veteran Savoy first-nighters and patrons knew that the tremendous success which met D’Oyly Carte’s every production was in great measure due to the artistic portrayals of such famous Savoyards as Leonora Braham, Jessie Bond, Rosina Brandram, Richard Temple and Durward Lely.

On leaving D’Oyly Carte, Lely went on to perform on the concert, oratorio, and grand opera stages to further success. He also toured extensively abroad and in America and Canada was famed for his repertoire of Scottish songs. Early in the twentieth century, Lely decided to take up a new challenge, one that related to his fascination with Scottish songs. He began to act in revivals of plays bearing a Scottish flavour, usually in a singing capacity. He would form a company of players and with his wife tour Scotland and Ireland. His musical plays he would frequently present in Alyth, near his home base of Blairgowrie, and thanks to the Alyth Guardian, useful reports of these ventures were issued and they survive. Early ventures were Guy Mannering, Rob Roy and Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush, the latter an ancient Scottish idyll in an adaptation by Ian MacLaren.

We have evidence in Campbeltown Courier adverts of his performing in Campbeltown. In April of 1904 with his friend, the famous Scottish actor John Clyde of Helensburgh, he performed Rob Roy then in March 1908 he was here again with John Clyde performing the ‘famous play’, The Bonnie Brier Bush. The advent of WW1 seems to have marked Durward Lely’s retirement from touring and further prominent performances, when he retired to his country home in Bridge of Cally on land between his father’s former home and the country estate of Patrick Allan Fraser. After the death of his wife in 1936 he lived for a time before his own death in 1944 with his eldest son, also Durward Lely, in Glasgow.

1.) Rob Roy (18th March 1904) © Campbeltown Courier
2.) The Bonnie Brier Bush (4th April 1908) © Campbeltown Courier
3.) Photographic copy of original 19th c. Sepia photograph of Durward Lely as Nanki-Poo in The Mikado at the Savoy Theatre
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
4.) Durward Lely in 1898. Efforts have been made to find a copyright holder for this image. Our sources are as follows:
Uploaded to Pinterest.com by Paul Sigrist.

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