Elsie Griffin as Yum-Yum in The Mikado

Elsie Griffin (1919-27)

[Born Bristol 6 Dec 1895, died Blackheath, Surrey 21 Dec 1989]

Elsie Griffin was one of the most popular and successful singers in the history of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. She made her stage debut during World War I with Lena Ashwell's Company, formed at the request of King George V to entertain Britain's troops in France. The lyricist Fred E. Weatherby, impressed by the beauty of her voice, brought her two of his songs, "Danny Boy" (to the traditional "Londonderry Air") and "Roses of Picardy" (music by Haydn Wood), and her singing of them resulted in two of the most popular hits of the era, if not the century.

She joined the D'Oyly Carte Repertory Opera Company in March 1919, appearing as Josephine in H.M.S. Pinafore, Kate in The Yeomen of the Guard, and Gianetta in The Gondoliers during her first months with the Company. She began the following season (July 1919-June 1920) as one of two principal sopranos (with Sylvia Cecil), singing Aline in The Sorcerer, Josephine, Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance, Lady Ella in Patience, Phyllis in Iolanthe, Kate in The Yeomen of the Guard, and Gianetta in The Gondoliers. She turned Lady Ella over to Nancy Ray in September 1919, and Aline and Phyllis would be taken for a time by Helen Gilliland during the September 1919-January 1920 season at the Princes Theatre.

For the 1920-21 season, she had Josephine, Mabel, Phyllis, Kate, and Gianetta (Sorcerer was out of the repertoire for the year) as her own. In 1921-22 she would add Aline and Ella, as well as Yum-Yum in The Mikado and Rose Maybud in Ruddigore, the latter two as a result of the departure of Sylvia Cecil, but she would also relinquish Phyllis and Yum-Yum temporarily to Miss Gilliland, who returned again for another London season (October 1921-April 1922).

She gave up her two smallest roles (Ella to Nancy Ray:again, Kate to May Bennett) for the 1922-23 season, and also yielded Phyllis to Winifred Lawson, who was by then the other principal soprano. Elsie Griffin's roles would be Aline, Josephine, Mabel, Yum-Yum, Rose, and Gianetta. In March 1923 she married J. Ivan "Jimmy" Menzies, small part player and understudy to the comic baritone with the D'Oyly Carte "New" Opera Company, who would join her with the Repertory Company in July 1923 in the same capacity.

In 1923-24 Miss Griffin retained her six roles from the previous season, and also took a share of Kate and Ella again (both with Helene François and Freda Pettit), and filled in on occasion for Miss Lawson as Phyllis. In 1924-25 and 1925-26 (with The Sorcerer out of the repetoire), it was five roles (Josephine, Mabel, Yum-Yum, Rose, and Gianetta), with Yum-Yum (both seasons) and Gianetta (1925-26 only) were shared with Miss Lawson. In 1926 she appeared as Yum-Yum in a four-minute silent promotional film made of the D'Oyly Carte Mikado.

She seems to have had the same five roles to herself for the first half of the next season, but she would leave the Repertory Company to join her husband with the "New" Company in December 1926. Menzies had returned to the "New" Company in July 1925 to succeed Frank Steward in the patter roles, and Miss Griffin chose to step down to the second company rather than embark on a 21-week Canadian tour.

She was only with the "New" Company a short time, appearing as Mabel, Rose, and (for the first time) as Casilda in The Gondoliers, when Rupert D'Oyly Carte decided to shut it down in April 1927. Her career as a stage performer with D'Oyly Carte, was over.

Not so her recording career. Already an established recording artist when she joined the Company, she was one of the first D'Oyly Carte women to appear on the HMV recordings of the full operas. She had recorded both Rose Maybud and Zorah on the Company's 1924 Ruddigore, and Yum-Yum on the 1926 Mikado before she left the Company. (She also did Yum-Yum in a BBC radio broadcast that year.) After she left, she was called back on three occasions to record Mabel (1929 Pirates), Kate (1929 Yeomen), and Josephine (1930 Pinafore). Her 1929 recording of "Poor Wandering One" from the Pirates set was voted the best British gramophone solo that year, and when the Pirates set was reissued on LP in 1981 a New York Times critic wrote that her "secure coloratura and bell-like purity of tone" made her the definitive Mabel.

She appeared briefly in 1929 at the Playhouse Theatre in The Rose and the Ring, and was a frequent performer in variety, concerts, oratorio, and broadcasting. She toured Britain in Wild Violets, and South Africa in Gilbert & Sullivan operas and in Lilac Time. From 1934 to 1937 she toured with the Carl Rosa Opera Company singing leading soprano parts in Die Fledermaus, The Barber of Seville, Carmen, Romeo and Juliet, The Tales of Hoffman, Faust, and The Elixir of Love.

Her last stage appearance was in the Moral Re-Armament musical, The Vanishing Island, in which she toured around the world with her husband from 1955 until 1957.

Page created August 27, 2001 © 2001 David Stone