Bertha Lewis as the Lady Jane in Patience

Bertha Lewis (1906-10, 1914-31)

[Born London 12 May 1887, died Cambridge 8 May 1931]

Bertha Amy Lewis had trained at the Royal Academy of Music and appeared on the concert platform when she made her stage debut at the age of 19 with the D'Oyly Carte Principal Repertory Opera Company in August and September 1906 as Kate in The Pirates of Penzance. From December 1906 to April 1908 she toured with the Repertory Company as Kate in Pirates, the Lady Saphir in Patience, Leila in Iolanthe, Ada in Princess Ida, Vittoria in The Gondoliers, and (from July 1907) First Bridesmaid in Trial by Jury. She reported to the Savoy in April 1908 where she sang in the chorus during the Second London Repertory Season, and also from July forward took the part of Gwenny Davis in the Fenn & Faraday curtain raiser A Welsh Sunset, that played with H.M.S. Pinafore.

In October 1908 she left the Savoy to tour once more with the Repertory Company:this time as Kate in Pirates, Saphir, Leila, Ada, and Inez in The Gondoliers. In September 1909 she replaced Ethel Morrison as principal contralto, switching to the new roles of Little Buttercup in H.M.S. Pinafore, Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance, the Lady Jane in Patience, the Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe, Lady Blanche in Princess Ida, Katisha in The Mikado, Dame Carruthers in The Yeomen of the Guard, and the Duchess of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers. But in March 1910, Miss Lewis left the Company and was in turn replaced by Louie Rene.

During her absence from the D'Oyly Carte organization, she toured the United Kingdom in concerts and grand opera, appearing as Carmen in Carmen, Dalila in Samson and Delilah, and Amneris in Aïda. (It is said that, after her return to the Company, Rupert D'Oyly Carte considered expanding the Company's repertoire just so she could play Carmen.)

She returned to the Company in December 1914, replacing Louie Rene as principal contralto. Over the next 16 and a half years she appeared in all the leading contralto roles: Lady Sangazure in The Sorcerer, Buttercup, Ruth in Pirates, Lady Jane, Fairy Queen, Lady Blanche, Katisha, Dame Hannah in Ruddigore, Dame Carruthers, and the Duchess of Plaza-Toro. She also recorded most of them: Buttercup (part in 1922, all in 1931), Ruth (1931), Jane (1930), Queen of the Fairies (1929), Blanche (1924), Katisha (1926), Hannah (1924), and the Duchess (1927). She participated in a 1926 BBC radio broadcast of The Mikado, and may be seen as Katisha in a four-minute promotional film made to promote the Charles Ricketts-redressed Mikado in 1926.

In May 1931 she was a passenger in Henry Lytton's motor-car when, as Lytton writes, "...We were nearing Cambridge, about six miles away, on the Huntingdon Road, driving through a blinding rainstorm on an asphalt surface which was very slippery. We were traveling at not more than twenty miles an hour when suddenly the car got into a front wheel skid....I had sufficient control to right it again, and thought all was well, when my two front wheels apparently came in contact with a patch of thick crude oil on the road....The next thing I knew was that the car had gone down an embankment, completing a somersault on the way down, finally...coming to a standstill the right way up." Lytton suffered rib, leg, and kidney injuries, but survived. Bertha Lewis was taken unconscious to a nursing home where she died four days later.

Bertha Lewis is generally regarded as the greatest contralto in D'Oyly Carte history. Her powerful voice (listen to her invocation on the 1929 Iolanthe) and equally formidable stage presence were legendary.

Page modified March 19, 2007 © 2001-07 David Stone