John Reed, who died in Halifax on February 13 – his 94th birthday – was for many the embodiment of the true Gilbert and Sullivan tradition represented by the “old” D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which in 1982 ceased its continuous performances that had begun in 1875.
Reed was born in the village of Close House, near Bishop Auckland, in 1916, the son of a butcher and a singer. He played the piano as a child and studied elocution, dancing, singing and mime, but took on a range of jobs during World War II. Afterwards he began his theatrical career, winning medals for dance and performing in musical comedy with his local Darlington Operatic Society. Then in 1951, when Peter Pratt took over the leading Gilbert and Sullivan comedy roles from Martyn Green, Reed was invited to Glasgow to audition for the D’Oyly Carte. Though seven years Pratt’s senior, Reed was taken on as Pratt’s understudy. For over seven years he sang in the chorus, additionally taking minor roles such as Major Murgatroyd in Patience, and later adding the Learned Judge in Trial by Jury and Cox in Cox and Box, as well as making occasional appearances in Pratt’s roles.
Then, in 1959 Pratt resigned, and Reed claimed those leading comedy roles as his own. With a less pure singing voice than Pratt (who was a deeper baritone), Reed had to overcome a lot of prejudice from Pratt’s fans. However, his nimble dancing, characterful light-baritone singing, and the business he was able to introduce into encores and elsewhere within the generally rigid D’Oyly Carte constraints, soon helped to establish his own loyal following, and the personal rapport he enjoyed with his fans grew to legendary status. For twenty years he sang and recorded for Decca – sometimes more than once – principal comic roles in all the G&S works, including Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke when added for the D’Oyly Carte’s 1975 centenary year.
After leaving D’Oyly Carte in 1979 at the age of 63 he continued to perform in Britain and America, including some non-G&S roles. He finally settled in Halifax, Yorkshire, and remained true to G&S by directing local amateur groups and at the annual Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton. He was appointed OBE in 1977 and in 2006 published his reminiscences in conjunction with his former D’Oyly Carte colleague Cynthia Morey.