Robert Pourvoyeur



Andrew Lamb writes:

The death of Robert Pourvoyeur from a heart attack at his home in Overijse, just outside Brussels, on Christmas Day at the age of 83 has robbed the world of operetta and musical theatre of one of its greatest devotees. It has also robbed me of one of my longest standing and dearest friends.

It was on 5 December 1972 that I first typed a letter to him. It was in response to an advertisement in his name in The Gilbert & Sullivan Journal for the “purchase or exchange of scores and recordings of uncommon classic operettas (Sullivan, Offenbach, Lecoq [sic], etc.) and old comic operas”. An answer came back, written in longhand and fluent English, dated 13 December 1972 – telling me that he already knew something of my own writings. More particularly, it told me something about himself:

“I too have had a long interest in French operetta, as a kind of secret garden in my general liking of opera music. It began in fact when I was 15, in 1939, Offenbach being “the” favourite (I discovered Sullivan only in ± 1953-54, owing to the fact that his music is rarely played on the continent). I boast on a relatively large documentation on lyric music (more than 3,000 vocal scores, about 2,000 recordings of opera and operettas, ± 450 libretti, and a large specialized library) but I am still looking for possibilities of enlarging my collection.”

He went on to say that writing was something that he enjoyed, that he had published quite a lot in his specialized professional field (including a 100-page book in Dutch on the Council of the European Communities), but that he much more enjoyed publishing something on his hobby. He added that, “I have succeeded in publishing a large (or shall we say lengthy) study on the relationship Offenbach – Jules Verne and am waiting for the publication of two smaller things about the Spanish zarzuela (I have about 200 vocal scores of zarzuelas!).” He ended his letter with a statement of his professional credentials:- “Robert POURVOYEUR, LL.D., M. econom., professor Antwerp University, head of department Council of the European Communities.”

The references to French operetta, Jules Verne and zarzuela fairly summed up what ever after seemed to be his major loves. But that letter was written 35 years ago! How much more must he have added to his collection since then? And how many hundreds of thousands of words must he have written, whether in articles in a range of languages and for innumerable publications, or in separate publications under his own name? Most particularly his contributions to the French quarterly magazine Opérette over a period of thirty-odd years make it difficult to imagine that publication without him.

Particularly in the early years of our correspondence he sent me his published articles of a remarkable variety, including one in English entitled Presidency of the Council in the EC, written to mark Ireland’s assumption of the EEC Presidency on 1 January 1975. His work for the Council gave him plenty of opportunity for travel, and with it came opportunities to add to his opera-going and his collection. We first met in my office in London in March 1975 when he was over for the D’Oyly Carte centenary season that embraced the full set of Gilbert and Sullivan works. At that same time the National Operatic and Dramatic Association was having an extensive clear-out of under-used vocal scores. “Bob” had a large collection of them shipped over to Belgium.

His first book on Offenbach was published in 1977 in Dutch under the auspices of (of all organisations) the St Aloysius Economic High School of Brussels. An Italian translation followed in 1980, and in 1994 came his richly illustrated Offenbach, published in Paris. His writings were reliant not so much on diligence of research (he could hardly have had much time for that) as on his own immense knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, his subject. He was, of course, every bit as much the authority on Verne as on Offenbach, and he never seemed happier than when writing about the two together. He did so, for instance, in a contribution I obtained from him for a booklet put out by the Offenbach 1980 Committee to mark the centenary of the composer’s death.

Robert Pourvoyeur - compliment slip

If our correspondence tailed off over the years, it was not least because e-mail tended to make letter-writing outdated. That didn’t affect Bob in the slightest, since he never progressed even to using a typewriter, let alone e-mail. To the very end his communications and articles were hand-written. Our friendship, though, was perhaps all the stronger for our remaining together in spirit and for the wonderfully happy times and the prolonged conversations we enjoyed together on the rare occasions when we did meet. I treasure, for instance, the memory of walking with him over several days in Paris in 1988 when we were both members of the jury of the Offenbach International Singing Competition. I treasure also the memory of the occasion when we were both in Munich in 1995 for a conference on Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. After settling in my hotel room, I came out into the corridor and at once saw a familiar figure. We were due to attend a pre-conference get-together that evening; but I’m afraid that we played truant. For both of us there was an altogether more compelling attraction in José Tamayo’s Festival de la Zarzuela at the Deutsches Theater.

More recently, in January 2002, I was at the Teatro de la Zarzuela for a performance of Manuel Fernández Caballero’s Los sobrinos del capitán Grant – based on a novel by Jules Verne. I was delighted to find in the copious programme Bob Pourvoyeur’s article Elementos para un dossier. Nobody, of course, was better qualified to write an article that linked Verne and zarzuela and along the way reviewed musical adaptations of Verne up to Jack Ledru’s Michel Strogoff of 1964. Alas, only later did I discover that Bob had been in the audience at the very same performance that I attended.

If fortune thwarted us on that occasion, it had favoured us in quite delicious fashion just a few months earlier. In April 2001 my wife and I had travelled across France to Metz for a production of Louis Ganne’s Hans, le joueur de flûte at the Municipal Theatre. Partaking of a hasty meal in a cheap pizzeria before the performance, I was astonished to overhear Bob’s familiar voice just behind me. My wife had never previously met him, and she told me afterwards how shocked she was when, in this unfamiliar city in which we had just arrived, I suddenly stood up and went over and hugged the little old man at the next table. Doubtless his own lady companion was just as shocked!

In the event that meeting in Metz was our last, and the memory of it will be treasured all the more for that. Bob, of course, could be anywhere and everywhere where operetta or zarzuela was to be seen and heard – even in recent years when he suffered from (and was operated on for) cataracts. He wore his erudition extremely lightly, and he was always a joy to meet and chat with. It was apt reward that he was, it seems, spared the lingering death that we all dread. For my part I have lost a dear friend; but the whole world of operetta and zarzuela – not to mention that of Jules Verne – will be immeasurably poorer without his informed writing to enjoy in the future.

Andrew Lamb, December 2007

 Los sobrinos del capitán Grant (review)
 zarzuela homepage

rev. 30/XII/2007
rev. 1/I/2008