When you are in a rush to buy tickets you can imagine how easy it is to type House Opera Royal when looking for those elusive tickets for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, but you will still find your way to the site to discover the world of opear and ballet.
The magnificent Royal Opera House has a fascinating history and is actually the third theatre built on the Covent Garden site. Both the previous theatres were destroyed by fire, a serious hazard in the era before electricity. Actor-manager John Rich built the first Theatre Royal, Covent Garden with the fortune he had made from the huge success of The Beggar’s Opera. At that time, under the terms of a Royal Patent, Covent Garden was only one of two theatres permitted to perform drama in the capital. The first important musical works to be heard at the theatre were by Handel, who, from 1735 until his death in 1759, had close links with Covent Garden both as composer and organist.
Extensive rebuilding work took place in 1787 and 1792, but in 1808 the theatre was completely destroyed by fire with the loss of twenty-three fireman as the building collapsed. Work on a new theatre began immediately to designs by Robert Smirke. The Prince of Wales laid the foundation stone on the last day of 1808 and the theatre opened just over eight months later with a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth starring the renowned brother and sister team of John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons.
Covent Garden scored a notable coup when the gifted composer and conductor Michael Costa joined the theatre from Her Majesty’s in the Haymarket, bringing most of his company of singers with him. Following the remodelling of the auditorium, the theatre reopened as the Royal Italian Opera in April 1847 with a performance of Rossini’s Semiramide.
On 5 March 1856 disaster struck again: for the second time the theatre was completely destroyed by fire. Work on the third and present theatre eventually started in 1857 to designs by E.M. Barry and the new building opened in May 1858 with a performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Barry also designed the striking glass and iron Floral Hall, intended as a flower market but also hosting the occasional ball.
In 1892, with the repertoire broadening, the theatre was renamed the Royal Opera House. Winter and summer seasons of opera and ballet were given and between seasons the theatre was either closed or used for film shows, dancing, cabaret and lectures. During the Great War the theatre became a furniture repository and during the Second World War a Mecca Dance Hall. That’s how it might have remained if the music publishers Boosey and Hawkes hadn’t acquired the lease. David Webster was appointed General Administrator and the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, under Ninette de Valois, was invited to become the resident ballet company.
The Opera House reopened on 20 February 1946 with a gala performance of The Sleeping Beauty with Margot Fonteyn as Aurora. With no suitable opera company able to take up residence, Webster and music director Karl Rankl began to build a company from scratch. In December 1946 the embryo Covent Garden Opera teamed up with the ballet in a production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen choreographed by Frederick Ashton; the following January saw the company’s first performance of Carmen. Both companies were eventually awarded Royal Charters: the Royal Ballet in 1956, the Royal Opera in 1968.
After the creation of the National Lottery the Opera House was awarded £58.5m towards re-building costs. Work started in 1996 with a farewell gala taking place in the ‘old’ house in July 1997. Three years later, at total cost of £178m, the theatre had been utterly transformed. Brand new technical and rehearsal facilities were built; a smaller auditorium, the Linbury Studio, was created for smaller and more experimental productions, while the existing auditorium and foyers were fully refurbished. As well as all this, the virtually derelict Floral Hall was completely rebuilt and turned into a thrilling public arena, with bars and eating spaces in spectacular surroundings. Above all, the creation of new spaces has integrated the theatre more fully into its surrounding environment and made visiting a far more enjoyable experience.
ROH Collections celebrates the history of the Royal Opera House with a constantly changing programme of exhibitions commemorating anniversaries and significant events as well as the companies and the building itself. Originial historical material is displayed for free to the wider public in the ROH costume cases and the Amphitheatre Gallery.
Of course London has more to offer in the West End than just the Royal Opera House. Sadler's Wells has their own theatre as well as the Peacock Theatre in the West End with a huge range of ballet and dance events. Currently, there is the ballet of Cleopatra and street dance sensations Flawless playing at the respective theatres. If it is opera you are after, the West End currently has Lend Me A Tenor soon making it's West End debut at the Gielgud Theatre and who knows what else may come along - after all Jerry Springer the Opera was a huge hit!
So however you search Royal Opera House or House Opera Royal
come discover the world of opera and ballet in the West End!