Royal Opera House Facade

Royal Opera House Facade

Royal Opera House  Interior

Royal Opera House Interior


The Royal Opera House (ROH) is an opera house and major performing arts venue in Covent Garden, central London. The large building is often referred to as simply "Covent Garden", after a previous use of the site of the opera house's original construction in 1732. It is the home of The Royal Opera, The Royal Ballet, and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Originally called the Theatre Royal, it served primarily as a playhouse for the first hundred years of its history. In 1734, the first ballet was presented. A year later, Handel's first season of operas began. Many of his operas and oratorios were specifically written for Covent Garden and had their premieres there.

The current building is the third theatre on the site following disastrous fires in 1808 and 1856. The façade, foyer, and auditorium date from 1858, but almost every other element of the present complex dates from an extensive reconstruction in the 1990s. The main auditorium seats 2,256 people, making it the third largest in London, and consists of four tiers of boxes and balconies and the amphitheatre gallery. The proscenium is 12.20 m wide and 14.80 m high. The main auditorium is a Grade I listed building.

The first theatre.

The foundation of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden lies in the letters patent awarded by Charles II to Sir William Davenant in 1662, allowing Davenant to operate one of only two patent theatre companies (The Duke's Company) in London. The letters patent remained in the possession of the patentees' heirs until the 19th century; their whereabouts are currently unknown.

In 1728, John Rich, actor-manager of the Duke's Company at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, commissioned The Beggar's Opera from John Gay. The success of this venture provided him with the capital to build the Theatre Royal (designed by Edward Shepherd) at the site of an ancient convent garden, part of which had been developed by Inigo Jones in the 1630s with a piazza and church. In addition, a Royal Charter had created a fruit and vegetable market in the area, a market which survived in that location until 1974. At its opening on 7 December 1732, Rich was carried by his actors in processional triumph into the theatre for its opening production of William Congreve's The Way of the World.

During the first hundred years or so of its history, the theatre was primarily a playhouse, with the Letters Patent granted by Charles II giving Covent Garden and Theatre Royal, Drury Lane exclusive rights to present spoken drama in London. Despite the frequent interchangeability between the Covent Garden and Drury Lane companies, competition was intense, often presenting the same plays at the same time. Rich introduced pantomime to the repertoire, himself performing (under the stage name John Lun, as Harlequin) and a tradition of seasonal pantomime continued at the modern theatre, until 1939.

In 1734, Covent Garden presented its first ballet, Pygmalion. Marie Sallé discarded tradition and her corset and danced in diaphanous robes. George Frideric Handel was named musical director of the company, at Lincoln's Inn Fields, in 1719, but his first season of opera, at Covent Garden, was not presented until 1734. His first opera was Il pastor fido followed by Ariodante (1735), the première of Alcina, and Atalanta the following year. There was a royal performance of Messiah in 1743, which was a success and began a tradition of Lenten oratorio performances. From 1735 until his death in 1759 he gave regular seasons there, and many of his operas and oratorios were written for Covent Garden or had their first London performances there. He bequeathed his organ to John Rich, and it was placed in a prominent position on the stage, but was among many valuable items lost in a fire that destroyed the theatre on 20 September 1808. In 1792 the architect Henry Holland rebuilt the auditorium, within the existing shell of the building but deeper and wider than the old auditorium, thus increasing capacity.

The Second Theatre.

Rebuilding began in December 1808, and the second Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (designed by Robert Smirke) opened on 18 September 1809 with a performance of Macbeth followed by a musical entertainment called The Quaker. The actor-manager John Philip Kemble, raised seat prices to help recoup the cost of rebuilding and the cost of an increased ground rent introduced by the landowner, the Duke of Bedford, but the move was so unpopular that audiences disrupted performances by beating sticks, hissing, booing and dancing. The Old Price Riots lasted over two months, and the management was finally forced to accede to the audience's demands.

During this time, entertainments were varied; opera and ballet were presented, but not exclusively. Kemble engaged a variety of acts, including the child performer Master Betty; the great clown Joseph Grimaldi made his name at Covent Garden. Many famous actors of the day appeared at the theatre, including the tragediennes Sarah Siddons and Eliza O'Neill, the Shakespearean actors William Charles Macready, Edmund Kean and his son Charles. On 25 March 1833 Edmund Kean collapsed on stage while playing Othello, and died two months later.

In 1806, the pantomime clown Joseph Grimaldi (The Garrick of Clowns) had performed his greatest success in Harlequin and Mother Goose; or the Golden Egg at Covent Garden, and this was subsequently revived, at the new theatre. Grimaldi was an innovator: his performance as Joey introduced the clown to the world, building on the existing role of Harlequin derived from the Commedia dell'arte. His father had been ballet-master at Drury Lane, and his physical comedy, his ability to invent visual tricks and buffoonery, and his ability to poke fun at the audience were extraordinary.

Early pantomimes were performed as mimes accompanied by music, but as Music hall became popular, Grimaldi introduced the pantomime dame to the theatre and was responsible for the tradition of audience singing. By 1821 dance and clowning had taken such a physical toll on Grimaldi that he could barely walk, and he retired from the theatre. By 1828, he was penniless; Drury Lane held a benefit concert for him after Covent Garden refused.

In 1817, bare flame gaslight had replaced the former candles and oil lamps that lighted the Covent Garden stage. This was an improvement, but in 1837 Macready employed limelight in the theatre for the first time, during a performance of a pantomime, Peeping Tom of Coventry. Limelight used a block of quicklime heated by an oxygen and hydrogen flame. This allowed the use of spotlights to highlight performers on the stage.

The Theatres Act of 1843 broke the patent theatres' monopoly of drama. At that time Her Majesty's Theatre in the Haymarket was the main centre of ballet and opera but after a dispute with the management in 1846 Michael Costa, conductor at Her Majesty's, transferred his allegiance to Covent Garden, bringing most of the company with him. The auditorium was completely remodelled and the theatre reopened as the Royal Italian Opera on 6 April 1847 with a performance of Rossini's Semiramide.

In 1852, Louis Antoine Jullien the French eccentric composer of light music and conductor presented an opera of his own composition, Pietro il Grande. Five performances were given of the 'spectacular', including live horses on the stage and very loud music. Critics considered it a complete failure and Jullien was ruined and fled to America. Costa and his successors presented all operas in Italian, even those originally written in French, German or English, until 1892, when Gustav Mahler presented the debut of Wagner's Ring cycle at Covent Garden. The word "Italian" was then quietly dropped from the name of the opera house.

The Third Theatre.

On 5 March 1856, the theatre was again destroyed by fire. Work on the third theatre, designed by Edward Middleton Barry, started in 1857 and the new building, which still remains as the nucleus of the present theatre, was built by Lucas Brothers and opened on 15 May 1858 with a performance of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. The Royal English Opera company under the management of Louisa Pyne and William Harrison, made their last performance at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on 11 December 1858 and took up residence at the theatre on 20 December 1858 with a performance of Michael Balfe's Satanella and continued at the theatre until 1864.

The theatre became the Royal Opera House (ROH) in 1892, and the number of French and German works offered increased. Winter and summer seasons of opera and ballet were given, and the building was also used for pantomime, recitals and political meetings. During the First World War, the theatre was requisitioned by the Ministry of Works for use as a furniture repository. From 1934 to 1936, Geoffrey Toye was managing director, working alongside the Artistic Director, Sir Thomas Beecham. Despite early successes, Toye and Beecham eventually fell out, and Toye resigned.

During the Second World War the ROH became a dance hall. There was a possibility that it would remain so after the war but, following lengthy negotiations, the music publishers Boosey & Hawkes acquired the lease of the building. David Webster was appointed General Administrator, and Sadler's Wells Ballet was invited to become the resident ballet company. The Covent Garden Opera Trust was created and laid out plans "to establish Covent Garden as the national centre of opera and ballet, employing British artists in all departments, wherever that is consistent with the maintenance of the best possible standards ..."

The Royal Opera House reopened on 20 February 1946 with a performance of The Sleeping Beauty in an extravagant new production designed by Oliver Messel. Webster, with his music director Karl Rankl, immediately began to build a resident company. In December 1946, they shared their first production, Purcell's The Fairy-Queen, with the ballet company. On 14 January 1947, the Covent Garden Opera Company gave its first performance of Bizet's Carmen. Before the grand opening, the Royal Opera House presented one of the Robert Mayer Children's concerts on Saturday, 9 February 1946.

Webster's first priority was to appoint a musical director to build the company from scratch. He negotiated with Bruno Walter and Eugene Goossens, but neither of those conductors was willing to consider an opera company with no leading international stars. Webster appointed a little-known Austrian, Karl Rankl, to the post. Before the war, Rankl had acquired considerable experience in charge of opera companies in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. He accepted Webster's invitation to assemble and train the principals and chorus of a new opera company, alongside a permanent orchestra that would play in both operas and ballets.

The new company made its debut in a joint presentation, together with the Sadler's Wells Ballet Company, of Purcell's The Fairy-Queen on 12 December 1946. The first production by the opera company alone was Carmen, on 14 January 1947. Reviews were favourable. The Times said: 'It revealed in Mr. Karl Rankl a musical director who knew how to conduct opera. It conceded the claims of theatrical production without sacrificing the music. It proved that contrary to expectation English can even now be sung so that the words are intelligible. It confirmed what we knew already about the quality of the chorus.'

All the members of the cast for the production were from Britain or the Commonwealth. Later in the season, one of England's few pre-war international opera stars, Eva Turner, appeared as Turandot. For the company's second season, eminent singers from continental Europe were recruited, including Ljuba Welitsch, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Paolo Silveri, Rudolf Schock and Set Svanholm. Other international stars who were willing to re-learn their roles in English for the company in its early years included Kirsten Flagstad and Hans Hotter for The Valkyrie. Nevertheless, even as early as 1948, the opera in English policy was weakening; the company was obliged to present some Wagner performances in German to recruit leading exponents of the main roles. At first Rankl conducted all the productions; he was dismayed when eminent guest conductors including Beecham, Clemens Krauss and Erich Kleiber were later invited for prestige productions. By 1951 Rankl felt that he was no longer valued, and announced his resignation. In Haltrecht's view, the company that Rankl built up from nothing had outgrown him.

In the early years, the company sought to be innovative and widely accessible. Ticket prices were kept down: in the 1949 season 530 seats were available for each performance at two shillings and sixpence. In addition to the standard operatic repertory, the company presented operas by living composers such as Britten, Vaughan Williams, Bliss, and, later, Walton. The young stage director Peter Brook was put in charge of productions, bringing a fresh and sometimes controversial approach to stagings.

After Rankl's departure the company engaged a series of guest conductors while Webster sought a new musical director. His preferred candidates, Erich Kleiber, John Barbirolli, Josef Krips, Britten and Rudolf Kempe, were among the guests but none would take the permanent post. It was not until 1954 that Webster found a replacement for Rankl in Rafael Kubelík. Kubelík announced immediately that he was in favour of continuing the policy of singing in the vernacular: "Everything that the composer has written should be understood by the audience; and that is not possible if the opera is sung in a language with which they are not familiar". This provoked a public onslaught by Beecham, who continued to maintain that it was impossible to produce more than a handful of English-speaking opera stars, and that importing singers from continental Europe was the only way to achieve first-rate results.

Despite Beecham's views, by the mid-1950s the Covent Garden company included many British and Commonwealth singers who were already or were soon to be much sought after by overseas opera houses. Among them were Joan Carlyle, Marie Collier, Geraint Evans, Michael Langdon, Elsie Morison, Amy Shuard, Joan Sutherland, Josephine Veasey and Jon Vickers. Nevertheless, as Lords Goodman and Harewood put it in a 1969 report for the Arts Council, "[A]s time went on the operatic centre of British life began to take on an international character. This meant that, while continuing to develop the British artists, it was felt impossible to reach the highest international level by using only British artists or singing only in English". Guest singers from mainland Europe in the 1950s included Maria Callas, Boris Christoff, Victoria de los Ángeles, Tito Gobbi and Birgit Nilsson. Kubelík introduced Janáček's Jenůfa to British audiences, sung in English by a mostly British cast.

The verdict of the public on whether operas should be given in translation or the original was clear. In 1959, the opera house stated in its annual report, "[T]he percentage attendance at all opera in English was 72 per cent; attendance at the special productions marked by higher prices was 91 per cent … it is 'international' productions with highly priced seats that reduce our losses". The opera in English policy was never formally renounced. On this subject, Peter Heyworth wrote in The Observer in 1960 that Covent Garden had "quickly learned the secret that underlies the genius of British institutions for undisturbed change: it continued to pay lip service to a policy that it increasingly ignored".

By the end of the 1950s, Covent Garden was generally regarded as approaching the excellence of the world's greatest opera companies. Its sister ballet company had achieved international recognition and was granted a royal charter in 1956, changing its title to "The Royal Ballet"; the opera company was close to reaching similar eminence. Two landmark productions greatly enhanced its reputation. In 1957, Covent Garden presented the first substantially complete professional staging at any opera house of Berlioz's vast opera The Trojans, directed by John Gielgud and conducted by Kubelík. The Times commented, "It has never been a success; but it is now". In 1958 the present theatre's centenary was marked by Luchino Visconti's production of Verdi's Don Carlos, with Vickers, Gobbi, Christoff, Gré Brouwenstijn and Fedora Barbieri, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. The work was then a rarity, and had hitherto been widely regarded as impossible to stage satisfactorily, but Visconti's production was a triumph.

Auditorium - 1810

Auditorium - 1810

Theatre Royal - 1820's

Theatre Royal - 1820's

Kubelík did not renew his contract when it expired, and from 1958 there was an interregnum until 1961, covered by guest conductors including Giulini, Kempe, Tullio Serafin, Georg Solti and Kubelík himself. In June 1960 Solti was appointed musical director from the 1961 season onwards. With his previous experience in charge of the Munich and Frankfurt opera houses, he was at first uncertain that Covent Garden, not yet consistently reaching the top international level, was a post he wanted. Bruno Walter persuaded him otherwise, and he took up the musical directorship in August 1961.

The press gave Solti a cautious welcome, but there was some concern about a drift away from the company's original policies: '[A] recent shift in policy towards engaging eminent singers and conductors from abroad, which is a reversion to what has been at once traditional and fatal to the establishment of a permanent organization, a kind of diffused grand season, has endangered the good work of the past fifteen years. ... The purpose of a subsidy from the Exchequer was to lay foundations for an English opera, such as is a feature of the culture of every other country in Europe.'

Solti, however, was an advocate of opera in the vernacular, and promoted the development of British and Commonwealth singers in the company, frequently casting them in his recordings and important productions in preference to overseas artists. Among those who came to prominence during the decade were Gwyneth Jones and Peter Glossop. Solti demonstrated his belief in vernacular opera with a triple bill in English of L'heure espagnole, Erwartung and Gianni Schicchi. Nevertheless, Solti and Webster had to take into account the complete opposition on the part of such stars as Callas to opera in translation. Moreover, as Webster recognised, the English-speaking singers wanted to learn their roles in the original so that they could sing them in other countries and on record.

Increasingly, productions were in the original language. In the interests of musical and dramatic excellence, Solti was a strong proponent of the stagione system of scheduling performances, rather than the traditional repertory system. By 1967, The Times said, "Patrons of Covent Garden today automatically expect any new production, and indeed any revival, to be as strongly cast as anything at the Met in New York, and as carefully presented as anything in Milan or Vienna".

The company's repertory in the 1960s combined the standard operatic works and less familiar pieces. The five composers whose works were given most frequently were Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Mozart and Richard Strauss; the next most performed composer was Britten. Rarities performed in the 1960s included operas by Handel and Janáček (neither composer's works being as common in the opera house then as now), and works by Gluck (Iphigénie en Tauride), Poulenc (The Carmelites), Ravel (L'heure espagnole) and Tippett (King Priam). There was also a celebrated production of Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron in the 1965–66 and 1966–67 seasons. In the mainstream repertoire, a highlight of the decade was Franco Zeffirelli's production of Tosca in 1964 with Callas, Renato Cioni and Gobbi. Among the guest conductors who appeared at Covent Garden during the 1960s were Otto Klemperer, Pierre Boulez, Claudio Abbado and Colin Davis. Guest singers included Jussi Björling, Mirella Freni, Sena Jurinac, Irmgard Seefried and Astrid Varnay.

The company made occasional appearances away from the Royal Opera House. Touring within Britain was limited to centres with large enough theatres to accommodate the company's productions, but in 1964 the company gave a concert performance of Otello at the Proms in London. Thereafter an annual appearance at the Proms was a regular feature of the company's schedule throughout the 1960s. In 1970, Solti led the company to Germany, where they gave Don Carlos, Falstaff and a new work by Richard Rodney Bennett. All but two of the principals were British. The public in Munich and Berlin were, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, "beside themselves with enthusiasm".

In 1968, on the recommendation of the Home Secretary, James Callaghan, the Queen conferred the title "The Royal Opera" on the company. It was the third stage company in the UK to be so honoured, following the Royal Ballet and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Webster retired in June 1970. The music critic Charles Osborne wrote, "When he retired, he handed over to his successor an organization of which any opera house in the world might be proud. No memorial could be more appropriate". The successor was Webster's former assistant, John Tooley. One of Webster's last important decisions had been to recommend to the board that Colin Davis should be invited to take over as musical director when Solti left in 1971.

It was announced in advance that Davis would work in tandem with Peter Hall, appointed director of productions. Peter Brook had briefly held that title in the company's early days, but in general the managerial structure of the opera company differed markedly from that of the ballet. The latter had always had its own director, subordinate to the chief executive of the opera house but with, in practice, a great degree of autonomy. The chief executive of the opera house and the musical director exercised considerably more day-to-day control over the opera company. Appointing a substantial theatrical figure such as Hall was an important departure. Hall, however, changed his mind, and did not take up the appointment, going instead to run the National Theatre. His defection, and the departure to Australian Opera of the staff conductor Edward Downes, a noted Verdi expert, left the company weakened on both production and musical sides.

Like his predecessors, Davis experienced hostility from sections of the audience in his early days in charge. His first production after taking over was a well-received Le nozze di Figaro, in which Kiri Te Kanawa achieved immediate stardom, but booing was heard at a "disastrous" Nabucco in 1971, and his conducting of Wagner's Ring was at first compared unfavourably with that of his predecessor. The Covent Garden board briefly considered replacing him, but was dissuaded by its chairman, Lord Drogheda. Davis's Mozart was generally admired; he received much praise for reviving the little-known La clemenza di Tito in 1974. Among his other successes were The Trojans and Benvenuto Cellini.

Under Davis, the opera house introduced promenade performances, giving, as Bernard Levin wrote, "an opportunity for those (particularly the young, of course) who could not normally afford the price of stalls tickets to sample the view from the posher quarters at the trifling cost of £3 and a willingness to sit on the floor". Davis conducted more than 30 operas during his 15-year tenure, but, he said, "people like [Lorin] Maazel, Abbado and [Riccardo] Muti would only come for new productions".

Unlike Rankl, and like Solti, Davis wanted the world's best conductors to come to Covent Garden. He ceded the baton to guests for new productions including Der Rosenkavalier, Rigoletto and Aida. In The Times, John Higgins wrote, "One of the hallmarks of the Davis regime was the flood of international conductors who suddenly arrived at Covent Garden. While Davis has been in control perhaps only three big names have been missing from the roster: Karajan, Bernstein and Barenboim". Among the high-profile guests conducting Davis's company were Carlos Kleiber for performances of Der Rosenkavalier (1974), Elektra (1977), La bohème (1979) and Otello (1980), and Abbado conducting Un ballo in maschera (1975), starring Plácido Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli.

In addition to the standard repertoire, Davis conducted such operas as Berg's Lulu and Wozzeck, Tippett's The Knot Garden and The Ice Break, and Alexander Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg and Eine florentinische Tragödie. Among the star guest singers during the Davis years were the sopranos Montserrat Caballé and Leontyne Price, the tenors Carlo Bergonzi, Nicolai Gedda and Luciano Pavarotti and the bass Gottlob Frick. British singers appearing with the company included Janet Baker, Heather Harper, John Tomlinson and Richard Van Allan. Davis's tenure closed in July 1986 not with a gala, but, at his insistence, with a promenade performance of Fidelio with cheap admission prices.

To succeed Davis, the Covent Garden board chose Bernard Haitink, who was then the musical director of the Glyndebourne Festival. He was highly regarded for the excellence of his performances, though his repertory was not large. In particular, he was not known as an interpreter of the Italian opera repertoire (he conducted no Puccini and only five Verdi works during his music directorship at Covent Garden). His tenure began well; a cycle of the Mozart Da Ponte operas directed by Johannes Schaaf was a success, and although a Ring cycle with the Russian director Yuri Lyubimov could not be completed, a substitute staging of the cycle directed by Götz Friedrich was well received. Musically and dramatically the company prospered into the 1990s. A 1993 production of Die Meistersinger, conducted by Haitink and starring John Tomlinson, Thomas Allen, Gösta Winbergh and Nancy Gustafson, was widely admired, as was Richard Eyre's 1994 staging of La Traviata, conducted by Solti and propelling Angela Gheorghiu to stardom.

For some time, purely musical considerations were overshadowed by practical and managerial crises at the Royal Opera House. Sir John Tooley retired as general director in 1988, and his post was given to the television executive Jeremy Isaacs. Tooley later forsook his customary reticence and pronounced the Isaacs period a disaster, citing poor management that failed to control inflated manning levels with a consequent steep rise in costs and ticket prices.

The uneasy relations between Isaacs and his colleagues, notably Haitink, were also damaging. Tooley concluded that under Isaacs "Covent Garden had become a place of corporate entertainment, no longer a theatre primarily for opera and ballet lovers". Isaacs was widely blamed for the poor public relations arising from the 1996 BBC television series The House, in which cameras were permitted to film the day-to-day backstage life of the opera and ballet companies and the running of the theatre. The Daily Telegraph commented, "For years, the Opera House was a byword for mismanagement and chaos. Its innermost workings were exposed to public ridicule by the BBC fly-on-the-wall series The House".

In 1995, The Royal Opera announced a "Verdi Festival", of which the driving force was the company's leading Verdian, Sir Edward Downes, by now returned from Australia. The aim was to present all Verdi's operas, either on stage or in concert performance, between 1995 and the centenary of Verdi's death, 2001. Those operas substantially rewritten by the composer in his long career, such as Simon Boccanegra, were given in both their original and revised versions. The festival did not manage to stage a complete Verdi cycle; the closure of the opera house disrupted many plans, but as The Guardian put it, "Downes still managed to introduce, either under his own baton or that of others, most of the major works and many of the minor ones by the Italian master."

The most disruptive event of the decade for both the opera and the ballet companies was the closure of the Royal Opera House between 1997 and 1999 for major rebuilding. The Independent on Sunday asserted that Isaacs "hopelessly mismanaged the closure of the Opera House during its redevelopment". Isaacs, the paper states, turned down the chance of a temporary move to the Lyceum Theatre almost next door to the opera house, pinning his hopes on a proposed new temporary building on London's South Bank. That scheme was refused planning permission, leaving the opera and ballet companies homeless. Isaacs resigned in December 1996, nine months before the expiry of his contract. Haitink, dismayed by events, threatened to leave, but was persuaded to stay and keep the opera company going in a series of temporary homes in London theatres and concert halls. A semi-staged Ring cycle at the Royal Albert Hall gained superlative reviews and won many new admirers for Haitink and the company, whose members included Tomlinson, Anne Evans and Hildegard Behrens.

After Isaacs left, there was a period of managerial instability, with three chief executives in three years. Isaacs's successor, Genista McIntosh, resigned in May 1997 after five months, citing ill-health. Her post was filled by Mary Allen, who moved into the job from the Arts Council. Allen's selection did not comply with the Council's rules for such appointments, and following a critical House of Commons Select Committee report on the management of the opera house she resigned in March 1998, as did the entire board of the opera house, including the chairman, Lord Chadlington. A new board appointed Michael Kaiser as general director in September 1998. He oversaw the restoration of the two companies' finances and the re-opening of the opera house. He was widely regarded as a success, and there was some surprise when he left in June 2000 after less than two years to run the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

The last operatic music to be heard in the old house had been the finale of Falstaff, conducted by Solti with the singers led by Bryn Terfel, in a joint opera and ballet farewell gala in July 1997. When the house reopened in December 1999, magnificently restored, Falstaff was the opera given on the opening night, conducted by Haitink, once more with Terfel in the title role.

Following years of disruption and conflict, stability was restored to the opera house and its two companies after the appointment in May 2001 of a new chief executive, Tony Hall, formerly a senior executive at the BBC. The following year Antonio Pappano succeeded Haitink as music director of The Royal Opera. Following the redevelopment, a second, smaller auditorium, the Linbury Studio Theatre has been made available for small-scale productions by The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet, for visiting companies, and for work produced in the ROH2 programme, which supports new work and developing artists. The Royal Opera encourages young singers at the start of their careers with the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme; participants are salaried members of the company and receive daily coaching in all aspects of opera.

In addition to the standard works of the operatic repertoire, The Royal Opera has presented many less well known pieces since 2002, including Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, Massenet's Cendrillon, Prokofiev's The Gambler, Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride, Rossini's Il turco in Italia, Steffani's Niobe, and Tchaikovsky's The Tsarina's Slippers. Among the composers whose works were premiered were Thomas Adès, Harrison Birtwistle, Lorin Maazel, and Nicholas Maw.

Productions in the first five years of Pappano's tenure ranged from Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (2004) to Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (2003) starring Thomas Allen and Felicity Palmer. Pappano's Ring cycle, begun in 2004 and staged as a complete tetralogy in 2007, was praised like Haitink's before it for its musical excellence; it was staged in a production described by Richard Morrison in The Times as "much derided for mixing the homely … the wacky and the cosmic". During Pappano's tenure, his predecessors Davis and Haitink have both returned as guests. Haitink conducted Parsifal, with Tomlinson, Christopher Ventris and Petra Lang in 2007, and Davis conducted four Mozart operas between 2002 and 2011, Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos in 2007 and Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel in 2008. In 2007, Sir Simon Rattle conducted a new production of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande starring Simon Keenlyside, Angelika Kirchschlager and Gerald Finley.

The company visited Japan in 2010, presenting a new production of Manon and the Eyre production of La traviata. While the main company was abroad, a smaller company remained in London, presenting Niobe, Così fan tutte and Don Pasquale at Covent Garden. In 2010, the Royal Opera House received a government subsidy of just over £27m, compared with a subsidy of £15m in 1998. This sum was divided between the opera and ballet companies and the cost of running the building. Compared with opera houses in mainland Europe, Covent Garden's public subsidy has remained low as a percentage of its income – typically 43%, compared with 60% for its counterpart in Munich.

In the latter part of the 2000s The Royal Opera gave an average of 150 performances each season, lasting from September to July, of about 20 operas, nearly half of which were new productions. Productions in the 2011–12 season included a new opera (Miss Fortune) by Judith Weir, and the first performances of The Trojans at Covent Garden since 1990, conducted by Pappano, and starring Bryan Hymel, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Anna Caterina Antonacci. From the start of the 2011–12 season Kasper Holten became Director of The Royal Opera, joined by John Fulljames as Associate Director of Opera. At the end of the 2011–12 season ROH2, the contemporary arm of The Royal Opera House, was closed. Responsibility for contemporary programming was split between the Studio programmes of The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet.

Since the start of the 2012–13 season The Royal Opera has continued to mount around 20 productions and around seven new productions each season. The 2012–13 season opened with a revival of Der Ring des Nibelungen, directed by Keith Warner; new productions that season included Robert le diable, directed by Laurent Pelly, Eugene Onegin, directed by Holten, La donna del lago, directed by Fulljames, and the UK premiere of Written on Skin, composed by George Benjamin and directed by Katie Mitchell. Productions by the Studio Programme included the world premiere of David Bruce's The Firework-Maker's Daughter (inspired by Philip Pullman's novel of the same name), directed by Fulljames, and the UK stage premiere of Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Ramin Gray.

New productions in the 2013–14 season included Les vêpres siciliennes, directed by Stefan Herheim, Parsifal, directed by Stephen Langridge, Don Giovanni, directed by Holten, Die Frau ohne Schatten, directed by Claus Guth, and Manon Lescaut, directed by Jonathan Kent, and in the Studio Programme the world premiere of Luke Bedford's Through His Teeth, and the London premiere of Luca Francesconi's Quartett (directed by Fulljames).

This season also saw the first production of a three-year collaboration between The Royal Opera and Welsh National Opera, staging Moses und Aron in 2014, Richard Ayre's Peter Pan in 2015 and a new commission in 2016 to celebrate WNO's 70th anniversary. Other events this season included The Royal Opera's first collaboration with Shakespeare's Globe, Holten directing L'Ormindo in the newly opened Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. In The Guardian, Tim Ashley wrote, "A more exquisite evening would be hard to imagine"; Dominic Dromgoole, director of the playhouse expressed the hope that the partnership with the Royal Opera would become an annual fixture. The production was revived in February 2015.

Several renovations had taken place to parts of the house in the 1960s, including improvements to the amphitheatre but the theatre clearly needed a major overhaul. In 1975 the Labour government gave land adjacent to the Royal Opera House for a long-overdue modernisation, refurbishment, and extension. In the early 1980s the first part of a major renovation included an extension to the rear of the theatre on the James Street corner. The development added two new ballet studios, offices, a Chorus Rehearsal Room and the Opera Rehearsal room. Dressing rooms were also added.

By 1995, sufficient funds from the Arts Lottery through Arts Council England and private fundraising had been raised to enable the company to embark upon a major £213 million reconstruction of the building by Carillion, which took place between 1997 and 1999, under the chairmanship of Sir Angus Stirling. This involved the demolition of almost the whole site including several adjacent buildings to make room for a major increase in the size of the complex. The auditorium itself remained, but well over half of the complex is new.

The design team was led by Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones of Dixon Jones BDP as architects. The acoustic designers were Rob Harris and Jeremy Newton of Arup Acoustics. The building engineer was Arup with Stanhope as developer.

The new building has the same traditional horseshoe-shaped auditorium as before, but with greatly improved technical, rehearsal, office, and educational facilities. Additionally, a new studio theatre, the Linbury, as well as more public space was created. The inclusion of the adjacent old Floral Hall, which had fallen into disrepair and was used as a scenery store before redevelopment, created a new and extensive public gathering place. The venue is now claimed by the ROH to be the most modern theatre facility in Europe.

Surtitles, projected onto a screen above the proscenium, have been used for all opera performances since they were introduced for school's matinees in 1984. Since the reopening of the theatre in 1999 an electronic libretto system provides translations onto small video screens for some seats, and additional monitors and screens are to be introduced to other parts of the house. In 2014 design work, known as the Open Up Project, began with the aim of improving the entrances, lobby areas and the Linbury Theatre.

Paul Hamlyn Hall.

The Paul Hamlyn Hall is a large iron and glass structure adjacent to, and with direct access to, the main opera house building. The hall now acts as the atrium and main public area of the opera house, with a champagne bar, restaurant and other hospitality services, and also providing access to the main auditorium at all levels.

The redevelopment of the Floral Hall was originally made possible with a pledge of £10m from the philanthropist Alberto Vilar and for a number of years, it was known as the Vilar Floral Hall; however Vilar failed to make good his pledge. As a result, the name was changed in September 2005 to the Paul Hamlyn Hall, after the opera house received a donation of £10m from the estate of Paul Hamlyn, towards its education and development programmes. As well as acting as a main public area for performances in the main auditorium, the Paul Hamlyn Hall is also used for hosting a number of events, including private functions, dances, exhibitions, concerts, and workshops.

Linbury Studio Theatre

The Linbury Studio Theatre is a flexible, secondary performance space, constructed below ground level within the Royal Opera House. It has retractable raked seating and a floor which can be raised or lowered to form a studio floor, a raised stage, or a stage with orchestra pit. The theatre can accommodate up to 400 patrons and host a variety of different events. It has been used for private functions, traditional theatre shows, and concerts, as well as community and educational events, product launches, dinners and exhibitions, etc., and is one of the most technologically advanced performance venues in London with its own public areas, including a bar and cloakroom.

The Linbury is most notable for hosting performances of experimental and independent dance and music, by independent companies and as part of the ROH2, the contemporary producing arm of the Royal Opera House. The Linbury Studio Theatre regularly stages performances by the Royal Ballet School and also hosts the Young British Dancer of the Year competition.

The venue was constructed as part of the 90s redevelopment of the Royal Opera House. It is named in recognition of donations made by the Linbury Trust towards the redevelopment. The Trust is operated by Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover and his wife Anya Linden, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet. The name Linbury is derived from the names Linden and Sainsbury. It was opened in 1999 with a collaboration from three Croydon secondary schools (including Coloma Convent Girls' School and Edenham High School) in an original performance called About Face.

High House Production Park (High House, Purfleet)

The Royal Opera House opened a scenery-making facility for their operas and ballets at High House, Purfleet, Essex on 6 December 2010. The building was designed by Nicholas Hare Architects. The East of England Development Agency, which partly funded developments on the park, notes that "the first phase includes the Royal Opera House's Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop and Community areas".

The Bob and Tamar Manoukian Costume Centre, also designed by Nicholas Hare Associates, opened in September 2015, and provides a costume-making facility for the Royal Opera House and a training centre for students of costume-making from South Essex College. The building also houses the Royal Opera House's collection of historically important costumes. Other elements at High House, Purfleet include The Backstage Centre, a new technical theatre and music training centre which is currently run by the National College for Creative Industries and was formally opened by Creative & Cultural Skills in March 2013, alongside renovated farm buildings. Acme studios opened a complex of 43 artist studios in Summer 2013.


Royal Ballet

In 1926, the Irish-born dancer Ninette de Valois founded the Academy of Choreographic Art, a dance school for girls. Her intention was to form a repertory ballet company and school, leading her to collaborate with the English theatrical producer and theatre owner Lilian Baylis. Baylis owned the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells theatres and in 1925 she engaged de Valois to stage dance performances at both venues.

After losing the link with the Old Vic theatre, in 1939 the company was renamed Sadler's Wells Ballet and the school became Sadler's Wells Ballet School. Both continued at Sadler's Wells Theatre until 1946, when the company was invited to become the resident ballet company of the newly re-opened Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, under the direction of David Webster. The company relocated to the opera house the same year in 1946, with their first production at the venue being The Sleeping Beauty. In 1956, a Royal Charter was granted for both companies and the school; they were subsequently renamed the Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet School.

In 1964 the Royal Ballet established "Ballet for All" under the direction of Peter Brinson. Between 1964 and 1979 "Ballet for All" toured throughout the country, presenting around 150 performances per annum and reaching around 70,000 people each year. In 1976 the Royal Opera House established its schools' matinee programme.

Today the Royal Ballet remains the resident ballet company at the Royal Opera House, conducting its own tours internationally, and it continues to be the parent company of the Royal Ballet School, which is now based at White Lodge, Richmond Park and premises in Floral Street, which are adjacent to and have direct access to the Royal Opera House.

The Royal Ballet is one of the few ballet companies in the world to have employed four dancers considered to be Prima ballerina assoluta, including three who studied at the Royal Ballet School.

The first was Alicia Markova who, having been mentored by Ninette de Valois as a member of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, was invited to become one of the founder dancers of the Royal Ballet. She was designated the company's first Prima ballerina, and was later recognised as a Prima ballerina assoluta. Margot Fonteyn trained at the Royal Ballet School and spent her entire career with the company. As a gift for her 60th birthday, she was appointed Prima ballerina assoluta by Queen Elizabeth II.

Phyllis Spira joined the Royal Ballet School in 1959, graduating into the Royal Ballet touring company. She later returned to her native South Africa, where she was appointed Prima ballerina assoluta by the President in 1984. The most recent is Alessandra Ferri, who completed her training at the Royal Ballet Upper School and began her career with the Royal Ballet. After dancing with the company for 4 years, she was later appointed Prima ballerina assoluta of La Scala Theatre Ballet in Milan.

Other prima ballerina assoluta have also appeared with the Royal Ballet as guest dancers, including: the French ballerina Yvette Chauvire and the Georgian ballerina Nina Ananiashvili.

The Royal Ballet has six ranks of dancers in ascending order:

  • Artist: the lowest rank in the company and, together with the First Artists, dancers at this level form the Corps de ballet. Ballet school graduates entering the company usually do so at this level.
  • First Artist: a rank for the more senior members of the Corps de Ballet. Dancers at this level have the opportunity to perform some of the Corps de Ballet's more featured rôles, such as the Dance of the Cygnets in Swan Lake. First Artists will occasionally be cast in minor Soloist rôles if they are being considered for promotion.
  • Soloist: there are normally 15–20 soloists in the company. As the title suggests, dancers at this level perform the majority of the solo and minor rôles in a ballet, such as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet or one of the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty.
  • First soloist: the rank where dancers are being considered for promotion to principal level. A dancer at this rank will dance a varied repertoire of the most featured soloist rôles, whilst understudying and having the opportunity to perform leading rôles when a Principal dancer is either injured or unavailable.
  • Principal character artist: the rank given to members of the company who perform important character rôles in a ballet. These rôles are normally very theatrical and often include character dance and ballet mime. Examples include Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty or Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker. Most Principal Character Artists in the Royal Ballet are older, long-serving members of the company who are no longer able to dance the more physically demanding roles.
  • Principal: the highest rank in the Royal Ballet and dancers at this level generally perform the leading and most featured rôles in a ballet. To be a principal is to be recognised as one of the leading dancers in the company and a number of the world's most celebrated dancers have been principals with the company.
  • The Royal Ballet also has the special ranks of "guest artist" and "principal guest artist". The title of guest artist is given to a visiting dancer who has been cast in a role for a specific ballet or limited season. The title of principal guest artist is sometimes given to guest artists who perform with the company on a longer term basis.

    First performing together with the Royal Ballet in Giselle on 21 February 1962, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev would form what has been called the greatest ballet partnership of all time. The partnership would lead to both dancers being noted amongst the most famous ballet dancers of all time and came at the peak of what is now widely regarded as the most successful period in the Royal Ballet's history.

    On 12 March 1963, the couple premiered Sir Frederick Ashton's Marguerite and Armand, the first ballet created for them and one that become their signature piece. Performed to a piece of piano music by Franz Liszt, the ballet starts with Marguerite on her deathbed, and the story is told in flashback until the moment Armand arrives to hold her for the last time before she dies. Ashton had planned the piece specifically for Fonteyn, and it was critically acclaimed as Fonteyn's dramatic peak, with fifty photographers attending the dress rehearsal and twenty-one curtain calls at the premiere performance. The final performance of the ballet starring Fonteyn and Nureyev was staged at a gala at the London Coliseum in 1977 and it was not performed again until 2003. Against the wishes of Frederick Ashton that it not be performed by any other dancers than Fonteyn and Nureyev, it was revived as part of a Royal Ballet triple-bill, starring Nureyev's protegee Sylvie Guillem and the Royal Ballet star Jonathan Cope.

    The Fonteyn-Nureyev partnership lasted for many years until Fonteyn's retirement from the Royal Ballet in 1979, aged 60. In 1970 after Frederick Ashton retired as Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet, there were many calls for Nureyev to be announced as his successor. However, Kenneth MacMillan was given the position, and Nureyev left the Royal Ballet as a Principal soon after to be a guest dancer internationally, later becoming Artistic Director of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1983. Fonteyn and Nureyev had a lifelong relationship both on and offstage and were close friends until Fonteyn's death in 1991. Nureyev is quoted as saying of the partnership that they danced with "one body, one soul".

     Paul Hamlyn Hall

    Paul Hamlyn Hall

    Pidgeon Holes - 1811

    Pidgeon Holes - 1811



    The First Theatre on the site opened as the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden on the 7th of December 1732 with 'The Way of the World' by William Congeve. This was a 'Patent Theatre' as granted to Sir William Devenant by Charles II, but this second Patent (the first was granted to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane) actually originally applied to the Duke's Theatre in Lincoln's Inn and only ended up with the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden after the Patent was eventually handed down to John Rich, who began building the Covent Garden Theatre in March of 1731.

    The Theatre was built on land leased to John Rich from the Duke of Bedford and designed by the architect James Shepherd. The interior being decorated by the Italian Artist, Amiconi, with a capacity of 1,897. Handel arrived here in 1734 and produced many Operas and Ballets. David Garrick appeared here in 1746, fresh from Drury Lane, and it was in this Theatre that a new invention called the 'Piano Forte' was first heard in 1767. 'She Stoops To Conquer' had its first performance here in March 1773, and the first production of Sheridan's 'The Rivals' was produced at the Theatre in 1775.

    The Theatre was remodelled in 1782 by John Inigo Richards, and in 1788 the first stage production of 'Aladdin' was performed at the Theatre, this was an adaptation, by John O'Keefe, of the book 'The Arabian Nights' which had been published in England some 80 years earlier. The Theatre was reconstructed again, almost completely this time, by Henry Holland in 1792 and at a cost of £25,000, a huge sum at the time. It opened on the 17th of September 1792. Sadly it was to have a very short life as on the 20th of September 1808 the Theatre Royal burnt down, taking with it Handel's own Organ and many of his manuscripts.

    The Second Theatre 1809 - 1858.

    Reconstructed as the Royal Italian Opera House in 1847.

    The Second Theatre on the site had its foundation stone laid by the Prince of Wales on December the 31st 1808, the same year that the first Theatre had burnt down. The Theatre was designed by the architect Robert Smirke and reportedly cost the vast sum of £150,000 to build. Robert Smirke also designed the main structure and facade of the British Museum, the building now known as Canada House; the east wing of Somerset House, and many other prominent London buildings, although this was his only Theatre.

    The Theatre was a little smaller than the first Theatre but held a lot more people, 3000 in all. Taking just ten months to build the new Theatre opened on the 18th of September 1809 with a production of Shakespeare's 'Macbeth'. A Bill was published which goes to some pains to explain why the ticket prices for the new Theatre are so much higher than that of the old Theatre. Here it is transcribed with modern English spelling:-

    'The Proprietors, having completed the New Theatre, within the time promised, beg leave respectfully to state to the Public the absolute necessity that compels them to make the following advance on the prices of admission. First Price: Boxes, Seven Shillings; Pit, Four Shillings - Half Price: Boxes, Three Shillings and Sixpence; Pit, As Usual. The Lower Galleries will remain at the old prices. - On the late calamitous destruction of their property, the Proprietors, encouraged by the remembrance of former patronage, instantly and cheerfully applied themselves to the erection of a new Theatre, felicitous only that, without enlarging the audience-part of the edifice, it might afford the Public improved accommodation and security, and at the same time present an additional ornament to the Metropolis of the British Empire. This, their most anxious wish, they flatter themselves, they have solidly effected, not only within the short space of ten months from the laying of the foundations, but under the enormously expensive disadvantage of circumstances singularly unfavourable to building. When it is known that no less a sum than one hundred and fifty thousand pounds has been expended in order to render this Theatre worthy of British Spectators, and of the Genius of their native Poets: - when, in this undertaking, the inevitable accumulation of, at least, a sixfold rentage is stated to be incurred; - and when, in addition to these pressing encumbrances, the increased and rapidly increasing prices of every article indispensable to dramatic representations came to be considered, - the Proprietors persuade themselves that in their proposed regulation they shall be honoured with the concurrence of an enlightened and liberal Public.

    Despite the management's explanation of the price rises at the new Covent Garden Theatre shown above, the public were extremely unhappy with the situation and a long period of unrest ensued, at the time known as the 'Old Price Riots'. The details are too involved to go into here but if you are interested in reading more about it there is a brief article on it here, a short film about it here, and the book 'The Covent Garden Journal' published the following year in 1810 and available online here, goes into great detail on the whole situation.

    A description of the new Theatre was printed in Volume 1 of the 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London' published in 1825 saying:- 'The Temple of Minerva, in the Acropolis at Athens, suggested the design for the portico of this edifice, - the order of which is pure Grecian Doric. The principal front, in Bow Street, measures 220 feet from one extremity to the other; the Hart-Street front and its parallel (which is approached by piazzas from Bow Street and Covent Garden), are in extent 178 feet, or nearly so. The Bow-Street front presents a magnificent portico, with four columns of the Doric order, very large, fluted, and without bases; supporting a pediment and elevated upon a flight of steps. The whole front is inclosed by iron rail-work; and the upper part is decorated by basso relievo representations of the Drama, antient and modern, which are sculptured in long pannels, separated by the portico.

    On that side nearest to Hart Street, in the centre of the sculpture, sit three Greek Poets; namely, AEschylus, the father of Tragedy, his face towards the Hart-Street corner and Aristophanes and Menander, the fathers of antient and modern Comedy: the two latter face the portico; and Thalia, with the crook and mask, is inviting them to imitate her sprightly example. Polyhymnia and Euterpe, with the greater and lesser lyres; Clio, with the longer pipe; and Terpsichore, indicative of action, or mime, following her.

    Three nymphs, crowned with fir pine, succeed, attending Pegasus. Minerva is placed opposite to AEschylus, who appears attending to her dictates: and between them, leaning on his fawn, is Bacchus; typical of tragedy having been invented in honour of "the wine-giver." Behind Minerva is Melpomene, with a sword and mask: two Furies succeed, pursuing Orestes; the latter imploring the aid of Apollo, who appears in his chariot. In the centre, on the other side of the portico, sits OUR immortal Bard; the emblems of dramatic poetry lying around him. He is summoning, with his right hand, Caliban, laden with wood; Ferdinand, sheathing his sword; and Miranda, with Prospero, whom she is entreating: Ariel is above, sounding enticing airs on his pipe: their backs are towards Shakespeare. This side of the group is filled up by Hecate, in her car, drawn by oxen (at the extreme ); Lady Macbeth, with the daggers; and Macbeth, turning with horror from the dead body of Duncan.

    The space from Shakespeare to the portico is occupied as follows:- Milton, seated, is contemplating Urania, who surmounts, but faces him; and Samson Agonistes is chained at his feet. Behind them are the two Brothers, driving Comus and three bacchanals before them, the enchanted Sister being seated: the sculpture is terminated by two tigers, emblematical of the brutal transformation of the devotees of sensuality. The figures of Tragedy and Comedy, in niches, occupy, the former the south, and the latter the north, extremity of the building. Comedy has a crook on her right shoulder, the mask in her left hand; and Tragedy exhibits the mask and a dagger.

    The grand entrance to the boxes is under the portico in Bow Street; and laterally with it, towards Hart Street, is the entrance appropriated to the private boxes. The grand entrance opens to the vestibule, where, at the right extremity, a large stove is placed; and two boxes for money-takers, and another where free admissions of all kinds are registered, present themselves, immediately upon passing through the folding-doors from the portico. Near each money-taker's box is a Grecian lamp, elevated upon a column of porphyry.

    The grand staircase is to the left, central in the hall; divided, longitudinally, by two rows of large Ionic columns, in porphyry, with a superb Grecian lamp suspended between each. This staircase leads to the ante-room, which is ornamented by pilasters of porphyry; and contains a large statue of Shakespeare, executed by Rossi, in yellow marble.

    To the right, from hence, are the folding-doors that lead to the Auditory; and to the principal Saloon, which is supported by pilasters in porphyry, and contains several plaster statues upon pedestals. The extremity to the right leads to a confectionary, where refreshments are supplied to the company; and there is a place provided for the same purpose at the opposite extremity.

    On the entrance side of the saloon is a large staircase leading to it, right and left, from the first circle of the boxes. This room is superbly lighted, and provided with crimson seats. There is, also, another saloon in a higher story, which was originally appropriated to the private boxes. It is supported by four massive columns of porphyry, with a recess at each end, in which are stoves; and over the mantle-pieces are semicircular looking-glasses:- refreshments are provided here also. The sides of this saloon are occupied by crimson seats, and statues of heathen deities on pedestals, alternately placed. There is another entrance to the boxes from Covent Garden, which is handsome, but not so elegant as that from Bow Street: it has two flights of stairs. The entrances to the pit and galleries are from Covent Garden, and on that side of the Theatre which angles (in Bow Street) with the grand front.

    The Hart-Street front contains the entrance to the Stage, (or stage door,) which opens to a large and convenient porter's hall. On the right is an ante, or waiting-room. To the left is the door leading, on the right, to the cellar, (or all that part of a Theatre under the stage, from whence traps, and rising machinery, &c., are worked;) and on the left to a stone staircase, with iron balustrades, leading up to the stage, and the rooms appropriated to the principals of the different departments in the Theatre; as well as to the painting-room.

    At the extremity of this part of the front, and laterally, is the royal entrance; which is a square, called Prince's Place; three sides of which are formed by the walls of different parts of the premises, and the front by lofty iron rails and gates, through which the royal carriage proceeds to the entrance door on the left, whenever His Majesty honours the Theatre with his presence. Adjoining to the gates, and terminating the Hart-Street front, is a handsome building containing the box-office, the housekeeper's residence, and other private apartments connected with the Theatre...

    ...The form of the Auditory is that of the horse-shoe; the width, at the extremities, is 51 feet 2 inches; and the depth, from the front lights to the front of the boxes, 52 feet 9 inches. There are three tiers of boxes, each containing twenty-six, including those in the proscenium; and there are seven boxes on each side above them, and parallel with the lower gallery. The number of private boxes are twenty-six, situated as follows:- three on each side in the proscenium; one on each side even with the orchestra; five on each side of the first circle, and four on each side of the second circle; amounting to thirteen on each side. Over the boxes in the proscenium, on each side, is a semicircular appearance of a box, with a crimson inclosure. To the principal private boxes are attached private rooms, with fire-places. The width of the lower gallery is 55 feet, the depth forty. The width of the upper gallery is 55 feet, the depth twenty-five...

    ...The appearance of the house is very imposing: the colour is a subdued yellow, relieved by white, and superbly enriched with gilding. Around the dress circle are wreaths inclosing the Rose of England, in burnished gold; the first circle displays the Thistle of Scotland, and the second circle the Shamrock of Ireland: and these three emblems are alternately placed, with fancy devices, in rich borderings, &c., in every part of the Auditory; which, from the reflection of the lights, gratifies the prevalent taste for splendour with one blaze of refulgence. The back and sides of the pit are decorated by the representation of dark crimson drapery, as are the interiors of all the boxes; which produces a very effective contrast to the brilliancy of the front. The boxes are supported by small iron columns, fluted, and gilt...

    ...The ceiling, over what is called the slip boxes, exhibits pannels of blue, relieved by white, and enriched with gold. The middle part of the ceiling is circular; in the centre of which, from a richly-gilded glory, surrounding a circle of golden lyres, &c., is suspended a chandelier of glass, of the most superb description; illumined by two circles of gas lights: the remainder of the ceiling is a light blue sky, relieved by delicate white clouding. The cove of the proscenium, in the segment of a circle, contains the moiety of a rich gilded glory, and sky to match the ceiling, surrounded by a bordering of gold; in which, as well as round the ceiling, either fancy flowers are introduced, or representations of those national emblems, the Rose, &c. The proscenium is supported by four pilasters, painted to imitate Sienna marble.

    Stage doors are wholly dispensed with. The top of the proscenium, from whence the curtain descends, is an arch of about thirty-eight feet wide and three feet deep; surmounting a superb drapery border of crimson, white, and gold, elegantly disposed upon a transverse bar of gold, terminated on each side with a lion's head: in the centre of this drapery is the King's Arms. For the green curtain is substituted a drop, representing a luxuriant profusion of drapery; crimson, white, and gold, (to match the borders,) drawn up by cords and tassels; and disclosing part of the interior of a palace, supported by numerous Ionic columns; which has a most imposing appearance. There are also pilasters, imitative of Sienna marble, which slide backward and forward, in order to widen or contract the stage...

    ...The width of the proscenium in front is 42ft 6in. Width at pilasters 38ft 8in. Height to the centre of the arch 36ft 9in. Ditto, at spring of arch 33ft 3in. Depth of stage, from the front lights to the sliding pilasters 12ft 3in. The number of superbly brilliant cut-glass chandeliers, which are hung round the Auditory, is fourteen; with three gas lights in each. In the too extreme dress boxes are large looking-glasses. The King's box is always fitted up on the left of the audience, in the dress circle, and occupies the extent of three or four of the boxes. The public, or open boxes, will contain about 1,200 people. The pit 750. Second gallery 500. First gallery 350. [Total] 2,800 exclusive of standing-room, &c. The private boxes are let, some by the year, some nightly...

    ...The Stage is large and commodious. On the right of the Auditory, or left of the Stage, are the passages which lead to the superior and inferior green-rooms; the former of which is handsomely fitted up: at one end is a stove, and opposed to it a large looking-glass for the performers to adjust their dresses by, previously to going on the stage. The seats for the performers are covered with crimson, and the windows are decorated by crimson curtains; the room is handsomely carpetted, and there is a large chimney-glass over the stove, with a portrait of the late T. Harris, Esq., so many years proprietor of the Theatre.

    Performers receiving under a certain salary are not allowed to enter this room but on particular occasions. The inferior green-room is up a flight of stairs, and is neatly fitted up; and here is a piano-forte for the singers to try their songs, and for the choristers to learn their music. Beyond the best green-room is the manager's room, and the passage leads on to the coffee-room, property-room, and others appropriated to the business of the Theatre. The scene-rooms, carpenter's shop, &c., are in this part of the building. The stage is principally lighted by gas.

    ...The Flies, or that part of the Theatre surmounting the stage, are in size correspondent with the rest of the Theatre, and consist of two stories. These are filled with the machinery used in lowering the curtain, drops, wheels, borders, clouds, &c. &c.; and adjoining them is the painting-room, which is furnished with sky-lights, and measures in length seventy-two feet, and in width thirty-two feet.

    Of the Persons employed in an Establishment of this magnitude it is almost impossible to give an account; the number is so arbitrary, and depends so much upon circumstances. The principal, regularly engaged, (exclusive of the performers,) are as follows:-

  • STAGE:- The stage-manager, pantomime-director, chorus and ballet masters, prompter, his deputy, copyist, (he has several assistants,) property-man, and call-boy.
  • ORCHESTRA:- Director of the musical department, leader of the band, six or eight 1st violins, ditto 2d, two tenors, two violincellos, three or four double basses, oboe and flageolet, 1st and 2d flutes, 1st and 2d clarionets, 1st and 2d horns, 1st and 2d bassoons, trombone, trumpet and bugle, piano-forte, bells, carillons or small bells, (the three latter not always used,) and kettle-drums, (other instruments are occasionally introduced); music copyist, (he has several assistants,) and an attendant upon the orchestra to lay out the music.
  • PAINTING-ROOM:- Four principal painters constantly employed, exclusive of accessary principals, subordinates, colour grinders, and attendants.
  • DECORATIVE MACHINERY, &c:- The property maker, machinist, master carpenter, six or eight carpenters, and from twenty-four to thirty scenemen. The property-maker and master carpenter, generally, are the joint machinist.
  • WARDROBE:- Master tailor and keeper of the gentlemen's wardrobe, &c., mistress of the ladies' wardrobe:- both these have numerous constant and occasional assistants. - Dressers, many of both sexes. Each principal performer has a separate dresser. When new pieces of magnitude are preparing, the extra assistants engaged in the three latter departments are very numerous.
  • In the HOUSE department:- Treasurer, under ditto, housekeeper, his assistant, about ten money-takers, as many check-takers, (from four to six at the offices for admission,) box-keeper, (his attendants are numerous,) lamplighters, firemen, porters, and watchmen.
  • There are, also, many people employed in other capacities, which, if mentioned, would scarcely be understood, without more detail than can be introduced here. On particular occasions, such as during the performances of grand spectacles, &c., there are many supernumerary performers engaged by the night; the aggregate salaries of whom frequently amount to 50l. or 60l. per week.' The above text in quotes (edited) was first published in Volume 1 of the ''Illustrations of the public buildings of London' in 1825.

    The Royal Italian Opera House 1847 - 1858.

    The Second Covent Garden Theatre was reconstructed by Benedict Albano at the end of 1846. Building work began on the 2nd of December, and, considering the extent of the alterations, amazingly it was completed in just 4 months, at a cost of £27,000. The Theatre reopened on the 6th of April 1847 as the Royal Italian Opera House. 'The Builder' reported on the alterations in great detail, along with an engraving of the auditorium, in their 10th of April 1847 edition.

    'At the end of November last, we were the first to communicate to the public the precise nature of the alterations that were contemplated in Covent Garden Theatre, embracing, with the concurrence of the official referees, important provisions for the safety of the public in the event of fire. Afterwards, we had the satisfaction of entirely setting at rest, by a personal survey, reports against the stability of the walls, then current; and we now give our readers an elaborate and correct view of the new interior, which has been constructed in a marvellously short period, and with great skill and effect.

    Not many weeks ago, as we noted at the time, we had seen the bare inclosing walls standing exposed, from the foundation to the roof, and the old chandelier, under the decorated ceiling, blazing in extraordinary contrast with the hubbub and apparent ruin below. And when we entered the theatre on Tuesday night last, on which occasion it was first opened for operatic performances, the change that had been effected appeared little short of miraculous, although we had watched the progress step by step.

    A main point to be dwelt on is, that notwithstanding the rapidity with which the works have been carried on, they have been done in the soundest and most substantial manner, and so as to entitle Mr. Albano, the architect, and all concerned in them, to great praise. A brief record of the proceedings, before speaking of the appearance of the house, will doubtless interest many of our readers. We may premise, that Covent Garden Theatre, as we used to know it, was erected in 1809 by Mr., now Sir Robert, Smirke; the previously existing building having been burnt down. The first stone was laid by the Prince of Wales and the Freemasons on the 31st of December, 1808, and the building was erected and opened within nine months from that day. It is reported that the cost was £150,000.

    Turning, then, to the present structure, operations were commenced on the 2nd of December last; but during the week there were only a few workmen employed, in consequence of not having entire possession of the house. The first steps included moving away an immense quantity of theatrical property, which had been stored for years in various parts of the theatre, and was useless. Our grandfathers might have had their earliest theatrical recollections revived, by tricks and scenery belonging to the palmy days of pantomime, which had long slumbered mid dust and cobwebs.

    The work was then begun in earnest, by pulling down the whole of the interior of the theatre within the external walls, and the inner foundation walls and arches, to the depth of about 22 feet below the level of the pit corridor. The new foundation walls for carrying the iron columns for the fronts and backs of boxes (thrown considerably farther back), and the walls for the new stone staircases, were commenced about the 21st of December, by bedding Yorkshire landings on a good gravelly soil, with four double courses of footings in brick and cement, five bricks thick at the base.

    Between the new foundation walls and the old main walls, fire-proof arches were turned in brick and cement over two rooms immediately under the level of the ground floor, and a second tier again above these, under the level of the pit tier of boxes and corridor. When these were completed, the fixing of the stone bases was commenced, to receive iron columns (from 6 to 8 in. in diameter) which were fitted into deep sockets, their caps carrying the timbers of the grand tier, which were secured with bolts going through the caps, and were fastened to the main walls by strong iron ties, passing through the walls with nuts and washers. These caps carried the columns and timbers of the next tier; and, in like manner, columns were repeated for each of the tiers, thus obtaining a continuous bearing from the foundation walls. The columns are 10 feet 4 inches apart in front, and 11 feet 6 inches apart at the back of the boxes.

    The last tier of columns had flanches cast on them to receive strong story-posts, which were framed into the roof. While the timbers of the upper tier were being framed, the carpenters and joiners were proceeding with their work in the various tiers of boxes and corridors, and framing the timbers and curbs of the ceiling: these are carried by cantilevers framed into the story-posts before mentioned. The ceiling, besides, was hung to the roof with strong iron straps and straining pieces, which gave ground for a foolish report that the new ceiling would bring down the old roof, when, in truth, it is dependant on it only in a very slight degree.

    The ribs for the new ceiling, which has a parabolic section, and is elliptical in plan, are formed each of two pieces of plank, cut into proper shape, and lined on the face with ½ inch battens, from 2 to 3 inches wide, nailed to the ribs. This boarding was exposed to great heat for some time, that no shrinkage might afterwards take place, and all chinks were then filled up, and canvass was fastened all over the back of it with a strong mixture of marine glue. These precautions were necessary, because, as the decoration of the ceiling (painted on paper elsewhere, and brought to the house ready at once to be put up) is fastened to the face of the boarding, any shrinkage afterwards would probably split it.

    The ceiling, then, being thus made ready for the artists, the painting, gilding, and other decorations (to be afterwards alluded to), and the preparations for hanging the chandelier, were finished, and the scaffolding struck in order to complete the pit and stall seats.

    We ought to have said (although it has been already mentioned in this Journal), that when building the foundation walls and cutting the shoulders for the first tier of fire-proof arches, a course of bond timber 12 by 6 and 12 by 9 was found, which, although apparently sound, it was thought necessary to examine. When cut into, it was seen to be entirely rotten at back, and was then taken out in short lengths, and the space filled in with bricks and cement. Other courses were afterwards found in the same rotten condition, and were then removed, to the extent, in all, of about 1,400 feet run. A great number of cills and lintels, to the extent of about 400 feet run, discovered to be in the same state, were also removed, and relieving arches were turned in their stead.

    Simultaneously with the progress of the above works a new box-office and entrance were made: the open-arched arcade in Bow street was inclosed, and the adjoining rooms extended flush with the facade of the building. A new stage-entrance and stage-staircase, and a large, handsome retiring room, of the whole width of the stage, under the proscenium, have been formed for the convenience of the musicians, with very ready means of access from the street.

    The grand entrance has been materially improved; the ceiling of the hall has been raised and divided into panels, filled in with enriched mouldings, supported on Doric columns, which are formed out of the square pillars that formerly supported the ceiling; and the square ends of the walls, and the lintel over the entrance to the grand staircase, have been removed, and a new soffit formed. The steps at the foot of the grand staircase, which projected into the hall, have been taken up and refixed further in, by reducing a very wide landing; gaining a clear height, by raising the lintel, of 3 ft. 6 in., and 2 ft. 6 in. by the removal of the steps. The ceiling of the staircase being found too high to be well-lighted, was lowered. These alterations are important, as a full view can now be obtained of the columns and ceiling of the grand staircase, whereas before only the margin of the cornice at foot of columns on staircase was visible.

    The arched colonnade leading from Bow street to the Piazza, Covent-garden, has been covered in, some of the spaces with doors and some with sashes, and converted into an entrance-hall and crush-room for the pit, - a great convenience. The ceiling is divided into three compartments, with beams and Doric columns; two fire-places have been made in it, and the floor raised. The access to the house here is by a flight of steps right and left. The pit is approached by means of these stairs, and is entered at the back only.

    The old gallery-staircase in Bow-street, adjoining the Bedford-avenue, has been pulled down, and the space it occupied formed into a vestibule to the pit crush-room, by turning fire-proof arches over the basement to carry the stone paving. The adjoining room, formerly the treasury, is converted into a cloak and ticket-room, and another room built for the accommodation of the nightly guard.

    At the top of the grand staircase, under the floor of the Shakspeare room, where considerable alterations have been made, trusses of timber and iron have been introduced for the purpose of supporting the girders, their bearing being increased by inclosing the arched arcade below. The space the gallery staircase formerly occupied has been floored over and paved level with the saloon and corridor of the grand tier. Two mezzanine floors, one at each end of the grand saloon, have been taken down to give these rooms the same height as the saloon; and by these arrangements have been formed a handsome suite of anti and crush-rooms from the grand staircase, the whole length of the front of the theatre. The arched staircase which was formerly in the saloon, communicating with upper tier of boxes, has been taken away, and the ceiling divided into three compartments, supported by Ionic columns and entablature.

    The walls of the saloon, we may mention here, are hung with a green watered paper, with white and gold ornamental dressings to the doors and other openings. The woodwork is painted satin-wood; the columns Sienna marble. Before terminating our notice of the structural alterations, we must mention one great improvement outside. By an arrangement with the parish, the road in front of the grand entrance has been remodelled, and a tram-way for carriages formed beneath the portico, so that visitors are set down under cover most conveniently. The royal entrance, in Hart-street, has been considerably improved; as have also the approaches to the Queen's box and the retireing-room...

    ...We will now again enter the house and see what has been effected there. Our engraving (shown above) will aid us in giving a clear idea of the brilliant appearance it presents. The face of the centre box on the ground tier, is 18 feet 9 in. further from the curtain than it originally was, thus elongating the horse-shoe form to that extent, and rendering the lines of the boxes very beautiful. Each tier above recedes still further, the top-most being 2 feet 3 inches behind the lowest. The stage has been brought forward 9 feet into the house; and the distance from the front of the centre box to the front of the stage, is 59 feet, including the orchestra, which is 12 feet 6 in. deep, and accommodates eighty-five musicians. The greatest width of the internal area, is 62 feet; in front of the orchestra it is 54 feet 8 inches. The greatest height of the house is about 54 feet. The height of the Corinthian columns which form the proscenium, as shewn in the engraving, is 25 feet 10 inches; the diameter 2 feet.

    In the old house, it will be remembered, there were four tiers of boxes, including the slips; in the present we have six. The centre portion of the fourth and fifth tiers is appropriated as an amphitheatre for the general public, with seven rows of seats in each, extending backward over the corridor below. Above these, in the sixth tier, is the gallery. The area of the house is wholly filled with stalls; half being reserved under that name, the other half forming the pit. The seats here are all circular in plan, as they are also in the amphitheatres.

    Our engraving shews the boxes divided on every tier by caryatides; and this, when the house is completed, will be the case. At present the caryatides are up on the grand tier only, so that there is a want of apparent support for the ceiling. When these are fixed the effect in this respect will be greatly improved. The spaces between the caryatides are each, for the most part, divided into two boxes, by moveable partitions and drapery.

    The figures, together with all the ornaments in relief on the boxes, proscenium, &c., are moulded of a material called canabic, for which the architect of the theatre, Mr. Albano, has a patent. As its name imports, it is composed of hemp: it is light, takes a sharp impression, and is moreover cheaper than papier mache. It would seem to be very durable, too, and deserves to be better known than it is.

    Let us now describe these ornaments somewhat in detail. The sixth tier has been mounted with a large festoon of fruit and flowers, sustained by raised ornaments at equal distances, the cushion (which, as well as all the hangings, is of red damask) being supported by rich gilt moulding; the lower freize is likewise richly gilt. The fifth tier is covered with panels in the Renaissance style, each panel embracing an equal division of the front of the house, with a drop of flowers and shell between them, and rich frieze moulding. The fourth tier is mounted with similar panels, but in the centre of each is a Satyr's head, the expression of which is bold and good. These panels are connected by a continuous stream of flowers, which renders them complete. The frieze moulding is repeated. The third tier is arranged with seventeen panels, the centres of which are oval medallions, all having different subjects, in bold relief, surrounded with oak wreaths and acorns richly mounted, the four seasons, and other subjects, being tastefully executed.

    The ground of these panels and medallions, and panel ornaments, is a turquoise blue; the figures are finished in flake white, and draperies and other parts in gold. The frieze here is a bold ornament, composed of a large scroll with figures of Pan, &c., and boys with musical instruments introduced. This, surmounted by an egg-and-tongue-moulding in white and gold, completes the tier, with the capping moulding. The second, or grand tier, is mounted with a rich acanthus leaf, with a massive moulding below finished in imitation ormolu. The frieze above the acanthus leaf is of a light character, the design being composed of small figures of Cupid, - some reposing in the centre in a nest, and others flying towards the centre, - the remaining part being filled up with roses and other flowers. The capping moulding is here again of a rich and varied design. It will be seen that, with the exception of the small panels, which are light blue, the whole of the house is white and gold, producing a charming effect.

    Colour is reserved for the ceiling, the decorations of which are shewn clearly in our engraving. It may be stated broadly as 80 feet in length, and 60 in width, and was painted by Signori Ferri and Verardi, with the exception of some of the figures, which we believe were executed by M. Zarra. The decorations on the ceiling consist of a large scroll centre-ornament, perforated for the purpose of ventilation, and gilt, and mounted with bold fruit-and- flower-moulding, with egg-and-tongue, and other small members, so as to form five different margins, which are embraced on the outer edge by eight massive shields, and again are connected with lines of golden rope, running to the outer circle of the ceiling. There are four groups, connected by garlands. The group nearest to the proscenium represents Music and her many attributes, with Infant Genius. Lyrical Tragedy occupies the centre of the house. On the right is Comedy; on the left, Painting and Sculpture, with a metaphysical presentment of Art. The exterior architectural border is in high relief, and embraces four divisions - Astronomy, Mechanics, Trade, and Commerce, environed by figures and decorations in lower relief. Other groups represent the Seasons; and the names of celebrated composers are given in tablets. The painted ceiling terminates on a very bold egg-moulding, which is gilt, and forms also the cornice of the top tier of boxes.

    In the proscenium ceiling, the same egg-moulding is repeated, and formed into margins with a frieze, consisting of birds and squirrels in high relief, gilt. This is introduced again in the upper and lower edge of ceiling; the centre part is formed into smaller panels by moulding, the centres of which are filled with ornamental paintings. In the centre are the royal arms. The columns, with their capitals, are also white and gold. The spandrel above contains on one side a figure representing Britannia, and on the other a figure of Italy, on gold backgrounds.

    The front of the boxes, it may be observed, swells out at the foot, which, besides affording convenience to the occupants, materially aids the effect by reflecting the light. The form of the proscenium too, is exceedingly good, and displays very excellent taste. The chandelier is of large size, and would of itself light the house sufficiently; there are, however, in addition, branches for wax candles, projecting from the front of the grand tier and second tier.

    The number of persons who may be seated in the house may be stated as follows:- There are eight proscenium boxes, thirty in the pit tier, thirty-four in the grand tier, thirty-four in the third tier, twenty-eight in the fourth tier, twenty-eight in the fifth tier, and twenty-eight in the sixth tier, or 190 in all.

    Allowing six persons to a box, these will seat commodiously 1,140

  • The stalls hold 256
  • The pit 203
  • The amphitheatres 148 each 296
  • The gallery 300
  • Making in the whole 2,255 exclusive of standing room.
  • Judging, however, from the number of persons in many of the boxes on Tuesday night, this may be considered under the mark.

    The means of properly heating and ventilating the house appear to have received due attention. Hot-air stoves are fitted up under the pit stalls, with flues to conduct the warmed air over the house; and every gas-lamp in the corridors has a ventilating-pipe above it. On these, and some other points, however, we reserve our opinion, not venturing to form one hastily. For the extinguishing of fire, should it occur, mains, supplied from cisterns in the upper part of the house, are provided, with cocks and hose on each tier.

    As regards the conveyance of sound, we are disposed to consider the new opera-house singularly successful. During the performance we visited every part of the house, and found in every place that the lowest sound from the stage was distinctly audible. The boxes are all lined with wood; the walls of the corridors, the Queen's entrance, and the grand staircase are rendered with Martin's patent cement.

    As to the cost, concerning which some inquiries have been made of us, it is impossible to speak positively; the nature of the works precluded specific contracts, and the accounts have not yet been made up. £40,000 will probably not cover it.

    Mr. Albano richly deserves all the praise that can be offered to him. During the progress of the works he has never left the spot, and has himself, as we are informed, designed and arranged the whole, whether structural or decorative. He has earned for himself a good reputation both as a constructor and an artist. The whole of the decorations,with the exception of the ceiling before mentioned, were ably executed under his direction, by Mr. Ponsonby, of the Regent's-circus. It is hardly necessary to say that all the Canabic ornaments were painted and gilt while the other works were being proceeded with, and were put up afterwards without any loss of time. The builder employed was Mr. Holland.' The above text in quotes was first published in 'The Builder', 10th April 1847.

    Despite all the expense and major reconstruction of the Theatre in 1847 however, tragedy struck only 9 years later on the 5th of March 1856 when the Theatre was again destroyed by fire. However, the Theatre was then rebuilt again, and reopened in 1858, and happily this Theatre still exists today.


    The Third and Present Theatre 1858 - Present.

    The Third and Present Theatre on the site was designed by Sir Edward M. Barry and built by Frederick Gye in just six months, incorporating the statues and reliefs from the previous building. This Theatre, on a slightly enlarged site, was positioned at a new angle, East West rather than North South as before, and opened as the Royal Italian Opera House on the 15th of May 1858 with a production of 'Les Huguenots' by Meyerbeer.

    Apart from some reconstruction of the auditorium over the years, involving removing the Amphitheater boxes and removing most of the boxes in two tiers, the auditorium remains in much the same form as when it opened. Originally the Theatre held 1,897 but today the capacity is 2,268. There was some reconstruction in 1884 however, when the Theatre was converted by Frank Matcham for Circus use for William Holland, see below, and this was also the first time that Electric Lighting had been used in this Theatre. The Theatre reverted back to Theatrical and Opera use again the following Spring but would dabble with Circus on further occasions. Of course today it is known for Opera and Ballet almost exclusively as the Royal Opera House, but is sometimes host to major Televised Award Ceremonies such as the BAFTAs and the Olivier Awards.




    Holland's Grand Circus of 1884.

    William Holland took over the Theatre in 1884 and employed Frank Matcham to convert it for Circus use, it reopened as Holland's Grand Circus on Boxing Day, December the 26th 1884. The ERA reported on the conversion in their 20th of December 1884 edition saying:-

    'The works at Covent-garden Theatre in connection with Mr Holland's grand circus are making rapid and satisfactory progress, and the circus will be ready to open on Boxing Day. A ring has been formed on the stage level, the centre being in a line with the proscenium opening. Raised seats, constructed from the ring to the dress circle, will comprise the pit (with upholstered seats) and five rows of luxurious stalls, all having a clear and uninterrupted view of the ring. Stabling for thirty-eight horses and ponies is being constructed at the rear of the stage. These stables will be open to the public in the intervals of the performance. A handsome entrance to the ring, with orchestra over for sixty performers, is also erected, and the whole will form one of the grandest circuses ever constructed. Messrs James Shoolbred and Co. are carrying out the building, decorations, and upholstery, from plans by and under the superintendence of Mr Frank Matcham, architect.' - The ERA 20th of December 1884.

    Holland's Grand Circus opened with a Grand Circus Performance with a multitude of performers, and was then followed by the Pantomime 'St George and the Dragon' on Boxing Day, December the 26th 1884. The ERA reported on the opening in their 27th of December 1884 edition saying:- 'Visitors to Covent-garden on Boxing Day must have been astonished at the transformation in the opera house effected by Mr William Holland since he has had possession.

    In a similar position to that usually occupied by the orchestra when the promenade concerts are given, there is now a circus not only novel in construction, but having advantages not found in other circuses. For example, instead of dust flying in the faces of spectators while the performance is going on, the whole of the area is fitted with cocoa-nut matting four inches in thickness, and weighing over two tons. This entirely obviates any inconvenience to the audience, and, is beautifully clean and noiseless.

    Mr Holland endeavoured during his tour on the Continent to procure some of the greatest novelties to introduce in combination with the familiar items of the circus, and his plan will remind foreign visitors of the brilliant establishments in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and St. Petersburg. Remembering the season, Mr Holland has taken care to provide a pantomime entirely performed by children. Two hundred of these youthful pantomimists have been drilled by M. A. Bertrand, their stage business being taught them by Mr Clarance Holt.

    The lighting and decoration of the theatre will be heartily appreciated by the audience. The fullest use is made of the electric light, so as to make the entertainments attractive, and the fittings of the theatre, by Messrs Shoolbred and Co., are elegant.

    The pantomime is the grand old English subject of St. George and the Dragon; or, the Seven Champions of Christendom, and this excellent theme affords the author, Mr A. Henry, opportunities for spectacular effect, especially in the introduction of one hundred suits of magnificent armour. There will be found every kind of entertainment possible; performing elephants, acrobats, wire dancers, and feats of horsemanship of the most brilliant kind by equestrians fined throughout Europe, and it was evident that Mr. Holland's patrons anticipated a very attractive entertainment, for long before the doors opened the house was besieged with an 'eager crowd. In fact, had the accommodation of Covent-garden been twice as great, the house could have been filled.

    A shout of applause greeted the National Anthem, when punctually at two o'clock the entertainment began. Then. M. Tourniaire, from the Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, gave his trick act, and there was a laughable comic scene with the clowns. The acrobatic performances of Les Petites Frres Martinetti displayed remarkable talent on the part of these youthful artists, who were greatly applauded. Mdlle. Lavinia was rather unfortunate, for, to begin with, her horse was restive and difficult to manage, and the lady, probably being rather nervous, had no less than six falls, once tumbling over the barrier; but Mdlle. Lavinia, nothing daunted by her mishap, flung herself once more upon her steed, and finished her performance so as to win the cordial and sympathetic applause of the audience. The Brothers Gilleno, on the horizontal bar, not only delighted all who saw them by their agility; but the grotesque drollery with which their feats were accomplished added greatly to the effect. They are admirable performers.

    Nothing better was seen in the circle than the brilliant and daring horsemanship of Hernandez, whose somersault throwing, backward and forward, and astonishing leaps from the circus to the bareback of the steed, quite electrified the spectators. The clown, George Footitt, an extraordinary acrobat, was particularly successful in this scene. Elephants are always popular, and such a clever one as that introduced by Mr A. Forepaugh, jun., is likely to be a great draw. Dressed as a clown he looks extremely comic, and seems to comprehend every word that is said-to him. Indeed, he almost talks himself, for when a question is put to him he replies in such comic little squeaks that they are excessively funny: This elephant has a host of tricks. He indulges in a game of see-saw, and has a swing, plays the organ, and is also a very convivial fellow, for his pranks at the supper-table caused roars of laughter.

    Madame Cruau, from the Cirque Rentz, Berlin, was one of the most successful artistes of the day. She is wonderfully graceful and quick in her movements, and there is boldness and variety in everything she achieves. Madame Cruau made an excellent impression. The singing jester; Harry Rickards, in this scene gave a patriotic song with allusions to events of the day.

    The comic entree of the Clown Felix with his quaint monkey "Ally Sloper " was the signal for hearty merriment, monkey and man being most cordially greeted. Madame Oceana, from the Grand Hippodrome, Paris, immediately upon her appearance attracted attention by the grace and fine proportions of her splendid figure. She gave a performance upon the invisible wire, and displayed to great advantage the elegance of her style of performance, which was as picturesque as if the lady had floated in air or upon the bosom of a lake. Madame Oceana, probably because there was hardly time, did not remain long upon the wire, but she convinced the audience in that brief period that her accomplishments are of the first class, and her appearance could hardly be more attractive.

    Madame Oceana, besides her performance on the wire, introduced several sleight-of-hand tricks, and performed them with the greatest dexterity and ease. The great jockey act of Mr George Batty was very effective, and was rewarded with enthusiastic applause. The Chiesi Troupe, eight in number (male and female), gave an entertainment of a superior kind. Their acrobatic feats were wonderfully good. "The Princess Lilian" is an equestrian monkey who rivals her human companions in all kinds of feats on horseback.

    After these excellent scenes in the circle the pantomime, St. George and the Dragon; or, the Seven Champions of Christendom concluded the afternoon brilliantly. We must warmly compliment Mr A. Henry upon the talent he has shown in adapting the subject for the circus. He has written some smart lines referring to topics of the day, and among other subjects he alluded gracefully to the change of the Royal Italian Opera to a circus, suggesting that in the spring again opera would be in the ascendant...'

    The review then went on to praise the Pantomime and summed up by saying, 'Mr William Holland is to be congratulated. He has evidently done his utmost to secure the favour of the public, and there is every probability that the novel and excellent entertainment he has prepared will prove attractive, and that crowds will reward his enterprise. The appearance of the theatre, crowded, as it was, to the very roof, was most exhilarating, and promised well for the future. '

    The above text in quotes (edited) was first published in the ERA, 27th of December 1884.

    The Theatre was extended rearwards in 1933 to house new dressing rooms and offices, and then again in 1982 when, after the entire plot of land was acquired from the sell off of Covent Garden Market in the 1970s, the building was extended even further back towards James Street. In 1999 a major injection of cash in the form of Lottery funding of £50m gave the Theatre the chance to move into the 21st century in a big way. The building now incorporates the Floral Hall, next door, and its footprint now extends to Bow Street, Russell Street, the Piazza, James Street and Floral Street.

    The Auditorium was completely restored and looks absolutely fantastic, like walking into a brand new Victorian Theatre, see images below. The stalls were re-raked to accommodate the new stage, and the stage itself and fly tower were completely demolished and rebuilt. A new box office was added, along with a cafe, restaurant, and shops. And a new rehearsal space large enough to house complete sets was added next door with the added advantage of becoming a second performance space as well.

    Venue Access Information.

    Royal Opera House Access Membership.

    If you have any accessibility requirements and this is your first time at the Royal Opera House, or if you have not joined their Access Membership, their first suggestion would be to contact the Box Office on 020 7304 4000 ( to discuss your visit. They encourage all disabled customers to join the Royal Opera House Access Membership as this will help them meet your accessibility requirements. The Royal Opera House Access Membership is open to anyone who has a disability as defined by the Equality Act 2010.

    They are committed to making your visit as enjoyable as possible and can assist you in all aspects of your booking. Their dedicated team can advise you on their facilities and discuss any particular requirement. For information on ROH Access Membership and to request a registration form, please contact the Box Office on +44 (0)20 7304 4000 or download an Access Membership registration form.

  • Download the Access Membership Registration Form (Word Document, 3MB).
  • Download the Access Membership Registration Form (PDF, 3MB).
  • Facilities and services offered to their Members include:

  • Personalized assistance in all aspects of your booking from their dedicated team.
  • Personalized seat allocation, based on your seating preferences, subject to availability.
  • Free mailing of their season guides sent to you in your preferred format (audio CD, large print or standard).
  • Personalized Membership card and unique Membership number.
  • Priority booking and reduced price tickets for British Sign Language users for interpreted performances, subject to availability.
  • Reduced price tickets available to Members who are in receipt of disability-related state benefits (proof of eligibility required - please see registration form for further information).
  • One complimentary ticket if you require continual supervision/assistance inside the auditorium and during the performance (proof of eligibility required – please see registration form for further information).
  • N.B: The Royal Opera House reserves the right to cancel and refund any discounted or complimentary tickets that contravene their discount/complimentary ticket booking policies. Please allow up to two weeks for your registration to be processed.

    Access Booking

    Access members can book online, over the phone, in person or by booking form (mailed to all Access Members, together with a season guide, at the onset of each booking period).

    They recommend that Access Members make themselves as familiar with the seating as possible before making a booking. If in doubt, please contact the Box Office Access department on 020 7304 4000 or email Please also take a moment to make yourself familiar with the three seating plans below, which detail the position of exits, lifts, toilets, access to surtitles, and the number of stairs necessary to access each area of seating.

  • Main Auditorium Seating Plan: Steps.
  • Main Auditorium Seating Plan: Exit, Lifts, Toilets and WC Spaces.
  • Main Auditorium Surtitles.
  • Online Booking

    Please ensure that you sign in to your Access Membership account before making an Access booking online. Once you have completed your booking, please notify the Box Office Access department of any additional accessibility information you think might be relevant to your booking. Those Access Members who have previously booked online at (and still have a live online account) should continue to use their current email log-in and password as standard.

    Those Access Members who have never booked online at since joining the membership should email with the following:

  • Please title the email ACCESS ONLINE.
  • Include the email address with which you will sign-in
  • Include your full name, postal address and (if possible) Access Membership number
  • We will then set you up online and email you a simple set of instructions on how to sign-in and navigate your account. Please DO NOT go ahead and set-up an online account independently, as this will result in multiple booking accounts, problems with your log-in and your online account not possessing the relevant Access information or, where applicable, discount eligibility.

    If you make an Access booking online and have particular requirements of which they and Front of House need to be aware (such as a wheelchair transfer; loan of House wheelchair; accommodation of portable oxygen facility; presence of an assistance/guide dog; Assisted Hearing Facility; Audio Introduction request; Assistant Pass request, etc), please ensure you notify as soon as possible, so they and Front of House can accommodate you accordingly.

    For those eligible, both the 25% discount on your own personal ticket and the free companion ticket are applicable to one performance per production (ie, one performance in a run of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, one performance in a run of Rigoletto, etc). If you wish to see more than one performance of the same production, any additional bookings will be charged at full price. Bookings will continue to be monitored daily for any discrepancy. They will retain any tickets where a discount has been duplicated whilst we contact the customer to arrange additional payment/cancellation.

    Wheelchair Access

    There are up to 19 spaces for wheelchair users in the Main Auditorium, which can be made available at every performance. They are in the Stalls Circle, Grand Tier, Balcony and Upper Amphitheatre level. Please note that you can only book wheelchair spaces online if you login as a registered Access Member and wheelchair user. At least one wheelchair space and companion seat will be retained for sale with the Friday Rush Tickets from 1pm on the preceding Friday – please see the Friday Rush section below for further details. Please note that the wheelchair Friday Rush Ticket and companion is available for standard ROH Main Auditorium productions only, not Gala performances or those by a visiting company.

    There are also two spaces for wheelchair users in the Clore Studio, situated on the left of row A. When booking wheelchair spaces, please inform the Box Office of any further specific requirements. Their Box Office and Front of House staff can also advise you on approximate distances between the main foyer, the auditorium, bar facilities, exits and access toilets. Access through the Bow Street/Floral Street Main Entrance can be gained using an automatic push-button door on the Floral Street side.

    The Box Office and Royal Opera House Shop are situated on the corner of Russell Street / Bow Street. The Information Desk, Same-Day Ticket Collection, and the Cloakroom are all situated at the Main Entrance on the corner of Floral Street / Bow Street. Counter heights at the Box Office, and most of the bars are designed to be accessible for wheelchair users, except the Paul Hamlyn Hall bar where there is also a waiter service available to wheelchair users.

    Restaurant and Bars

    Customers with mobility impairments who book Auditorium Right tickets are advised to dine in the Crush Room, Amphitheatre Bar or Amphitheatre Restaurant. Customers with mobility impairments who book Auditorium Left should dine in the Crush Room, Paul Hamlyn Hall or Balcony Restaurant. This will guarantee easy access. It is always advisable that customers book directly with ROH Restaurants to ensure that the table reserved is accessible. Please email or phone +44 (0)20 7212 9254. To save time during the interval, they would recommend using the Royal Opera House Bars app to pre-order drinks and snacks at the Royal Opera House Bars. More information about the Royal Opera House Bars app.

    Friday Rush

    At 1pm each Friday, 49 Friday Rush Tickets will be available to buy for Main House performances over the following 7 days (Saturday-Friday). Look for Friday Rush tickets in the Stalls Circle Balcony and Amphitheatre sections of the auditorium; please note the Balcony tickets are for standing places. You may purchase a maximum of two Friday Rush tickets for each performance. Simply go to the Friday Rush page.

    Please note that one Friday Rush wheelchair space will become available for each of these performances. They become available at 1pm each Friday along with other Friday Rush Tickets but are not bookable via the standard Friday Rush page. Instead, sign into your account as an Access Member Wheelchair User, go to the What's On page and select the performance you wish to book.

    They offer Friday Rush for almost all main-stage shows performed by The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet, but a small number of exclusions apply (for example, galas and schools matinees). Depending on national holidays and other events, sometimes (and very rarely) Friday Rush tickets will be released on a different day. In these cases the change of date will be flagged on the page with a week's notice.

    Accessible Toilets.

    From the Ground Floor Foyer, please follow the signage for accessible toilets (on your left as you enter the foyer). This will take you down the white marble ramp and round the corner to the first accessible toilet. There is a further accessible toilet if you take a lift from auditorium left down to the Lower Ground Floor. These lifts are adjacent to the accessible toilet mentioned above. Please note that the lift from auditorium right down to the Lower Ground Floor (lift 3) does not give access to the Lower Ground Floor accessible toilet.

    There are more accessible toilets on each level within the Main Auditorium. All accessible toilets are unisex, and are equipped with an alarmed pull cord in case of emergency. Our Front of House staff will be happy to point you in the right direction, and if you have any further questions please contact them at or 020 7304 4000.

    Lifts and Stairs.

    There is lift access to all levels of the Main Auditorium except the Orchestra Stalls, which can be reached by a minimum of nine steps and a maximum of 18. There are more than 100 seats in the Stalls Circle, Balcony and Amphitheatre which are accessible without the need to negotiate steps. In addition, many seats in these areas and in the Grand Tier are accessible by 10 steps or fewer.

    You can borrow a wheelchair when you visit the Royal Opera House. Please contact the Box Office to arrange this facility in advance. N.B: There is a waiter service available to wheelchair users at the Paul Hamlyn Hall bar. Please notify a member of staff if you require this service.

    Sign-Language-Interpreted Performances.

    For some opera productions in the Main Auditorium, one performance is BSL interpreted. These are highlighted in the season guides. If you are a BSL user, they will offer you priority booking and capped priced tickets as near to the interpreter as possible. Please contact the Box Office for more information. Surtitles are supplied for all opera performances, including those sung in English. The surtitles are projected on to a screen above the stage, or to a monitor close to the seats.

    Relaxed Performances.

    A small number of performances may offer a number of Relaxed Performances. These have been modified to be more accessible for audience members with Autism Spectrum Disorders or other learning disabilities. Changes made might include: introductions to characters at the start of performances to prevent surprises or shocks during the show; adjustments to the lighting and sound; removal of pyrotechnics or other stage effects that can be startling; or other changes made in consultation with these audiences. There may be more sound and movement from audience members, as well as opportunities for them to take time out from the performance.

    Assisted-Hearing Facility.

    A Trantec radio system assisted-hearing facility has been installed inside the Main Auditorium and the Linbury Studio. The Clore Studio and the Crush Room are scheduled to have the system installed in the near future. To benefit from the system, you are welcome to borrow a set of headphones and a special receiver from the Front of House Duty Manager in the Main Entrance foyer. The unit is designed to pick up a radio signal which amplifies the sound and can be borrowed free of charge. Alternatively, if you wear a hearing aid, you may borrow an induction collar which can be used in conjunction with the “T” position of your aid. You may reserve this equipment in advance from the Box Office on +44 (0)20 7304 4000.

    Audio-Introduced Performances and Large Print information.

    An Audio Introduction is an aural complement to the printed programme. It provides a detailed synopsis of the work, as well as description of the set, costumes and more. It starts approximately 15 minutes before the start of the performance and five minutes before the end of each interval. Headsets, on loan free of charge, can be collected from the Duty House Manager's desk in the Main Entrance foyer. You may reserve the facility in advance when you make a booking.

    The same information is also available on Audio CD prior to your visit. Please contact the Box Office to request a copy, free of charge. The Audio Introductions and season Audio Guide are produced for the Royal Opera House by the company Sightlines. Large print cast lists and synopses are available on the day of the performance. These can be collected from the Duty House Manager’s desk in the main foyer. Menus in their restaurants are available in large print.

    Assistance Dogs.

    Assistance dogs are welcome in all spaces of the Royal Opera House. If you would like your dog to remain with you during the performance, please mention this when booking your seats to ensure you are given a seat with sufficient space. If you prefer, you may leave your dog with a member of Front of House staff during the performance. In the case of an emergency, if it is safe to do so, they will try to reunite a dog with its owner prior to evacuating the building. If this is not possible, staff will bring your dog to the appropriate assembly point.

    Fire and Emergency.

    Refuges for customers with limited mobility are located throughout the building. In the event of an evacuation, you will be escorted to the nearest refuge by a member of staff. If you have a dog with you, the dog should accompany you to the refuge. If your dog is not with you, a member of Front of House staff will reunite you with your dog at the earliest opportunity.


    There is no designated parking at the Royal Opera House. The nearest NCP car parks are in Drury Lane and Shelton Street. They are currently undergoing some construction work as part of the Open Up project, so the drop-off point outside the Bow Street entrance is currently suspended - please use Russell Street, or Floral Street after 6pm or on weekends. Accessible parking bays in Bow Street are also suspended, and the accessible parking bays on Floral Street are only available from 6pm or on weekends; these accessible parking bays are all under the jurisdiction of Westminster Council. You can get 50% off parking at Q-Park car parks via the Theatreland Parking Scheme. To qualify, you must get your parking ticket validated at the Main Entrance foyer desk. Visit or telephone 0870 442 0104 for more details.


    Location : Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD

    Transport: Rail : Charing Cross (National Rail) then 14 minutes. Underground: Covent Garden (Piccadilly Line). London Buses routes : 1, 4, 6, 9, 11, 13, 15, 23, 26, 68, 76, 87, 91, 168, 171, 176, 188, 501 (southbound only), 505, 521 and X68 stop close by.

    What's On

    Seating Plan.

    Access Line : 020 7240 1200

    Tel: 020 7304 4000