The Royal Opera House. The very words conjure up visions of opulence, elegance and refinement. But also world-class performance, music, dance and singing. In the heart of London’s theatreland, this Covent Garden stalwart – often referred to simply as ‘Covent Garden’ – has been the home of opera in the UK for almost 300 years.
The current, instantly recognisable and much-loved, building is the third theatre to occupy this site. The first was built in 1732, designed by prominent English architect Edward Shepherd. Back then it was called the Theatre Royal and was built by theatre manager and actor John Rich.
Rich had commissioned English poet and dramatist John Gay to write The Beggar’s Opera. This hugely popular production premiered at Rich’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in January 1728. The success of the venture cemented Gay’s reputation and provided Rich with the capital to build the new theatre.
A third famous name associated with this early venue was George Frederick Handel. The German-born Baroque composer settled in London in 1712 and in 1734 a revival of his Il pastor fido (The Faithful Shepherd, 1712) took place there.
This marked the start of a relationship that lasted until Handel’s death in 1759; Rich died three years later. Many of the composer’s operas and oratorios were written for the Theatre Royal or had their first London performances there, including Alcina (1735), Atalanta (1736) and Semele (1744).
Sadly the theatre was completely destroyed in a fire in September 1808, along with the deaths of 23 firemen as the building collapsed. Among the many valuable items lost was Handel’s theatre organ, which he had bequeathed to John Rich.
Work on a new theatre began just three months later. Designed by Robert Smirke – whose work can be seen in the main block and façade of the British Museum – the venue opened on 18 September 1809, just two days before the anniversary of that devastating fire. The theatre was launched with a new production of Macbeth starring the renowned brother and sister team of John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons.
Kemble was also the theatre’s manager. He raised the ticket prices in order to pay for the new building. The move was so unpopular that it sparked a series of protests that were known as the Old Price Riots. They lasted more than two months, until the management was finally forced to lower the costs.
It was during the lifetime of this building that Covent Garden came to be known for opera. The Theatres Act of 1843 broke the patent theatres’ monopoly on spoken drama. Prior to this two theatres – this one and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane – held patents granting exclusive rights to present spoken drama in London. The new Act granted greater powers to local authorities to license theatre. This significantly intensified competition for audiences.
At that time Her Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket was the main location for opera and ballet in London. However, in 1846, after a dispute with the management, that venue’s principal conductor Michael Costa decamped to Covent Garden, taking most of the company with him.
The auditorium was completely remodelled by Italian architect Benedetto Albano, and the theatre reopened as the Royal Italian Opera on 6 April 1847, with a performance of Rossini’s Semiramide (1823). Then on 5 March 1856, disaster struck again and for the second time the theatre was completely destroyed by fire.
Work on the third and present theatre, designed by Edward Middleton Barry, started in 1857, and the new building opened on 15 May 1858 with a performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (1836). The building was extensively reconstructed in the 1990s, but that world-famous façade, the foyer and auditorium date from 1858.
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. The company took up residence at Covent Garden on 20 December 1858 with the premiere of Michael Balfe’s Satanella and continued at the theatre until 1864.
In 1892, the theatre became the Royal Opera House, reflecting the wider repertoire of French and German works as well as Italian.
During World War I, the venue was requisitioned as a furniture repository and in World War II it became a Mecca dance hall. It might never have reopened as a theatre had music publisher Boosey and Hawkes not acquired the lease of the building.
David Webster was appointed general administrator and Sadler’s Wells Ballet, under Ninette de Valois, became the resident ballet company. The opera house reopened on 20 February 1946 with an extravagant new production of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty (1890), with Margot Fonteyn as Aurora.
With no suitable opera company to take up residence, Webster and music director Karl Rankl began to build a company from scratch. In December 1946 the new Covent Garden Opera teamed up with Sadler’s Wells Ballet for a production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (1692). The following January saw the company’s first performance of Bizet’s Carmen (1875), conducted by Rankl. Both companies were awarded Royal Charters: the Royal Ballet in 1956 and the Royal Opera in 1968.
Initially, the Covent Garden Opera Company sung all works in English in order to encourage native performers and to build a core repertory of English operas. It soon became apparent, though, that not all the singers were prepared to learn their roles in English. There was the additional difficulty of finding suitable translations and new works, and the policy of opera in English was dropped.
A series of major renovations since the 1980s have totally transformed the theatre into the building we see today. The Royal Opera House closed in July 1997. The auditorium and foyer spaces of the 1858 building were restored to their former glory, while the remainder of the site was rebuilt to house state-of-the-art stage and backstage areas.
The new building has the same traditional horseshoe-shaped auditorium as previously, but brand new technical and rehearsal facilities were created; a more intimate auditorium, the Linbury Studio, was made for smaller and more experimental productions, while the existing auditorium and foyers were fully refurbished.
In 2014 further design work, known as the Open Up Project, began with the aim of improving the entrances, lobby areas and the Linbury Theatre.
On 16 March 2020, due to the ongoing coronavirus health crisis, the Royal Opera House closed its doors again, cancelling all performances. At the time of writing (19 July 2020) the venue remains shut for the foreseeable future. In response to this situation, the theatre launched #OurHouseToYourHouse, a programme of productions streamed online on Friday evenings, as well as live content from artists and staff.
We look forward to the Royal Opera House, as well as venues across London, the UK and the world, reopening their doors and welcoming back their audiences.
The Royal Opera House’s famous façade dates from 1858 (N1ugl, via Wikimedia Commons).