The Royal Opera House
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The Royal Opera House

One of the oldest sites for theatre in London.


The magnificent Royal Opera House in Covent Garden has a fascinating history and is actually the third theatre built here - both previous theatres were destroyed by fire.

Actor/manager John Rich built the first Theatre Royal here with his fortune made from his hugely successful The Beggars Opera. At that time, under the terms of a Royal Patent, Covent Garden was only one of two theatres allowed to perform drama in the capital.

The other theatre was round the corner - the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and a keen rivalry soon developed between them.

The first important musical works to be heard at the theatre were by Handel, who, from 1735 until his death in 1759, had close links with Covent Garden both as a composer and organist. Many of his operas and oratorios, including Alcina and Semele, were first performed there, and he left his theatre organ to John Rich.

Extensive rebuilding work took place in 1787 and 1792, but in 1808 the theatre was completely destroyed by fire with the tragic loss of 23 fireman as the building collapsed around them.

Work on a new theatre began immediately to designs by Robert Smirke. The Prince of Wales laid the foundation stone on the last day of 1808 and the theatre opened just over eight months later with a performance of Shakespeares Macbeth starring the renowned brother and sister team of John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons. To help recoup the cost of the build, the management (including Kemble and Siddons) raised seat prices, a decision that proved so unpopular that audiences kept rioting until the old prices were restored.

The theatre officially became an opera house in 1843, the Theatres Act ended the patent theatres monopoly of drama and the competition for audiences intensified. Three years later, Covent Garden scored a notable coup when the gifted composer and conductor Michael Costa joined the theatre from Her Majestys in the Haymarket, bringing most of his company of singers with him. Following the remodelling of the auditorium, the theatre reopened as the Royal Italian Opera in April 1847 with a performance of Rossinis Semiramide.

On 5 March 1856 disaster struck again: for the second time the theatre was completely destroyed by fire. Work on the third and present theatre eventually started in 1857 to designs by E.M. Barry and the new building opened in May 1858 with a performance of Meyerbeers Les Huguenots. Barry also designed the striking glass and iron Floral Hall, intended as a flower market but also hosting the occasional ball.

In 1892, with the repertoire broadening, the theatre was renamed the Royal Opera House. Winter and summer seasons of opera and ballet were given and between seasons the theatre was either closed or used for film shows, dancing, cabaret and lectures. During the Great War the theatre became a furniture repository and during the Second World War a Mecca Dance Hall. Thats how it might have remained if the music publishers Boosey and Hawkes hadnt acquired the lease. David Webster was appointed General Administrator and the Sadlers Wells Ballet, under Ninette de Valois, was invited to become the resident ballet company.

The Opera House reopened on 20 February 1946 with a gala performance of The Sleeping Beauty with Margot Fonteyn as Aurora. With no suitable opera company able to take up residence, Webster and music director Karl Rankl began to build a company from scratch.

In December 1946 the embryo Covent Garden Opera teamed up with the ballet in a production of Purcells The Fairy Queen choreographed by Frederick Ashton; the following January saw the companys first performance of Carmen. Both companies were eventually awarded Royal Charters: the Royal Ballet in 1956, the Royal Opera in 1968.

Location: Covent Garden, WC2E 9DD