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The history of the Royal Opera House


The history of the Royal Opera House

Deep behind the doors of the Royal Opera House lurks a fascinating history, full of stories and secrets in the opera world. For over 250 years, audiences have sat in the venue taking in world-class ballets and operas. Step inside the history of the Royal Opera House with us to learn all about its past and find out what has given this venue a cultural prestige in London.

The Royal Opera House

The first theatre

The first theatre on the grounds of today’s Royal Opera House opened in 1732, with operas by Handel regularly performed at the venue. Originally called the Theatre Royal, the theatre served as a playhouse, with productions of Pygmalion, ballet seasons and operas attracting wealthy audiences.

In 1767, the Royal Opera House was the venue for the first public performance of a piano. Handel’s Judith was played by Charles Dibdin, with vocal accompaniment from Miss Bricker.

The theatre suffered a disastrous fire in 1808, resulting in the deaths of 23 people. Reconstruction work began soon after, with the second theatre opening eight months later.

The second theatre

Opening with a performance of Macbeth and musical entertainment titled The Quaker, the second Royal Opera House faced riots from customers for the first two months, who were unwilling to pay more for their seats. Once the prices were dropped, audiences came in their droves to watch operas, ballets and variety acts. Famous actors of the time would grace the stage, including Sarah Siddons and Joseph Grimaldi, who went on to become a successful clown performer at the theatre.

The Theatres Act 1843 affected the venue. No longer holding a theatre monopoly, the Royal Opera House had to diversify, reopening as the “Royal Italian Opera” in 1847 to a performance of Semiramide.

In 1856, the building was struck by fire again. Leaving the building destroyed, there was no choice left but to repair the theatre. Work started in 1857 allowing the theatre to reopen for the first time in 1858.

The third theatre

The third theatre opened in 1858 with a performance of Les Huguenots, a grand French opera dramatising the St Barthomolew’s Day Massacre. As operas, dances and musical theatre dominated the billing, the theatre was renamed the Royal Opera House in 1892. Summer seasons of opera and ballet were complimented with winter seasons of films, cabarets and lectures.

Similar to other West End theatres around, the building was repurposed during the wars. In World War One, the Royal Opera House became a furniture repository, then a dance hall in World War Two.

Post World War Two, the Covent Garden Opera began to perform at the opera house from 1946. With productions including The Sleeping Beauty and The Fairy Queen, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera would continue to present world-class shows, with both companies receiving their royal characters in 1968. The Covent Garden Opera took residence at the playhouse until 1980, when the auditorium underwent a renovation.

What does the Royal Opera House present now?

At present, the Royal Opera House is home to the Royal Ballet, the Royal Opera and the Royal Opera Chorus. The Royal Ballet is a world-renowned company, performing pieces from the 19th century including Asphodel Meadows, Romeo and Juliet and annual Christmas seasons of The Nutcracker. The Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera Chorus frequently work with each other on pieces such as “Requiem and the Song of the Earth”. With up to 60 people in the Royal Opera Chorus and 50 ballet dancers in the Royal Ballet, the Royal Opera House companies are formed from some of the best singers and dancers across the world.

Photo credit: Mark Hillary (Flickr) under Creative Commons 2.0