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Royal Opera House

The Floral Hall of the Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House is a performing arts venue in London. It is also sometimes referred to as "Covent Garden" after the London neighbourhood in which it is located. The building serves as the home of the Royal Opera and of the Royal Ballet. The current edifice is the third theatre on the site. The facade, foyer and auditorium date from 1856, but almost every other element of the present complex dates from a reconstruction in the 1990s. The main auditorium is a Grade I listed building.


The first theatre

In 1728, John Rich, an actor and manager, commissioned The Beggar's Opera from John Gay. The success of the venture provided the capital with its first Theatre Royal (designed by Edward Shepherd) at the site, which opened on December 7, 1732.

For the first hundred years or so of its history the theatre was primarily a playhouse; the Letters Patent granted by Charles II had given Covent Garden and Drury Lane virtually exclusive rights to present spoken drama in London.

The first serious musical works to be heard at Covent Garden were the operas of Handel. 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. Unfortunately, it was among many valuable items lost in a fire that destroyed the theatre in 1808.

The second theatre

The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in the 1820s. Rebuilding began in December of the same year, and the second Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (designed by Robert Smirke) opened on September 18, 1809 with a performance of Macbeth followed by a musical entertainment called The Quaker. The management raised seat prices to help recoup the cost of rebuilding, but the move was so unpopular that audiences disrupted performances by beating sticks, hissing, booing and dancing. The Old Prices 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. In 1843, the Theatres Act 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 April 6, 1847 with a performance of Rossini's Semiramide.

The third theatre

On March 5, 1856, the theatre was again destroyed by fire. Work on the third and present theatre (designed by Edward Middleton Barry) eventually started in 1857 and the new building opened on May 15, 1858 with a performance of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. The theatre became the Royal Opera House in 1892 and the number of French and German works in the repertory increased. Winter and summer seasons of opera and ballet were given.

During the First World War the theatre was requisitioned by the Ministry of Works for use as a furniture repository. During the Second World War it became a dance hall. There was a possibility that it would remain so after the war but, following lengthy negotiations, the music publishers Boosey and 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, which laid out plans to "to establish Covent Garden as the national centre of opera and ballet, employing British artists in all departments, wherever that is consistant with the maintenance of the best possible standards..." (as quoted in Rosenthal, below)

The Royal Opera House reopened on February 20, 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 January 14, 1947 the Covent Garden Opera Company gave its first performance of Bizet's Carmen.

Reconstruction in the 1990s

Several renovations had taken place to parts of the house in the 1960s, including improvements to the amphitheatre and an extension in the rear, but it became increasingly clear that the House needed some major overhauling.

In 1975 the Labour government gave land adjacent to the Royal Opera House for a long-overdue modernisation, refurbishment and extension. By 1995, sufficient funds had been raised to enable the company to embark upon a major reconstruction of the building, which took place between 1996 and 2000. This involved the demolition of almost the whole site except for the auditorium itself, including several adjacent buildings to make room for a major increase in the overall scale of the complex. In terms of volume, well over half of the complex is new. The cost was over £220 million, £78 million of which controversially came from the National Lottery.

The new venue has the same traditional horseshoe-shaped auditorium as before, but with greatly improved technical, rehearsal, office and educational facilities, a new studio theatre called the Linbury Theatre, and much more public space. The inclusion of the adjacent old Floral Hall, long a part of the old Covent Garden Market but in general disrepair for many years, into the actual opera house 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.Opera at the Royal Opera House after 1945

The Royal Opera is London and the United Kingdom's most famous and most wealthy opera company. Generally it is also the most artistically important, although some of its productions disappoint, and other British opera companies sometimes receive better reviews.

Covent Garden Opera Company

In the immediate post-war years, the Covent Garden Opera Company (as it was originally named) planned only to present operas in English and to use the talents of British and Commonwealth singers. However, there were a few internationally-known singers of the calibre of Elizabeth Schwartzkopf and Hans Hotter who were willing to learn their roles in English and who did appear as Mimi in La Boheme) and as Wotan in 1948. Additionally, the ROH performed important works by British composers such as Benjamin Britten (Billy Budd, December 1951 and Gloriana, in 1953 for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II), Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arthur Bliss, and Michael Tippett.

Many English-speaking singers made their debuts in those years before about 1955, including such now-famous singers as Joan Sutherland, Jon Vickers, and Geraint Evans. But, "this flowering of native talent began at a time when the principle of opera in English was slowly being disregarded" (Drogheda et al), and, as it gradually became clear that Covent Garden could not attract international talent by being an English-only company "the retreat from the vernacular, never formally promulgated or announced, provoked some grumbling among the opera-in-English lobby.." but found little opposition elsewhere, notes Lebrecht. However, during the years under Rafael Kubelik as Music Director, a significant number of British singers did emerge. These included sopranos Amy Shuard, Joan Sutherland, Elsie Morrison, Marie Collier, Josephne Veasey, and Joan Carlyle; tenors Jon Vickers and Peter Pears; bass Michael Langdon and Geraint Evans.

By 1958, the present theatre's centenary, with the success of a major international production by Luchino Visconti of Verdi's Don Carlo, with singers of the quality of Tito Gobbi, Boris Christoff, Fedora Barbieri, and with Carlo Maria Giulini as conductor, the house was firmly established internationally. Maria Callas had appeared prior to this time, but was seen again in 1957 in La Traviata, in 1959 in Medea, and in 1964 in Tosca. Sutherland went on to world fame, as did Vickers and Evans.

By 1961, when Georg Solti became music director he claimed to know nothing about the original aims of the company and, in an interview in Opera magazine, stated that Sadler's Wells (now the ENO) has obviously taken over the task of being the national opera company and fulfills it with very great success" (quoted in Rosenthal, see below).

The Royal Opera

In October 1968, the Queen granted the company the right to be called "The Royal Opera" which, as noted by John Tooley, "was a fitting tribute to a company which from modest beginnings in 1947 had in the course of two decades achieved international status and acclaim". It is the only British opera company which regularly features the world's most famous opera singers. It performs operas in their original language and relies on guest artists to play the principal roles in all performances, in contrast to the other permanent opera company in London, the English National Opera, which performs in English and has contracted singers.

The Royal Opera shares the "Orchestra of the Royal Opera House", which is a permanent orchestra of full symphony orchestra size, with the Royal Ballet. It has its own permanent chorus with over forty five singers: the Royal Opera Chorus. A third group of musicians on salary are the members of the "Jette Parker Young Artists Programme", who receive advanced professional training. They are not students as the term is usually understood, as most of them have performed professionally at opera houses of some standing previously, but the programme is intended to accelerate their careers by gaining experience at one of the world's leading opera companies. The programme lasts for two years, with a new intake each summer. Most of the "Young Artists" are singers, but they also include conductors, répétiteurs and stage directors.

While essentially maintaining its pre-eminence in British operatic life, the Royal Opera has undergone a series of ups and downs over the succeeding thirty years. Its financial future was constantly in the balance, especially in the darker economic days of the 1970s and parts of the 1980s; it constantly faces the issue of artistic standards and performance quality, although under Anthony Pappano those standards seem to be pretty high; and it forever faces the issues of accessibility of segments of the public in the face of rising ticket prices.

It has been innovative in a variety of ways: the provision of large-screen relays of live performances not only to the public in the Covent Garden Market area, but also to other parts of the country, seems to have proved a success. Norman Lebrecht's book is probably the best overview of the vicissitudes suffered by the company since 1945, especially in relating it to the changing cultural and public funding climate of those years.

Music Directors of the Royal Opera

•1946-51 Karl Rankl
•1951-55 interregnum
•1955-58 Rafael Kubelik
•1958-61 interregnum
•1961-71 Sir George Solti
•1971-87 Sir Colin Davis
•1987-2002 Bernard Haitink
•2002-present Antonio Pappano
Ballet at the Royal Opera House After 1945

This section will cover the history of the Royal Ballet after it was created in the post-World War 2 era in London.

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