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.
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Royal Opera House
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