A History of the Royal Opera House

Take a look back at some of the milestones in the history of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

The Royal Opera House forms a cornerstone of Covent Garden, next to the world-famous piazza, and with an impressive frontage on Bow Street. It’s actually the third theatre built on this site after the first two were destroyed by fires – a serious hazard in the days before electricity!

An actor and theatre manager called John Rich built the first Theatre Royal, Covent Garden with the fortune he had made from the huge success of The Beggar’s Opera, which was a hugely successful, satirical ‘ballad opera’ written in 1728. At that time, under the terms of a Royal Patent, Covent Garden was only one of two theatres permitted to perform drama in the capital. The other patent theatre was the nearby Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and a rivalry soon developed between the two.

The first important musical works to be heard at the theatre were by the composer George Frideric Handel, who, from 1735 until his death in 1759, worked closely with Covent Garden as a composer and organist.

In 1808 the building was destroyed by a fire and work began to create a new theatre, the Covent Garden, designed by Robert Smirke. The theatre re-opened in 1809 with a performance of Macbeth by Shakespeare. In order to cover the cost of the rebuild, the theatre increased their ticket prices but the audience were so unhappy about the price rise that they booed and hissed during performances until the old prices were restored.

In 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. Barry designed the stunning glass and iron Floral Hall, intended as a flower market but also hosting the occasional ball. However, the Wednesday before the House was due to open the decorations weren’t finished, the fronts for the boxes (a high-profile place to sit at the time) weren’t fitted and people were taking bets on whether or not the theatre would actually manage to open in time.

Even opening night wasn’t a huge success. The access routes were so poor that it took people too long to find their seats, and they had to cancel the final act of the opera. Nevertheless, the theatre’s popularity grew – although some still seemed unconvinced, and in 1901, one London journalist described it as ‘a sordid building, hideous, smoke begrimed and uncouth, set among sordid slums’. He was right. At the time the area was full of slums and rotting vegetables and horse manure from the market. Thankfully, much has changed today.

King Edward VII didn’t much enjoy the ballet, so instead entertained dancers in the Royal Smoking Room, to which there is a secret staircase leading from the old dancer’s studio. The Royal Opera House has also had other uses. During the First World War the theatre became a furniture repository, and during the Second World War a Mecca Dance Hall.

It may have remained as a dance hall if the music publishers Boosey and Hawkes hadn’t acquired the lease. David Webster was appointed General Administrator and the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, under Dame Ninette de Valois, was invited to become the resident ballet company.

The Opera House reopened in February 1946 with a gala performance of The Sleeping Beauty with Margot Fonteyn as Aurora. The show remains a firm favourite today.

For opera, Webster and Karl Rankl had to build a company from scratch. In December 1946 they teamed up with the ballet company for a production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, choreographed by Frederick Ashton, which was soon followed by the company’s first performance of Carmen.

Both companies were eventually awarded Royal Charters: the Royal Ballet in 1956, the Royal Opera in 1968. The Royal Family have a strong relationship with the Royal Opera House; the Queen Mother always tried to attend a performance on her birthday, and came aged 101 for Sir Anthony Dowell’s farewell. The National Anthem was played before every show until the 1960’s. In fact, we are still owed money from Queen Mary, who has a bar bill of 3/6d for whiskey!

The famous tenor Luciano Pavarotti made his debut in 1964 as an unknown understudy. He was heard by Richard Bonynge, an Australian conductor and pianist who was married to the famous soprano Dame Joan Sutherland, who took Pavarotti on tour with her. The rest, as they say, is history…

The Royal Opera House as you see it today opened on 4 December 1999, although we’re currently undergoing another refurbishment which will allow more people to visit and enjoy performances of world-class opera and ballet. We will be reopening the upgraded Linbury Theatre, and improved foyer, restaurant and public spaces in late 2018 – make sure you pay us a visit.

The House has around 2,250 seats – the number changes depending on orchestra requirements. The curtain on the main stage made of a stunning red velvet weighs 2.5 tonnes, which is roughly the same as 3 and a half cows.

We also have a fascinating collection of sets and costumes – our previous production of La bohème included authentic 19th Century French army uniforms, which are now over 100 years old.

The Royal Ballet also dances through 12,000 pairs of shoes every year. From pointes to ballet boots, they need regularly replacing in order to keep our dancers on their toes.