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  • The ROH during World War I: Suffragettes, star names and shut doors

The ROH during World War I: Suffragettes, star names and shut doors

1914 and the First World War saw Covent Garden in a number of guises - from fancy dress ball venue to furniture store.

By Francesca Franchi (Head of ROH Collections)

28 February 2014 at 3.54pm | Comment on this article

In 1914, as Europe slid inexorably towards war, the Royal Opera House's programme was reassuringly diverse: opera and ballet were staged alongside a range of other events including film shows, cabarets, lectures and dances.

A season of German opera in February and March, was notable for the first English performances of Wagner's Parsifal and Méhul's Joseph. On those Fridays when there was no opera performance the theatre opened at 11pm for lavish fancy dress balls.

The artistic focus on works from the continent continued from April until 28 July with a Royal Opera Season of French, Italian and German works. Even 100 years ago, Covent Garden was a major draw for the world's top operatic talent and Nellie MelbaEmmy DestinnEnrico Caruso and Antonio Scotti all sang on stage here during this period. The Season opened with Puccini's La bohème, starring Melba as Mimi, and on 11 May a gala was held to mark the state visit of the King and Queen of Denmark, with the British Royal family also present. This performance was briefly and memorably interrupted by a suffragette who stood up and attempted to address King George V while a second began to distribute leaflets. Both were swiftly escorted from the building. Verdi's Aida was performed on the last night of the Season, the day on which the Austro-Hungarian Empire invaded Serbia, signalling the start of World War I.

When Britain entered the war, the Royal Opera House was requisitioned by the Ministry of Works, whose responsibilities included the conversion of buildings for wartime purposes. For much of the war, the theatre remained closed and was used as a furniture depository, though a small number of benefit performances took place in 1914, 1915 and 1916.

The Royal Opera House reopened as a full-time theatre in 1919 with a Grand Opera season in conjunction with Sir Thomas Beecham.  The first performance saw Nellie Melba return as Mimi in Puccini’s La bohème, echoing the last Grand Opera Season before the War, almost exactly five years before.

Find out more about the ROH in wartime at our current exhibition in the Box Office Link, opposite the ROH Shop.

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