Accessibility links


Sign In
  • Home
  • News
  • How the design of Royal Opera House red programmes has evolved through the ages

How the design of Royal Opera House red programmes has evolved through the ages

Tastes change, as a fascinating trip through more than 250 years of historical souvenirs shows.

By Eilís McCarthy (Archivist)

20 January 2017 at 2.12pm | 13 Comments

The Royal Opera House red programme is one of a kind. More than just a deluxe souvenir, today’s programme is packed with gorgeous imagery and in-depth articles written by leading experts, all carefully tailored to the opera or ballet and sumptuously produced. It’s not always been that way, of course, and today the programme continues to evolve and develop. But amid this transformation there is one constant – a crucial document of the Royal Opera House’s performance history.

The oldest programmes in our Collections' extensive archive are playbills. This precursor to the programme is perhaps more like a modern-day flyer: a large single sheet with details of the singers and actors as well as other information, used to promote a performance in advance. Though playbills were often made using flimsy paper, ROH Collections nevertheless has playbills dating back as far as 1755, and they are a fascinating source of information about what went on in the theatre’s earliest days.

(Click on the arrows on the image below for a gallery of red programmes)

A selection of programmes and photographs recently donated to ROH Collections

The first big change in the design of the playbill occurred during the 1850s, when they shrank to a smaller, folded form. More similar in size to today’s programmes, these smaller playbills would have been much more practical for use within the auditorium. Next, from the 1880s we see the move from playbills used to promote performances in advance to programmes circulated on the night of the performance. Advertisements begin to appear around the edges of the programmes  framing information about the performance. By the 1890s this has been established as a regular format, one that remained in place into the 1930s.

Something more recognizable as the modern style of programme dates from the reopening of the Royal Opera House in 1946, after its World War II stint as a dance hall. Even so, the format and content of programmes has changed considerably since that time. The first programme from this new period was for The Royal Ballet’s (then known as the Sadler’s Wells Ballet) The Sleeping Beauty, which reopened the Royal Opera House on 20 February 1946. It was a modest eight-page booklet, sold for sixpence, including details of the performers, artists, production credits and a brief synopsis.

By the 1950s the programmes had increased the number of pages and now included more detailed credits, information on upcoming performances and more advertisements. The 1960s saw the introduction of the striking red cover and a further increase in size and content. The bold red cover has remained to the present day, notwithstanding a brief dalliance with white covers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. From 1988 one programme was printed for each run of performances, with individual cast sheets added to reflect the artists in each performance.

Consistent through all programmes from the 1840s to the present day is the inclusion of the royal coat of arms. While the presence of the coat of arms has been consistent, its design has changed several times over the years.

Specially designed programmes have been produced for different types of events, such as world, national or London premieres or the first performances of major new productions. Gala performance programmes – sometimes even made of silk – marked special performances, often given in honour of members of the royal family, visiting heads of state or key historical events. ROH Collections also holds a small number of autographed programmes signed by members of the cast.

Without the programmes, so much of the Royal Opera House’s history would be lost. ROH Collections holds programmes for almost every production since 1946, and thousands from the theatre’s earlier history. The collection is essential in the ongoing work populating the Performance Database – a project which aims to catalogue every performance at the Royal Opera House from 1732 to the present. This precious collection documents the performance history of this great theatre, for today and for future generations.

Find out more about ROH Collections.

Cataloguing the information from the playbills and programmes for the Performance Database is an ongoing project. Why not explore it?

This article has 13 comments

  1. William Falk responded on 20 January 2017 at 4:44pm Reply

    I find this subject really fascinating and I always look forward to buying the programmes no matter how many times I have seen the opera in various productions. One article that you published in the programme for Der Fliegende Hollander in the run in 2009 was a complete performance listing of this opera from 1877 to 2000, with details of all the performers. This was not repeated in the programme for the 2011 revival. I would really like to see this in programmes for other operas as well, and hope that you can consider this in the future. Many thanks William

  2. Jacqui responded on 20 January 2017 at 5:55pm Reply

    Is it ever possible to get copies of previous programmes/ cast lists? I missed out on my first ever first to the opera house and would love to get hold of a copy of the opera I saw! They're great keepsake of each visit.

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 23 January 2017 at 10:03am

      Hi Jacqui,

      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately we only keep enough copies of previous programmes and cast books for our archive.

      All best,

    • Mike responded on 4 May 2017 at 7:50pm

      Hi Jacqui
      I have just come upon what looks to be the entire 1960s and some of the 1950s programs, 3 very heavy boxes,
      If the program your looking for is from 1950s or 1960s I may have it and Id be happy to give you a copy.

  3. William Davies responded on 21 January 2017 at 12:15pm Reply

    Just to say, the ROH programmes do not show the "royal crest" but what is called commonly the royal coat of arms. The crest is merely what surmounts the shield in the full heraldic device (in this case, a crown).

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 23 January 2017 at 10:07am

      Hi William,

      Many thanks for pointing out that error, which has now been corrected.

      All best,

  4. Philip Connolly responded on 22 January 2017 at 1:14pm Reply

    As I look at my wife's array of programmes (she celebrates 50 years visiting Covent Garden this December) it seems to may - admittedly slightly red/green colour blind eyes - that the quality control over the red had been admirably consistent. She seems to have avoided the misguided white dalliance.

  5. Heather Willson responded on 22 January 2017 at 9:34pm Reply

    I buy a programme at every performance but have already expressed my reservations about them. In summary: interesting synopsis, biographies and photographs, but rather old- fashioned style with too many highbrow articles. Perhaps an update could include matt paper, more production photos and shorter articles to appeal to a wider range of people.

    • Anthony Simpson responded on 27 March 2017 at 12:34pm

      Have to disagree, Heather! There's enough 'dumbing down' in many aspects of life without it spreading to ROH programmes. I have a collection going back to my first visit in 1974 and quite often refer to the articles within. As for more production photographs: in the current Meistersinger prog. I counted no fewer than 22 plus various drawings of costumes etc.

      ROH: Please leave your excellent programmes as they are!

  6. Marea Douglas responded on 23 January 2017 at 8:52pm Reply

    I inherited a number of old programmes from my Mother. Some of the old ballet ones are autographed by the likes of Ninette se Valois, Robert Helpmann, Frederick Ashton, Margot Fonteyn, Michael Soames etc. One day someone will have to clear out my effects and not appreciate them. Would they be of any interest to the Royal Ooera House?

    Marea Douglas

    • Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer) responded on 24 January 2017 at 3:06pm

      Hi Marea,
      Thank you so much for getting in contact with us. It sounds like an impressive collection you have.

      The ROH Collections preserves programmes for all performances at the Royal Opera House and by ROH companies on tour. Our collection is strong from 1946 to present day, but inevitably we have gaps and are always pleased to hear from members of the public offering their programmes to us.

      We keep a list of programmes missing from the collection, so if you can email us directly at with details of the programmes dates and the ballets or operas performed, we can check these off against the list. If you hold some of our missing programmes, we'd be delighted to transfer them to the ROH.

      Thanks again for thinking of us.
      All best wishes,

  7. Debra ParsonsI responded on 11 February 2017 at 12:06pm Reply

    I have several programmes from 1974.
    Fidelity, ( 2 different dates) , La traviata, Owen Wingrave, Tosca, Otella, Jenufa, Don Giovanni, Carmen ,Der Rosenkavalier and Manor.

    Anyone interested in buying of me. They are all in very good condition. Please delete if not allowed.

  8. Mrs Pat Canty (nee Bristow) responded on 24 April 2018 at 11:59am Reply

    I have a centenary silk programme celebrating 100 yeas of the Royal opera house which was given to my father Mr Lesley Bristow who was a theatre flyman this was in1958. My father worked at the ROH just after the war until his death. As a child I have fond memories of stories told by my father of the people he met and his right.

Comment on this article

Your email will not be published

Website URL is optional