11 Secrets Of London's Royal Opera House

By Zoe Craig Last edited 20 months ago
11 Secrets Of London's Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is one of the world's leading opera houses. Here are our favourite facts about this incredible London institution.

The Royal Opera House. Photo by Tony Hawkins.

1. Third time lucky

The current building is the third theatre on the site following disastrous fires in 1808 and 1856.

An illustration of the first theatre drawn shortly before it burned down in 1808.

The first, the Theatre Royal, opened in 1732, before burning down in 1808. The second opened just eight months later (1809) and survived until March 1856, when another fire destroyed the theatre.

An 1810 illustration of the auditorium of the second theatre on this site shortly after opening.

A third theatre, designed by Edward Middleton Barry, opened in 1858. This was a fireproof building in a regular classical design, and alongside it Barry built the Floral Hall in 1858-9. The Floral Hall was a glass-and-iron structure intended to serve as a concert hall annexe and winter garden. The theatre became the Royal Opera House in 1892.

Today's façade, foyer, and auditorium date from 1858, but almost every other element of the present complex of buildings dates from the extensive reconstruction which took place between 1996 and 1999.

2. The Opera House... in Borough Market?

Next time you're heading to Roast in Borough Market, look up.

The façade grafted onto this particular part of Borough Market is actually the old E M Barry-designed Floral Hall from the Royal Opera House, which was put in storage when the Opera House was done up in the 1990s.

The portico at Roast used to be the Floral Hall in the Royal Opera House.

It was bought by Borough Market for £1 and added to the building around 2003. In 2008, it was awarded Grade II-listed status (we're amused to see that Historic England thinks ' the interior is not of special interest': unless, presumably, you really want a roast dinner).

3. It's hosted some impressive 'firsts'...

The Covent Garden site lays claim to various firsts: Pygmalion, performed in 1734, is said to be the first 'ballet d'action'. That is, a ballet presented more like our modern understanding of 'classical ballet', with a story told through dance.

The then-Theatre Royal also hosted the first performances of many of Handel's operas, including Il pastor fido, Ariodante, Alcina and Semele.

4. ...including the first time a piano was played in public

The first public performance on a piano in England took place on 16 May, 1767, at what is now the Royal Opera House.

A Miss Bricker sang a song from Handel's Judith to the accompaniment of Charles Dibdin.

The piano was probably one like this, Square Piano c 1795, now in the Horniman Museum. Photo by Gábor Hernádi.

This was followed by the first solo performance on a piano on 2 June 1768, by Johann Christian Bach, Johann Sebastian's youngest son.

5. And some remarkable goodbyes

Actress Sarah Siddons gave her farewell performance what's now the Royal Opera House in 1812.

The most famous tragedienne of her day, Siddons certainly knew how to work a crowd.

Her final act, on 29 June 1812, is perhaps the most extraordinary farewell performance in theatre history. The 57 year old was playing her most famous role, Lady Macbeth, but after the sleepwalking scene, the audience refused to allow the play to continue.

Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth, by Robert Smirke, c 1790–1810

Eventually, after tumultuous applause from the pit, the curtain reopened and Siddons gave an emotional farewell speech to the audience, which was said to last nearly 10 minutes.

On 15 March 1833, Edmund Keane had a stroke on stage while playing Othello.

At the words "Villain, be sure," in scene 3 of Act III, he suddenly broke down, and cried, "O God, I am dying. Speak to them, Charles!" Charles, his son, was playing Iago at the time. He caught his father as he fell and carried him off stage.

Edmund Keane as Othello. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Edmund Keane died two months later.

6. It's always been 'in the limelight'

The Royal Opera House was the first theatre to use limelight to light its actors.

The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in the late 1820s.

Invented by Sir Goldsworthy Gurney in the 1820s, limelight was created by forcing a mix of oxygen and hydrogen through a pipe to produce a flame; then adding quicklime to make a very bright light by a combination of incandescence and candoluminescence.

In 1837 theatre manager William Charles Macready used limelight in the Opera House to highlight or spotlight one particular player on the stage. It was the first time the technique had been tried indoors.

While electric lighting took over in the early 19th century, the term 'in the limelight' has obviously endured.

7. It's been used as a furniture store and a dance hall

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, the Royal Opera House building was used as a dance hall.

After the war, the idea of public subsidy of the arts was accepted and the decision was made to establish the Royal Opera House as the permanent year-round home of the opera and ballet companies now known as The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet.

8. It also hosts an orchestra

Most people know that the Royal Opera House is the home of the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet.

But the building is also home to an orchestra (the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House) and a choir, the Royal Opera Chorus.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House © Johan Persson/ROH 2009

Both were established in 1946 and both provide a kind of backbone to the work produced by the opera and ballet companies.

9. It's not actually all that big

Step inside the auditorium of the Royal Opera House, and if you're anything like us, you're pretty much guaranteed a 'takes your breath away' moment.

Inside the Royal Opera House.

But despite having a seating capacity of 2,256, the Royal Opera House only ranks in around sixth place in the list of London's biggest theatres.

10. It's connected to the Royal Ballet School

This beautiful bridge, called the Bridge of Aspiration, connects the Royal Opera House with the Royal Ballet School next door.

Photo: shadow_in_the_water

We rather like the idea that fledgling dancers start one end, tiptoeing in like an ugly duckling, and are somehow transformed into wonderful professional swans as they emerge into the theatre proper from the other side. In reality, we reckon it probably takes a bit longer than that.

11. Let's go outside

You no longer have to go to the Royal Opera House building to enjoy a performance there.

The audience at a BP Big Screen show in Trafalgar Square, 2015. Photo: Ian.

In recent times, the companies have been opening up the Royal Opera and Ballet shows through various innovative means.

You can now witness shows from the Royal Opera House in cinemas, on TV and via radio broadcasts, as well as on YouTube and through the BP Big Screens.

This is all rather nicely expressed in this quick YouTube ad. Enjoy.

Last Updated 20 February 2017