The Royal Opera House is the third theatre to occupy to site in Covent Garden. In 1728, John Rich commissioned The Beggar's Opera, which was successful enough to provide capital for the first Theatre Royal, designed by Edward Shepherd. The theatre opened on 7 December 1732, and the first performance was Congreve's Way of the World.
Initially, the theatre was primarily a playhouse, with Covent Garden and Drury Lane having a monopoly over spoken drama in London, granted by Charles II. The first musical works heard there were operas by Handel, who regularly performed there between 1735 and 1759. Handel left his organ to John Rich and it was placed on the stage. Unfortunately, this was among the many valuable items destroyed along with the original theatre, in a fire in 1808.
Rebuilding began at once. The Prince of Wales (later George IV) laid the foundation stone on 31 December 1808 and the second Theatre Royal opened on 10 September 1809, with a performance of Macbeth. To pay for the rebuilding, the management raised ticket prices. This was an unpopular move and led to two months of Old Prices riots, where audiences booed, hissed and disturbed performances until the prices were reduced. The bill of fare of the theatre was varied, not just exclusively opera and ballet. However, in 1843, the Theatres Act broke the monopoly of spoken drama. At the same time, Michael Costa, conductor at Her Majesty's Theatre in Haymarket, which was the centre of opera and ballet, had a dispute with the management of Her Majesty's and transferred his allegiance to Covent Garden, bringing most of his company with him.
On 5 March 1856, the theatre was destroyed by fire for a second time. Rebuilding was held off for financial reasons, and the theatre was finally reopened on 15 May 1858, as the building that exists today. In 1892, the theatre became the Royal Opera House, with winter and summer seasons of opera and ballet, with a more diverse range of performances in between seasons.
In the First World War, the Opera House was used as a repository of furniture by the Ministry of Works. In the Second World War, it became the Mecca Dance Hall, and after the war, it looked as if it would remain as a dance hall, until music publishers Boosey and Hawkes acquired the lease and Ninette de Valois's Sadler's Wells Ballet became the resident ballet company. The house reopened on 20 February 1946 with a performance of The Sleeping Beauty. There was no opera company suitable to become the resident company, so the General Administrator, David Webster, put one together. Their first performance was The Fairy Queen in December 1946. The Royal Ballet and The Royal Opera were granted Royal Charters in 1956 and 1968 respectively.
The Opera House was given land adjacent to the existing building by the Labour Government in 1972 to allow for redevelopment and extension. The Government would not contribute money to the endeavour so a grant from the National Lottery was acquired. The total cost for the redevelopment was £216m, of which £78.5m came from the lottery. The redevelopment, between 1996 and 2000, not only involved the architecture of the building, but also how it was staffed and operated, and how the building fitted into its surrounding in Covent Garden Piazza. The Opera house is now one of the most advanced theatres in Europe, but it is also a space to visit, walk around and enjoy, with two restaurants, shops and pedestrian access between Bow Street and Covent Garden Piazza. The architects for this new look Royal Opera House were Jeremy Dixon, Edward Jones and Charles Broughton.
The refurbishment also allowed the discovery and uncovering of the largest part of Saxon London found to date, a place called Lundenwic. It was known for a long time that a flourishing town existed where Covent Garden now stands between the 7th and 9th centuries, but its exact location wasn't known. Saxons settled there because they didn't want to live in the stone city left by the Romans. While the Opera House work was underway, an architectural dig showed evidence of many industries, including bone working and textile production. The Saxons were forced back behind the Roman walls by Viking raids in the 9th century.
Resources and Hiring Spaces
The Main Theatre
Home of The Royal Ballet and The Royal Opera, the main auditorium has an audience capacity of 2,270. The Grade 1 listed Victorian interior conceals state-of-the-art air-conditioning, security, lighting and sound technology systems.
Vilar Floral Hall
Restored to its original conception as a London landmark, the Vilar Floral Hall is a venue for events on a large scale. The Vilar Floral Hall is used for hosting receptions, conferences, launches, wedding receptions and fashion shows and other events. It can accommodate up to 350 for a seated dinner or 600 for buffet. The area of the hall is 623m2.
Each room can seat 4 to 8 people and can be used for intimate meetings, presentations or dinners. Up to 4 rooms can be joined to allow seating for up to 40 people for larger functions.
Linbury Studio Theatre
With seating for 394 people, with a further 52 standing, The Linbury Studio Theatre is a smaller venue than the main stage, although it is still one of the most technologically advanced spaces in the West End. The seating can be retracted for a flat floor studio. The Linbury also has its own foyer and bar.
Crush Room and Conservatory
Situated above the foyer, the Crush Room has been restored to its original 1858 state and is one of London’s most sought after venues for receptions, conferences, product launches or presentations. The Crush Room can accommodate 160 people, and the adjacent Conservatory can hold a further 80. Both spaces can be linked to hold a total of 240.
Amphitheatre Bar, Restaurant and Terrace
The Amphitheatre Bar, Restaurant and Terrace are at the top of the Royal Opera House. The Bar overlooks the Vilar Floral Hall and the Terrace has unrivalled views of the Covent Garden Piazza1. The Bar holds 350 for drinks, buffets and canapés, and seats 220 for dinner. The restaurant holds 150 for drinks, buffets and canapés, and seats 80 for dinner. The Terrace can hold 140 seated or 200 for drinks, buffets and canapés.
MacMillan and Fonteyn Studios
While usually used as rehearsal studios by The Royal Ballet, the MacMillan and the Fonteyn are available for smaller events. The MacMillan can seat 100 for dinner and overlooks the Covent Garden Piazza as well as having stunning views of Central London. The Fonteyn is slightly larger seating 150 for dinner.
Royal Opera House
Registered Charity no. 211775
The Royal Opera House website claims the Terrace view is unrivalled but I know for a fact that this view is rivalled by the staff canteen, which is one floor further up, and therefore has a better view. If you can say one thing, the Opera House knows how to treat its staff.