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The Opera Comique, East Strand, London

 

Programme for the Opera Comique - Circa 1885 - Click for detailsThe Opera Comique was a Theatre designed by the architect F. H. Fowler and constructed in 1870 on part of the site of the proposed but never completed Strand Hotel. The Hotel's outer walls had been constructed but then left dormant for several years. Within the walls of this failed Hotel construction the Royal Globe Theatre was built in 1868. And then a few years later the Opera Comique was constructed behind the Globe, so that their stages were back to back, sharing their rear walls. The Opera Comique opened on Saturday the 29th of October 1870.

Right - A Programme for 'Mother-In-Law' and 'Vulcan' at the Opera Comique - Circa 1885 - Click for details.

The Building News and Engineering Journal reported on the construction of the then unnamed new Theatre, which would become the Opera Comique, in their August the 26th 1870 edition saying:- 'Many of our readers will doubtless remember the mania which prevailed a few years ago for the erection of gigantic hotels by Unlimited liability companies. Many of those projects were most disastrous to the unfortunate shareholders, and it is to be hoped, for the sake of those concerned, that the present rage for theatre-building in London will not be attended with the like misfortune. By a curious coincidence, the walls which were to enclose a large hotel now include within their limits two theatres.

The mere half-finished brick carcase intended for the Strand Hotel stood idle and ruin like for several years between Holywell and Wych streets. After a time, the ground floors were utilised as shops, and let to booksellers and others, and last year about half of the internal area of this huge carcase was appropriated as the site of the Globe Theatre. On the remaining half of the interior of this block another theatre has now been for some months in course of erection, and it will probably open at the end of September or beginning of October. This new theatre will, we understand, be devoted to burlesque, extravaganza, and opera bouffe, and will be totally distinct from the Globe Theatre, and under different management.

The backs of the stages of the two theatres abut on each other, and are divided by a solid brick party wall. The stage of the new theatre (which has not yet been given a name) is 32ft. deep. The whole of the space which in former days would have been called the pit is appropriated to stalls. This space, or pit area, is however, very limited, as there is no headway under the first tier or balcony, which is to be named the stall tier, and which rises up solid from the ground, the top of the balcony or box-front being only 6ft. or 7ft. from the floor of the pit or stalls, so that a person in the pit (otherwise stalls) could easily shake hands with one in the first or stall tier. Above the stall tier, at a good elevation, is the grand tier or dress circle; and above this, again, is the final tier, appropriated to "amphitheatre " and "amphitheatre stalls." It is estimated that 1,600 persons may be comfortably seated in the auditorium.

This new theatre will have an advantage over the Globe, inasmuch as it will have its principal entrance in the Strand, nearly opposite Surrey-street. This is effected by means of a subway which passes from the new theatre, beneath Holywell- street, to the basement of a new building in the Strand. This basement will be luxuriously fitted up and decorated to serve as a crush-room, and will be approached by a broad flight of steps, leading from the vestibule. We understand that in constructing the subway from the theatre to the Strand the workmen came upon traces of the Old Holy Well, from which Holywell-street derives its name. Besides this principal entrance in the Strand, there will be other entrances from Wych-street and Holywell-street.

The decorations will consist principally of carton-pierre work, with the ceiling and the space over the proscenium painted with allegorical subjects. The whole of the decoration is under the direction of Mr. Bradwell. The gas lighting will be effected by means of a sun-bumer. From the peculiar shape of the house (that of a flat horse-shoe) a good view of the whole or nearly the whole of the stage will be obtainable from every seat. Special precautions have been taken to secure efficient ventilation, and the carrying off of the products of gas combustion. Mr. F. H. Fowler, of Fleet-street, is the architect, and Mr. Read the builder.'

The above text in quotes was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, August the 26th 1870.

Programme for 'Joan Of Arc' at the Opera Comique in 1891 - Courtesy Ken Claydon - Click to see entire Programme.The Building News and Engineering Journal reported on the Opera Comique again, this time a few weeks before it opened, in their October 14th 1870 edition saying:- 'The new theatre in the Strand, named the Opera Comique, will, it is anticipated, be opened to-morrow (Saturday) week, the 22nd inst. The decorations are very far advanced, and besides these there only remain the scenery and upholsterers' work to be added to give an air of completeness to the interior. The bulk of the decorative work is of carton pierre or composition, with a profusion of gilding on a white or nearly white ground. The ceiling has a shallow dome of perforated work for its central feature, and in this dome is suspended a sunlight.

Right - A Programme for 'Joan Of Arc' at the Opera Comique in 1891 - Courtesy Ken Claydon - Click to see the entire Programme.

The ceiling is also divided by boldly projecting gilt bands or mouldings into several large panels or spaces, which, with the space over the proscenium, are decorated with allegorical paintings in oil by Mr. Ballard. The general decorative works are by Mr. Bradwell, of Great Portland-street, and the gas fittings are by Mr. Matthews. Great attention has been paid in planning the house to secure a good view of the stage from every seat, and a commendable and by no means a minor feature consists in the doors of the various entrances being made to swing both backward and forward, so that in the event of a fire or other panic they would offer no obstacle to a speedy clearance of the building. Some fuither particulars of the theatre were given in the Building News for August 26 last.'

The above text in quotes was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, October 14th 1870.

The Building News and Engineering Journal were again on hand to report on the imminent opening of the Theatre in their October 28th 1870 edition saying:- 'The New Opera Comique - The new theatre in the Strand bearing this name opens to-morrow (Saturday) evening, with Mdlle. Dejazet's company of French comedians. The building has already been described at some length in the Building News. It has been constructed from plans by Mr. F. H. Fowler, architect, of Fleet-street, Mr. Reid, of Hammersmith, being the builder. The whole of the ornamental work in relief has been executed by Messrs. White & Co., of Great Marylebone-street, in carton-pierre and papier-mache, as also the whole of the ceiling, proscenium, box fronts, &c. The general decorations were executed by Mr. Bradwell, of Great Portland-street. The furniture has been supplied by Messrs. W. J. Villars & Son, of the London-road, Southwark.'

The above text in quotes was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, October 28th 1870.

The Opera Comique was mentioned in 'Old and New London', published in 1897, with a brief report saying:- 'The principal front of the "Opera Comique" is in the Strand, and observant passengers who know the narrowness of the area between the Strand and Holywell Street will find it difficult to imagine how, even in London, where now-a-days theatres are edged in among houses anyhow, an " Opera Comique" can have been formed there. This frontage, however, is, in truth, nothing but the entrance to a passage which leads across Holywell Street to a theatre that has been built between that and Wych Street. The building, which is very small, backs on the "Globe," and is to a considerable 'extent underground, as will be understood when we mention that a long flight of stairs in Wych Street leads down to the stage level, and that the pit, of course, is lower than that again. The theatre was, opened in 1870, and has seen several changes of lessees. It is nicely decorated, and commodiously arranged. Its greatest prosperity has been in the production of those comic operas with which the names of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan are popularly associated, notably "H. M. S. Pinafore," and "The Pirates of Penzance."'

The above text in quotes was first published in 'Old And New London' 1897.

Whych Street 1901 - Click to enlargeThe Opera Comique had first opened on Saturday the 29th of October 1870 but in the end it was to have quite a short life as it was closed and demolished just 29 years later in 1899. This came about because of the construction of the Aldwych. This vast operation began in the last years of the nineteenth century and was not finally completed until after the First World War. Four theatres were demolished during the early stages of the work. The Olympic Theatre in Wych Street and the Opera Comique in the Strand were closed in 1899, the Royal Globe Theatre in Newcastle Street shut its doors in 1902, and this was followed by the closure of the Gaiety Theatre in the Strand in June of the same year.

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