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THE MODERNISING OF THE COVENT GARDEN OPERA HOUSE

From The Builder, May 4th 1901 and June 1st 1901

The Covent Garden Theatre on its Opening - From the Illustrated London News, May the 15th 1858

Above - The Covent Garden Theatre on its Opening - From the Illustrated London News, May the 15th 1858, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The alterations recently made at Covent Garden may be taken in three groups:-
I. Structural alterations for the audience.
II. Structural alterations for the management.
III. Equipment of the stage.

I. Regarding the alterations for the audience, these comprise the remodelling of the exit and entrance arrangements of the stage and the formation of a special stalls corridor, so that the stalls, with their corridors, now form an independent whole, having their own conveniences, cloakrooms, &c., and do not, as formerly, have to encroach upon the accommodation of the pit-tier boxes, or the entrances and exits of other parts of the house. Entering from the main vestibule, there are now two sets of swing doors into the stalls corridor. From this corridor there is a central entrance into the stalls, and one on either side fright and left. There are pass staircases from the other tiers to the stalls corridors, and a special extra exit to Floral-street. It is needless to say that the rearrangement of entrances and exits to the stalls is of considerable importance in case of panic or fire, quite irrespective of their general convenience!

In connexion with the stalls alteration, the old-fashioned front and apron of the stage, which used to protrude into the auditorium, has been abolished, and the orchestra set closer to the curtain line. This will considerably affect the lighting arrangements of the stage and bring the "picture" more in accordance with modern ideas. It also leads to the arrangement of extra rows of stalls. Two new boxes have also been formed in place of the old entrances to the stalls from the pit-box tier. A number of minor improvements have also been made in different parts of the house, although perhaps these do not call for any special comment. The carriage approach from Bow-street has been improved by the formation of extra doors, so that two lines of cabs and carriages can now "pick up" and "set down."

The arrangements for the electrical illumination of the stage had naturally to be remodelled and elaborated to meet the altered circumstances, the whole of the plant installed some two years back, of course, being re-used. Similarly, the steam appliances, telephone, speaking-tube, and other minor technical installations to be found on a modern stage were remodelled. The system of gas lighting was entirely abolished, and similarly the system of limelight for special effects.

II. The structural alterations for the management, at the back of the house, comprise a number of important items: an entire remodelling of the storage and wardrobe arrangements, as well as the equipment of new workshops. In the first place, the large property shop, winch used to be over the auditorium, has been accommodated on a large additional floor, erected over the whole of the back wing of the building. This back wing has been remodelled, and now contains fine suites of rehearsal-rooms, both for solo artistes, for the chorus, and for the ballet, distributed on three floors, well lighted and aired, and equipped with all modern sanitary arrangements, an independent staircase, and an independent exit.

The entire wardrobe, dressmaking, and tailoring department has been housed on the south side of the stage, in suites of rooms comprising three upper floors, having two independent staircases and inter-communication by means of a hydraulic lift. On the north side of the house a suite of one of the upper floors has been retained as an armoury, a second has been remodelled for storage purposes, whilst a third now comprises a fine set of offices for the stage department. Here, again, an independent staircase connects the various floors, and inter-communication is also obtained by means of a new hydraulic lift.

Below the stage level on either side of the house the various suites of rooms have been remodelled and modernised as far as possible; one suite next to the stage entrance, for instance, comprising the offices of the firemen, stage mechanist, and electrician, all in close proximity to one another, and in close touch with the stage manager's offices by the independent staircase just mentioned, and with the stage by a pass stairs on the other.

Even the stage door has been remodelled, inasmuch as the doorkeeper's office now has a small waiting-room, and an entirely separate entrance, with timekeeper's office, has been formed for the working staff, by which means the crowding of the stage-door will be reduced.

The back portion of the stage has been separated off from stage level downwards, with the view of forming a large scenery store built on fire-resisting lines, and equipped with all the necessary racks for holding the "cloths" used in the usual repertoire. Similarly, in the back wing, an old store, formerly known as the "infirmary," has been enlarged and remodelled with the view of forming a "wing" store. In spite of these two modernised storage arrangements, the accommodation for scenery at Covent Garden is still necessarily of a very limited character compared with that of Continental houses, and must remain a source of constant anxiety and trouble to a management who produce an average repertoire of twenty-five operas in the short space of ten weeks.

The Stage of the Opera House, Covent Garden in 1901 - From 'Modern Opera Houses and Theatres' by Edwin O Sachs, and held at the Library of the Technical University (TU) in Delft - Kindly sent in by John Otto.

Above - The Stage of the Opera House, Covent Garden in 1901 - From 'Modern Opera Houses and Theatres' by Edwin O Sachs, and held at the Library of the Technical University (TU) in Delft - Kindly sent in by John Otto.

III. We now come to the great alteration of the stage, an enormous undertaking at all times, but rendered particularly difficult owing to the short period available, the existence of a ball season during the major part of the winter, and the presence of an enormous stock of scenery, &c., which it would have been impossible to have moved out of the house except at a very great cost. The alteration of the stage comprised entire gutting from top to bottom, so that nothing of the old stage from "gridiron" to cellar remains, with the small exception of a couple of wood fly galleries. Further, the alteration comprised the entire unroofing of the stage, raising the structure by 20 ft., and reroofing on modern lines. Further, it involved a considerable amount of excavation work, with a view of forming deep pits to take certain parts of the mechanism. An entirely new "gridiron" had to be constructed right across the stage; two "gridiron" galleries had to be constructed on either side, and a number of light connecting ways running across the stage.

An entirely new stage, including all constructional parts, had to be provided, together with a mezzanine floor. The opening of the stage towards the auditortium had to be equipped with an enormous fire-resisting curtain (the largest in London), and a strong party-wall built from stage level downwards into the cellar. In connexion with this constructional work, the whole of the "gridiron'' galleries, stage, and mezzanine had to be refloored, and the entire cellar or superficial area of the stage concreted over.

The scene docks on either side of the stage had to be remodelled, one of them, for instance, being equipped with a large scene door with revolving shutters measuring 28 ft. in height, another being provided with several floors to take planned scenery, such as rocks, groups, &c. The exit and entrance arrangements of the stage also had to be remodelled in such a way as to allow of greater convenience, and for the greater safety of the employes in case of accident. In connexion with the constructional alteration of the stage, an entirely new stage equipment had to be provided on modern lines, everything above stage being now worked on the Brandt patent counterweight system, and everything below stage on the Sachs patent electrical bridge system.

Plan of Stage, Covent Garden Theatre. As remodelled under the direction of Mr. Edwin O. Sachs, architect - From The Builder, June 1st 1901.

Above - Plan of Stage, Covent Garden Theatre. As remodelled under the direction of Mr. Edwin O. Sachs, architect - From The Builder, June 1st 1901.

Without entering into detail, the stage may now be described as comprising a series of six horizontal sections running parallel with the curtain line from front to back, each section being 8 ft. wide, and the whole being followed by a large back stage or rear stage. The first section contains nothing but a plain "carpet cut'' and openings to take the old-fashioned "grave" trap, "star" ' trap, or other similar contrivances. The second and third sections comprise large bridges, which can be raised 6 ft. above the stage, or lowered 8 ft. below the stage, constructed in two levels, on the lower level of which appliances can be installed for the purposes of raising minor platforms above "stage level, or sinking traps and the like. The fourth, fifth, and sixth sections comprise large bridges running right across the stage front, which can be raised 9 ft. above the stage, or lowered 8 ft. below.

The back stage has no openings or mechanism, beyond certain trapdoors to a scenery store and the necessary electrical mechanism for raising and lowering scenery for storage purposes. Between the various sections of the stage, long longitudinal flaps, 2 ft. wide, have been formed, and these can be easily opened to allow scenery to be passed through below for transformation scenes and the like. Each section is equipped with what is termed a pair of chariots, to hold "wing" lights placed on so-called wing-ladders.

All the electrical bridges are worked from mezzanine level and from ordinary switch boards, and can be raised and lowered at various speeds, and take loads up to two tons. They can be moved without vibration or noise, at a cost of about ¼d. for power on a full rise when loaded.

Above the stage level, each section has its series of lines to take cloths, borders, &c. Each section has a batten, from which the electric battens are suspended; and each section has a large wooden lattice girder from which heavy pieces of scenery can be suspended. There are, on the average, about ten lines for ordinary battens, a girder batten, and a light batten to each section; besides these lines there are the equipments of flying apparatus and the like, whilst in front there are, of course, the necessary lines for tableaux curtains, act-drops, and draperies. Everything that is suspended from above can be worked at stage level, or at either of the gallery levels, every scene being counterweighted to a nicety, and one man can easily handle any scene. No mechanical contrivance is required, and in practice quite a number of scenes can be rapidly changed in a minimum of time.

Throughout the structure and mechanism steel has been used, iron pulleys, and wire cable; and the inflammable materials have been absolutely reduced to the flooring of the gridiron and galleries and the hard wood flooring of the stage and mezzanine. In other words, an absolute minimum of inflammable material replaces what was almost a maximum, and, seeing that the electric light has been installed, the risk of an outbreak of fire or its spread has been materially reduced.

The work was carried out under the direction of Mr. Edwin O. Sachs, architect to the Theatre Syndicate, Mr. Thomas Kissack acting as clerk of works. The general contractors were Messrs. Colis & Son. The ironwork contractors for everything above stage level were Messrs. Lindsay Neal & Co., Limited, whilst the entire complicated structural and mechanical ironwork below stage level, including the stage "bridges'' and lifts, was by Messrs. Drew-Bear, Perks, & Co. The electrical power plant for the "under machinery" was provided by the Thames Ironworks Shipbuilding Company, Limited., of Blackwall; whilst the whole of the elaborate counterweight mechanism above stage level was provided by the Berlin stage mechanist and contractor, Mr. F. Brandt, who personally attended to the installation of his appliances in London. The fire-resisting curtain was by Messrs. Merryweather & Sons, Limited, and the alterations in the auditorium by the Army and Navy Auxiliary Supply, Limited (manager in charge, Mr. Player).

The building operation is the second structural improvement to the Opera House undertaken since its ownership, dating from spring, 1899; and this second building operation has involved the further considerable outlay of approximately 25,000l., or, by way of comparison, the cost of the total erection and equipment of a provincial playhouse.

The above article was first published in The Builder, 4th May 1901.

The Builder returned to the subject of the stage alterations at the Covent Garden Opera House, in greater detail, in their June the 1st 1901 edition which I have transcribed below.

IMPROVEMENTS AT THE COVENT GARDEN OPERA HOUSE

Architect Edwin O Sachs' Plan at Stalls Corridor Level and Section through Stage Portion of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - From The Builder, 1st June 1901.

Above - Architect Edwin O Sachs' Plan at Stalls Corridor Level and Section through Stage Portion of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - From The Builder, 1st June 1901.

The circumstances under which opera is carried on in this country are necessarily peculiar, seeing that the Covent Garden Opera House is by no means a public building in the ordinary sense, but merely a structure erected on lease on the Duke of Bedford's estate, held for some forty or fifty years by a syndicate composed for the most part of wealthy amateurs. The principal interest of these wealthy amateurs is to have the musical representations they favour during that limited "run" of eleven weeks which happens to coincide with the fashionable season, and to have the arrangements for the performances made in such a way that the Opera House can also be used as a kind of social rendezvous. Most of the members of this syndicate hold their shares (or debentures) at a small nominal interest; or, in other words, the principal portion of the capital necessary for the opera has not been contributed for the purposes of gain, but solely with a view of making possible that which would be impossible if worked solely on commercial lines. Most of the shareholders must hence be looked upon as patrons rather than partners in our operatic enterprise.

Covent Garden Theatre is an old building, the principal walls of which have been standing for many years, although the internal arangements were materially remodelled after the notable fire of some forty years back. As is well known, the famous Opera House is badly located in an insalubrious neighbourhood, cramped in on all sides, and lacking such approaches as one would like to see associated with the Temple of Art. When this House was taken over by its present owners some three years back, its defects were well known and attention had to be directed to such of the unsatisfactory features as might tend to hamper their scheme. In the first place, the bad equipment of stage appliances, which were entirely out of date, seemed to prevent any semblance of an artistic production. The offices were so ill-placed, inaccessible, and unpractical in arrangement that the annual expenses threatened to be enormous. Many of the modern protective measures associated with a theatre were absent, and the confidence of the public might be shaken - in fact, when the syndicate took over the House there was merely an installation of gas for lighting purposes, whilst, of course, the electric light should long ago have been installed.

In the auditorium, too, there was much to be complained of - the protruding stage was exceedingly ugly, to say the least of it ; the orchestra, which was built so far into the auditorium, made the seating arrangements difficult. Further, the approaches, particularly to the stalls, were highly inconvenient, not to say dangerous. The approaches for carriage traffic, difficult in any case, were complicated by the fact that only one line of carriages could put down or pick up; whilst an additional exit used by the box-holders into Floral-street also left much to be desired.

Notwithstanding the financial position of the owners, which, as has already been explained, is based primarily on what we might term a patronage rather than a business basis, money has been procurable to assist the Directors in overcoming some of these defects, and it is the successful overcoming of the primary defects and difficulties that we now have to deal with, bearing the peculiar circumstances of the case in mind.

Firstly, the stage had to be remodelled, the actual structure raised and fully re-equipped; secondly, the entire offices, stores, &c., had to be remodelled; and thirdly, the auditorium with its approaches had to be improved. Lastly, innumerable installations, such as that of the electric light, had to be dealt with. As far as this electric lighting was concerned, the directors proceeded with it from the very outset, as also with a number of minor improvements which were undertaken during the odd months intervening between the opera season and the ball seasons of 1899 and 1900, but the really important part of the improvement scheme only saw its completion during the last six months, when, by a bold stroke, it was decided that, ball season or no ball season, a winter of eight months was to see the final rejuvenation of the Opera House stage.

The opera season of last year closed on August 3, 1900; and it required three or four weeks for the scenery to be cleared in the usual way. Work was, however, immediately commenced on the morning after closing. The first operation, comprising the alteration of the auditorium and the formation of a special corridor and some new entrances, was taken in hand contemporaneously with the second, which comprised the raising of the roof over the stage. The whole of these two sections of the improvement scheme were completed by October 15, the main roof alteration being ready on October 8.

The roof alteration comprised a span of 90 ft. to a width of 70 ft., at a height of 90 ft. above the ground, without any facilities for storage accommodation in the vicinity; the building had to be kept waterproof during the alteration; and the stage hands and mechanists were working below whilst the alteration was going on above.

The scaffolding arrangements alone were most complicated, for a system of suspended scaffolding had to be applied, no vertical support being obtainable on the span of 90 ft. When the raising of the roof was completed, the "gridiron" had to be laid in a similar way from suspended scaffolding. Almost contemporaneously with these alterations, a large fire-resisting curtain was being fitted in the proscenium opening, and the walls between stage cellar and auditorium being built.

The curtain was put into position by October 15, so that Mr. Rendle was able to take up his tenancy for his ball season, and the first ball was actually given on October 26. A large scene store at the back of the stage was taken in hand somewhat later than the first-named work, i.e., in September, and was completed by November 1, 1900.

A general remodelling of a large wing at the back of the house was thereupon taken in hand, and was completed by January 1, 1901, by which time the new hydraulic lifts in the staircases were in working order, and the great removal of stores into their different new places could be undertaken.

On January 4 the stage floor was opened and gutted. The stage was reconstructed, and the new stage floor was closed in on April 4, when the whole of the work was practically completed, with the exception of some minor mechanical details which, trifling in themselves, were, however, of such a character as to prevent entire freedom on the stage until May 1. The gutting of this lower portion of the stage comprised by itself a wreckage of nearly 1,000 cartloads of timber and the erection of 150 tons of complicated steelwork and a very large amount of machinery.

It will thus be seen that the two principal problems, i.e., that of raising the roof and that of gutting the stage, occupied respectively two and three months. The circumstances were, of course, very peculiar, owing to lack of space and the enormous quantity of scenery that had to be handled to make room for the men, and much of the work was of an exceptionally dangerous character and of considerable risk to the workmen employed. Nevertheless, not a single accident, much less fatal casualty, occurred. The results, both in time and in lack of accident, must be attributed to a great extent to the co-operation of all parties concerned, not forgetting the artisans and labourers, who were, to a great extent, new to the class of work required, and Mr. Sachs, who acted as architect for the work throughout, is particularly anxious to acknowledge the assistance rendered him by the contractors and their representatives, and the cordial manner in which the various firms worked hand in hand under very trying conditions.

The new opera season actually commenced on Monday, May 13. Turning now to the drawings which we illustrate, we see the Opera House as it stands after the improvements, and it will be observed that much that used to seem very ragged in plan has now been squared up in such a manner that the general scheme might almost be termed symmetrical. Thus, when we enter the main vestibule, which can now be approached by two rows of carriages - i.e., private carriages under the porchway and cabs under a Bow-street awning - we find a double entrance leading into a broad stalls corridor, which formerly used to serve the purpose ot a kind of lumber-room and general store. From this corridor we can either reach the stalls by going up some steps that are centrally placed, or by two entrances at either end of the corridor. There are hence now three exits for the stalls, and it will be seen that besides the ordinary exits through the grand vestibule, a special lobby and exit leading directly on to Floral-street has been created.

Next, in the auditorium itself, the apron of the stage has been cut off and the orchestra now practically takes the place of the apron. The members of the orchestra are no longer hidden underneath the stage, and as the wall against which they play has been equipped with light pitch-pine casing and a double flooring put underneath the orchestra, affording a vacuum of 3 ft. or 4 ft., the sound has naturally improved both in clearness and carrying power.

Of other improvements noticeable on the plan as far as the orchestra is concerned, it may be noticed that the management have better office accommodation, and that the lavatories have been improved.

Turning now to the stage, but without going into any question of mechanical detail, we find a thoroughly modernised symmetrical stage, with a good-sized back stage cut off from the auditorium by a fire-resisting curtain. The stage has now its proper height, which allows for cloths to be taken up without any kink; all superfluous wood and rope work has been removed; and whilst the stage itself has been divided up into sections which can be raised and lowered on the Sachs patent-bridge principle worked electrically, everything above stage level has been equipped on a counter weight system, according to the Brandt patents.

With the stage as we now find it, every effect that a stage-manager can desire is obtainable with a minimum of manual labour, but it is only to be anticipated that it will be some time before those in charge of the stage can appreciate the possibilities at their command, or comprehend what the systematic stage management of the Continent really means. At present, to judge from the performances of the first couple of weeks, one would think that the captain of a fishing smack was trying to manage a torpedo-catcher. Of course, there has been little or no time for rehearsal, but given mechanics rather than stage-hands, and stage engineers rather than stage-carpenters, things will, no doubt, gradually right themselves.

If we now turn to the back wing of the house we see that the storage arrangements have been entirely remodelled and a good supply of rehearsal room provided; and facilities for storage and rehearsals are at last available at the Opera House, and it is to be hoped that proper use will be made of the modernised accommodation provided. Speaking generally, one might say that the Opera House has at last been brought up to date, and that it has been brought up to date after careful consideration of the Continental models, but without the slavish imitation which would be out of place where the circumstances are so peculiar.

Irrespective of the technical assistance obtained by the management, the members of the Syndicate, and particularly Lord de Grey and Mr. H. V. Higgins, may be considered to have done a great deal towards giving England better scenic equipment, for by one bold stroke London can at last boast of an example of stage mechanism which accords with the position of technical science in this country, and should serve as a pattern to other theatre owners.

The following are the contractors engaged by Mr. Sachs for the execution of the work: The general contractors were Messrs. Colls & Son (manager in charge, Mr. Collins; foreman, Mr. Dowse). The ironwork contractors for everything above stage level were Messrs. Lindsay, Neal, & Co., Limited; whilst the entire complicated structural and mechanical ironwork below stage level, including the stage "bridges" and lifts, was by Messrs. Drew-Bear, Perks, & Co. (manager in charge, Mr. Simco). The electrical power plant for the "under machinery" was provided by the Thames Ironwork Shipbuilding Company, Limited, of Blackwall (manager in charge, Mr. Flood); whilst the whole of the elaborate counterweight mechanism above stage level was provided by the well-known Berlin stage mechanist and contractor, Mr. F. Brandt, who personally attended to the installation of his appliances in London. The fire-resisting curtain was by Messrs. Merryweather & Sons, Limited, and the alterations in the auditorium by the Army and Navy Auxiliary Supply, Limited (manager in charge, Mr. Player).

The above article was first published in The Builder, June the 1st 1901.

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