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The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Bow Street, London

Formerly - Theatre Royal in Covent Garden / Theatre Royal, Covent Garden / Royal Italian Opera / Royal English Opera

Introduction - First Theatre - Second Theatre - Third and Present Theatre

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in October 2006. - Photo M.L.

Above - The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in October 2006.

 

 

See London's West End TheatresSee Theatreland MapsThe Royal Opera House in Covent Garden that we know today was designed by Sir Edward M. Barry and constructed by Frederick Gye. It opened as the Royal Italian Opera House on the 15th of May 1858 with a production of 'Les Huguenots' by Meyerbeer.

The present building is actually the third Theatre to have been constructed on the site since 1732. Details of all the Theatres on the site follows, and there is more information on the present Opera House below.

 

First Theatre 1732 - 1808

The First Theatre on the site opened as the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden on the 7th of December 1732 with 'The Way of the World' by William Congeve. This was a 'Patent Theatre' as granted to Sir William Devenant by Charles II, but this second Patent (the first was granted to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane) actually originally applied to the Duke's Theatre in Lincoln's Inn and only ended up with the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden after the Patent was eventually handed down to John Rich, who began building the Covent Garden Theatre in March of 1731.

The Theatre was built on land leased to John Rich from the Duke of Bedford and designed by James Shepherd. The interior being decorated by the Italian Artist, Amiconi, with a capacity of 1,897. Handel arrived here in 1734 and produced many Operas and Ballets. David Garrick appeared here in 1746, fresh from Drury Lane, and it was in this Theatre that a new invention called the 'Piano Forte' was first heard in 1767. 'She Stoops To Conquer' had its first performance here in March 1773, and the first production of Sheridan's 'The Rivals' was produced at the Theatre in 1775. Details of productions at the Covent Garden Theatre, and Drury Lane, from 1760 to 1771 can be read here.

The Theatre was reconstructed in 1784, and in 1788 the first ever production of the Pantomime 'Alladin' was performed here. The Theatre was reconstructed again, almost completely this time, in 1792 at a cost of £25,000, a huge sum at the time, but sadly, on the 20th of September 1808 the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, burnt down, taking with it Handel's own Organ and many of his manuscripts.

 

Second Theatre 1809 - 1858

The Elevation of the Principal Front in Bow Street, with its Portico &c., of the Second Covent Garden Theatre - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'

Above - The Elevation of the Principal Front in Bow Street, with its Portico &c., of the Second Covent Garden Theatre - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'

The Second Theatre on the site had its foundation stone laid by the Prince of Wales on December the 31st 1808, the same year that the first Theatre had burnt down. It was designed by the architect Robert Smirke and reportedly cost the vast sum of £150,000 to build. Robert Smirke also designed the main structure and facade of the British Museum, the building now known as Canada House; the east wing of Somerset House, and many other prominent London buildings, although this was his only Theatre. It was a little smaller than the first Theatre but held a lot more people, 3000 in all. The new Theatre opened on the 18th of September 1809 with a production of Shakespeare's 'Macbeth'.

A description of the new Theatre was printed in Volume 1 of the 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London' published in 1825 saying:- 'The Temple of Minerva, in the Acropolis at Athens, suggested the design for the portico of this edifice, - the order of which is pure Grecian Doric. The principal front, in Bow Street, measures 220 feet from one extremity to the other; the Hart-Street front and its parallel (which is approached by piazzas from Bow Street and Covent Garden), are in extent 178 feet, or nearly so. The Bow-Street front presents a magnificent portico, with four columns of the Doric order, very large, fluted, and without bases; supporting a pediment and elevated upon a flight of steps. The whole front is inclosed by iron rail-work; and the upper part is decorated by basso relievo representations of the Drama, antient and modern, which are sculptured in long pannels, separated by the portico.

The Exterior of the Second Covent Garden Theatre - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'On that side nearest to Hart Street, in the centre of the sculpture, sit three Greek Poets; namely, AEschylus, the father of Tragedy, his face towards the Hart-Street corner and Aristophanes and Menander, the fathers of antient and modern Comedy: the two latter face the portico; and Thalia, with the crook and mask, is inviting them to imitate her sprightly example. Polyhymnia and Euterpe, with the greater and lesser lyres; Clio, with the longer pipe; and Terpsichore, indicative of action, or mime, following her. Three nymphs, crowned with fir pine, succeed, attending Pegasus. Minerva is placed opposite to AEschylus, who appears attending to her dictates: and between them, leaning on his fawn, is Bacchus; typical of tragedy having been invented in honour of "the wine-giver." Behind Minerva is Melpomene, with a sword and mask: two Furies succeed, pursuing Orestes; the latter imploring the aid of Apollo, who appears in his chariot. In the centre, on the other side of the portico, sits OUR immortal Bard; the emblems of dramatic poetry lying around him. He is summoning, with his right hand, Caliban, laden with wood; Ferdinand, sheathing his sword; and Miranda, with Prospero, whom she is entreating: Ariel is above, sounding enticing airs on his pipe: their backs are towards Shakspeare. This side of the group is filled up by Hecate, in her car, drawn by oxen (at the extreme ); Lady Macbeth, with the daggers; and Macbeth, turning with horror from the dead body of Duncan.

The Exterior of the Second Covent Garden Theatre - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'The space from Shakspeare to the portico is occupied as follows:- Milton, seated, is contemplating Urania, who surmounts, but faces him; and Samson Agonistes is chained at his feet. Behind them are the two Brothers, driving Comus and three bacchanals before them, the enchanted Sister being seated: the sculpture is terminated by two tigers, emblematical of the brutal transformation of the devotees of sensuality. The figures of Tragedy and Comedy, in niches, occupy, the former the south, and the latter the north, extremity of the building. Comedy has a crook on her right shoulder, the mask in her left hand; and Tragedy exhibits the mask and a dagger.

The grand entrance to the boxes is under the portico in Bow Street; and laterally with it, towards Hart Street, is the entrance appropriated to the private boxes. The grand entrance opens to the vestibule, where, at the right extremity, a large stove is placed; and two boxes for money-takers, and another where free admissions of all kinds are registered, present themselves, immediately upon passing through the folding-doors from the portico. Near each money-taker's box is a Grecian lamp, elevated upon a column of porphyry.

 

The Grand Staircase of the Second Covent Garden Theatre - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'.The grand staircase is to the left, central in the hall; divided, longitudinally, by two rows of large Ionic columns, in porphyry, with a superb Grecian lamp suspended between each. This staircase leads to the ante-room, which is ornamented by pilasters of porphyry; and contains a large statue of Shakspeare, executed by Rossi, in yellow marble.

Left - The Grand Staircase of the Second Covent Garden Theatre - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'.

To the right, from hence, are the folding-doors that lead to the Auditory; and to the principal Saloon, which is supported by pilasters in porphyry, and contains several plaster statues upon pedestals.

Section through Saloon, or Ante-room, to boxes; staircases to the same, and Entrance Hall, Committee-room, &c - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'.

Above - Section through Saloon, or Anteroom, to boxes; staircases to the same, and Entrance Hall, Committee-room, &c - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'.

The extremity to the right leads to a confectionary, where refreshments are supplied to the company; and there is a place provided for the same purpose at the opposite extremity.

On the entrance side of the saloon is a large staircase leading to it, right and left, from the first circle of the boxes. This room is superbly lighted, and provided with crimson seats. There is, also, another saloon in a higher story, which was originally appropriated to the private boxes. It is supported by four massive columns of porphyry, with a recess at each end, in which are stoves; and over the mantle-pieces are semicircular looking-glasses:- refreshments are provided here also. The sides of this saloon are occupied by crimson seats, and statues of heathen deities on pedestals, alternately placed.

 

Transverse Section through the Staircase - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'.There is another entrance to the boxes from Covent Garden, which is handsome, but not so elegant as that from Bow Street: it has two flights of stairs. The entrances to the pit and galleries are from Covent Garden, and on that side of the Theatre which angles (in Bow Street) with the grand front.

Right - Transverse Section through the Staircase - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'.

The Hart-Street front contains the entrance to the Stage, (or stage door,) which opens to a large and convenient porter's hall. On the right is an ante, or waiting-room. To the left is the door leading, on the right, to the cellar, (or all that part of a Theatre under the stage, from whence traps, and rising machinery, &c., are worked;) and on the left to a stone staircase, with iron balustrades, leading up to the stage, and the rooms appropriated to the principals of the different departments in the Theatre; as well as to the painting-room.

At the extremity of this part of the front, and laterally, is the royal entrance; which is a square, called Prince's Place; three sides of which are formed by the walls of different parts of the premises, and the front by lofty iron rails and gates, through which the royal carriage proceeds to the entrance door on the left, whenever His Majesty honours the Theatre with his presence. Adjoining to the gates, and terminating the Hart-Street front, is a handsome building containing the box-office, the housekeeper's residence, and other private apartments connected with the Theatre...

 

A Plan of the Second Covent Garden Theatre - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'.

Above - A Plan of the Second Covent Garden Theatre - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'.

 

...The form of the Auditory is that of the horse-shoe; the width, at the extremities, is 51 feet 2 inches; and the depth, from the front lights to the front of the boxes, 52 feet 9 inches. There are three tiers of boxes, each containing twenty-six, including those in the proscenium; and there are seven boxes on each side above them, and parallel with the lower gallery. The number of private boxes are twenty-six, situated as follows:- three on each side in the proscenium; one on each side even with the orchestra; five on each side of the first circle, and four on each side of the second circle; amounting to thirteen on each side. Over the boxes in the proscenium, on each side, is a semicircular appearance of a box, with a crimson inclosure. To the principal private boxes are attached private rooms, with fire-places. The width of the lower gallery is 55 feet, the depth forty. The width of the upper gallery is 55 feet, the depth twenty-five...

The Auditorium from the Stage of the Second Covent Garden Theatre - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'.

Above - The Auditorium from the Stage of the Second Covent Garden Theatre - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'.

...The appearance of the house is very imposing: the colour is a subdued yellow, relieved by white, and superbly enriched with gilding. Around the dress circle are wreaths inclosing the Rose of England, in burnished gold; the first circle displays the Thistle of Scotland, and the second circle the Shamrock of Ireland: and these three emblems are alternately placed, with fancy devices, in rich borderings, &c., in every part of the Auditory; which, from the reflection of the lights, gratifies the prevalent taste for splendour with one blaze of refulgence. The back and sides of the pit are decorated by the representation of dark crimson drapery, as are the interiors of all the boxes; which produces a very effective contrast to the brilliancy of the front. The boxes are supported by small iron columns, fluted, and gilt. The ceiling, over what is called the slip boxes, exhibits pannels of blue, relieved by white, and enriched with gold. The middle part of the ceiling is circular; in the centre of which, from a richly-gilded glory, surrounding a circle of golden lyres, &c., is suspended a chandelier of glass, of the most superb description; illumined by two circles of gas lights: the remainder of the ceiling is a light blue sky, relieved by delicate white clouding. The cove of the proscenium, in the segment of a circle, contains the moiety of a rich gilded glory, and sky to match the ceiling, surrounded by a bordering of gold; in which, as well as round the ceiling, either fancy flowers are introduced, or representations of those national emblems, the Rose, &c. The proscenium is supported by four pilasters, painted to imitate Sienna marble. Stage doors are wholly dispensed with. The top of the proscenium, from whence the curtain descends, is an arch of about thirty-eight feet wide and three feet deep; surmounting a superb drapery border of crimson, white, and gold, elegantly disposed upon a transverse bar of gold, terminated on each side with a lion's head: in the centre of this drapery is the King's Arms. For the green curtain is substituted a drop, representing a luxuriant profusion of drapery; crimson, white, and gold, (to match the borders,) drawn up by cords and tassels; and disclosing part of the interior of a palace, supported by numerous Ionic columns; which has a most imposing appearance. There are also pilasters, imitative of Sienna marble, which slide backward and forward, in order to widen or contract the stage.

The width of the proscenium in front is 42ft 6in. Width at pilasters 38ft 8in. Height to the centre of the arch 36ft 9in. Ditto, at spring of arch 33ft 3in. Depth of stage, from the front lights to the sliding pilasters 12ft 3in.

The number of superbly brilliant cut-glass chandeliers, which are hung round the Auditory, is fourteen; with three gas lights in each. In the too extreme dress boxes are large looking-glasses.

The King's box is always fitted up on the left of the audience, in the dress circle, and occupies the extent of three or four of the boxes.

The public, or open boxes, will contain about 1,200 people. The pit 750. Second gallery 500. First gallery 350. [Total] 2,800 exclusive of standing-room, &c. The private boxes are let, some by the year, some nightly...

A Plan of the Second Covent Garden Theatre - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'.

Above - A Plan of the Second Covent Garden Theatre - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'. Plan Description:- Transverse Section of the Theatre, from C. to D. in the Ground Plan - a. a. a., Various Subterraneous Stables and Rooms; some of which are arched with brick, and others, are covered with boarded floors. b., Portico in Bow Street. c., Hall, or Vestibule, marked A. in the Plan. d., Committee-room. e., Gentlemen's Wardrobe. f., Dressing-room. g., Orchestra, h., Private Box. k., King's Box, and Ante-room to the same. m., Entrances to Private Boxes. n., Passage. o., Ladies' Wardrobe. p., Carpenters' Workshop, in the Roof. q. r. and s., Private Boxes.

...The Stage is large and commodious. On the right of the Auditory, or left of the Stage, are the passages which lead to the superior and inferior green-rooms; the former of which is handsomely fitted up: at one end is a stove, and opposed to it a large looking-glass for the performers to adjust their dresses by, previously to going on the stage. The seats for the performers are covered with crimson, and the windows are decorated by crimson curtains; the room is handsomely carpetted, and there is a large chimney-glass over the stove, with a portrait of the late T. Harris, Esq., so many years proprietor of the Theatre. Performers receiving under a certain salary are not allowed to enter this room but on particular occasions. The inferior green-room is up a flight of stairs, and is neatly fitted up; and here is a piano-forte for the singers to try their songs, and for the choristers to learn their music. Beyond the best green-room is the manager's room, and the passage leads on to the coffee-room, property-room, and others appropriated to the business of the Theatre. The scene-rooms, carpenter's shop, &c., are in this part of the building. The stage is principally lighted by gas.

The stage measures from the front lights to the back wall 68ft 0in.
Width from wall to wall 82ft 6in.
The height of the flats (or flat scenes), which stand transversely on the stage 21ft 0in.
Width of ditto (14 feet each half) 28ft 0in.
Heights of wings, or side scenes 21ft 0in.
Width, about 4ft...

A Plan of the Second Covent Garden Theatre - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'.

Above - A Plan of the Second Covent Garden Theatre - From 'Illustrations of the public buildings of London Vol 1 1825'. Plan Description:- Longitudinal Section, a. to b. on the Plan. a.b. Scene-rooms. c., Painting-room. d., Stage. e., Mezzanine Floor. f., Cellars beneath the Stage. g., Orchestra, with open arched space beneath, at h., intended to increase the sound of the band. j. j. j., Stables, &c., under the Pit. k., Vaulted‘Passages. I., Room under the Vestibule, rn., to Pit. n., Corridor round the Pit. o., Box Lobby. p., Lower Saloon to Boxes. q., Upper Saloon to ditto. r., Lobby to Gallery. s. s., Carpenters' Workshop. t., Flies.

...The Flies, or that part of the Theatre surmounting the stage, are in size correspondent with the rest of the Theatre, and consist of two stories. These are filled with the machinery used in lowering the curtain, drops, wheels, borders, clouds, &c. &c.; and adjoining them is the painting-room, which is furnished with sky-lights, and measures in length seventy-two feet, and in width thirty-two feet.

Of the Persons employed in an Establishment of this magnitude it is almost impossible to give an account; the number is so arbitrary, and depends so much upon circumstances. The principal, regularly engaged, (exclusive of the performers,) are as follows:-

STAGE:- The stage-manager, pantomime-director, chorus and ballet masters, prompter, his deputy, copyist, (he has several assistants,) property-man, and call-boy.

ORCHESTRA:- Director of the musical department, leader of the band, six or eight 1st violins, ditto 2d, two tenors, two violincellos, three or four double basses, oboe and flageolet, 1st and 2d flutes, 1st and 2d clarionets, 1st and 2d horns, 1st and 2d bassoons, trombone, trumpet and bugle, piano-forte, bells, carillons or small bells, (the three latter not always used,) and kettle-drums, (other instruments are occasionally introduced); music copyist, (he has several assistants,) and an attendant upon the orchestra to lay out the music.

PAINTING-ROOM:- Four principal painters constantly employed, exclusive of accessary principals, subordinates, colour grinders, and attendants.

DECORATIVE MACHINERY, &C:- The property maker, machinist, master carpenter, six or eight carpenters, and from twenty-four to thirty scenemen. The property-maker and master carpenter, generally, are the joint machinist.

WARDROBE:- Master tailor and keeper of the gentlemen's wardrobe, &c., mistress of the ladies' wardrobe:- both these have numerous constant and occasional assistants. - Dressers, many of both sexes. Each principal performer has a separate dresser.
When new pieces of magnitude are preparing, the extra assistants engaged in the three latter departments are very numerous.

In the HOUSE department:- Treasurer, under ditto, housekeeper, his assistant, about ten money-takers, as many check-takers, (from four to six at the offices for admission,) box-keeper, (his attendants are numerous,) lamplighters, firemen, porters, and watchmen.

There are, also, many people employed in other capacities, which, if mentioned, would scarcely be understood, without more detail than can be introduced here.

On particular occasions, such as during the performances of grand spectacles, &c., there are many supernumerary performers engaged by the night; the aggregate salaries of whom frequently amount to 50l. or 60l. per week.'

The above text in quotes (edited) was first published in Volume 1 of the ''Illustrations of the public buildings of London' in 1825.

 

Article on the new Royal Box at the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden, from the Illustrated London News of July 29th 1848. Click for full article and enlarged image.This Second Covent Garden Theatre was reconstructed in 1847 at a cost of £27,000 by Benedict Albano and reopened on the 6th of April that year as the Royal Italian Opera House, but tragedy struck on the 5th of March 1856 when the Theatre was again destroyed by fire.

Scene from The New Ballet of "Les Amazons," At Covent Garden Theatre - From The Illustrated London News of October 14th 1848. Click to see article and enlarged image.Right - An article on the new Royal Box at the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden, from the Illustrated London News of July 29th 1848. Click for full article and enlarged image.

Left - A Scene from The New Ballet of "Les Amazons," At Covent Garden Theatre - From The Illustrated London News of October 14th 1848. Click to see article and enlarged image.

 

Third and Present Theatre 1858 - Present

A 1970s / 80s Seating Plan for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Above - A 1970s / 80s Seating Plan for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The Royal Oera House, Covent Garden, looking down Bow Street towards the Strand in October 2006 - Photo M.L.The Third and Present Theatre on the site was designed by Sir Edward M. Barry and built by Frederick Gye in just six months, incorporating the statues and reliefs from the previous building.

This Theatre, on a slightly enlarged site, was positioned at a new angle, East West rather than North South as before, and opened as the Royal Italian Opera House on the 15th of May 1858 with a production of 'Les Huguenots' by Meyerbeer.

Right - The Royal Oera House, Covent Garden, looking down Bow Street towards the Strand in October 2006 - Photo M.L.

Apart from some reconstruction of the auditorium over the years, involving removing the Amphitheater boxes and removing most of the boxes in two tiers, the auditorium remains in much the same form as when it opened. Originally the Theatre held 1,897 but today the capacity is 2,268.

 

The Stage of the Royal 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 Royal 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.

 

Programme for 'Grand Circus' at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1890 - Click to see entire Programme enlarged.The Theatre was extended rearwards in 1933 to house new dressing rooms and offices, and then again in 1982 when, after the entire plot of land was acquired from the sell off of Covent Garden Market in the 1970s, the building was extended even further back towards James Street.

Floral Street elevation of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, showing the bridge over the street to more offices, and the stage door.Right - A Programme for 'Grand Circus' at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1890 - Click to see entire Programme enlarged.

In 1999 a major injection of cash in the form of Lottery funding of £50m gave the Theatre the chance to move into the 21st century in a big way. The building now incorporates the Floral Hall, next door, and its footprint now extends to Bow Street, Russell Street, the Piazza, James Street and Floral Street.

Left - The Floral Street elevation of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, showing the bridge over the street to more offices, and the stage door.

The Auditorium was completely restored and looks absolutely fantastic, like walking into a brand new Victorian Theatre. The stalls were re-raked to accommodate the new stage, and the stage itself and fly tower were completely demolished and rebuilt. A new box office was added, along with a cafe, restaurant, and shops. And a new rehearsal space large enough to house complete sets was added next door with the added advantage of becoming a second performance space too.

 

The third Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, Circa 1897, (now the Royal Opera House) - Courtesy Peter Williams  - Click to Enlarge

Above - The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and Floral Hall, looking up Bow Street Circa 1897 - From "The Queen's London" Part 5 of 12 (32 Photographic Views for 6d) by Cassell & Company, Circa 1897 - Courtesy Peter Williams - Compare this view with the same view in 2006 below. - Click to Enlarge.

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and Floral Hall, looking up Bow Street in October 2006 - Photo M.L. - Click to Enlarge

Above - The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and Floral Hall, looking up Bow Street in October 2006 - Photo M.L. - Compare this view with the same view in 1897 above. - Click to Enlarge.

 

The wonderful restored auditorium of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Above - The wonderful restored auditorium of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The wonderful restored auditorium of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Above - The wonderful restored auditorium of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

 

A visit to this vast Opera House and its new adjoining facilities is an absolute must for anyone interested in Theatre architecture, let alone, lovers of Opera and Ballet. It really is the finest Theatre in the country and although the recent lottery funding caused a great deal of discussion on whether this was money well spent on such a building, I can't believe that anyone who walked into it's magnificent auditorium today could possibly hold onto that view.

You may also like to visit the The Royal Opera House Collections Online.

The new Bow Street additions to the Royal Opera House which were completed in 1999, here photographed in October 2006 M.L.

Above - The new Bow Street additions to the Royal Opera House which were completed in 1999, here photographed in October 2006 M.L.

 

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