A day at the Royal Opera House

The first time I went to see The Nutcracker ballet was during a blizzard when I was a little girl growing up in New York. I wore my best clothes and faux fur ear muffs, which didn’t stop my ears turning nearly chilli pepper red from cold. And afterwards, while we sipped hot chocolate with whipped cream in a fashionable café, I was speechless with awe, itching to know what happened behind the scenes, unravel the mystery of creation.  The fact that only the snowflakes in my sky were real intrigued rather than disillusioned me.

These reflections came back to me recently when I attended two themed backstage tours and the tail end of an exhibition tour at the Royal Opera House. The tours are introductions, generous sound bites. They spur you on to learn more, link fragments of information together, set them in history and ponder the artistry of performance.

First, I go back in time for the ‘Velvet, Gilt and Glamour’ tour, which focuses on aspects of the building constructed in 1858 that still exist today: the auditorium, foyer and façade, the core of the site – and how they came to be. We hear amusing stories about performers and illustrious audience members. The vertiginous, fourth level, known as ‘the Gods’, is where we begin.

The first theatre founded on the site, the Theatre Royal, opened in 1732. It was designed by Edward Shepherd and financed by the actor-manager John Richard with the profits from his staging of John Gay’s musical satire The Beggar’s Opera. Many of Handel’s operas and oratorios, such as The Messiah, were first performed at the Theatre Royal, as well as plays, ballets and pantomimes. After a disastrous fire in 1808, the Theatre was rebuilt according to a ‘Greek Revival’ design by Robert Smirke and reopened in 1809. When the composer and conductor Michael Costa joined the theatre in 1846, after working at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Haymarket, he brought most of his singers with him. This prompted the remodelling and reopening of the theatre as The Royal Italian Opera in 1847.

A second fire occurred in 1856, leaving intact only the façade with a frieze by John Flaxman, including images of Greek mythological muses, and two statues carved by John Rossi: the Tragic Muse, Melpomene, and the Comic Muse, Thalia, all of which were incorporated into the new building, within its Corinthian-style portico, designed by Edmund M Barry. (He was the son of Charles Barry, who together with Augustus Pugin designed the Houses of Parliament.) Edmund Barry also designed the glass and iron Floral Hall, next door.

Viewed in the morning, the plush auditorium makes me feel as if I’ve eaten chocolate truffle cake for breakfast: rich red stage curtains; four horseshoe-shaped tiers for seating, with gilded fronts divided into bays by carved angels, facing the amphitheatre. There is a proscenium arch modelled in bas-relief by Raffaello Monti, with figures such as Ossian, the pseudo-legendary Gaelic poet, and Orpheus, the mythical Greek musician, and a central medallion encircling a profile of Queen Victoria; all under a saucer-domed ceiling with plasterwork grounded in white with gilded ornamentation. For the sake of improving acoustics, the wooden floors are now no longer carpeted. In 1858, the theatre was the largest in the world and could seat an audience of over 2000 people, sometimes hundreds more, and often including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their entourage in the Royal Box.

In 1892, the theatre became known as the Royal Opera House. Opera and ballet were performed during the winter and summer. In between these periods the House featured dancing, cabaret and lectures, and later film shows. During the First World War, the Royal Opera House was a furniture repository. It became a dance hall during the Second World War and would have remained as such had not the music publishers Boosey and Hawkes acquired the lease. Thereafter, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, under the direction of Ninette de Valois, became the resident ballet company. In February 1946, the Royal Opera House reopened with a performance of Sleeping Beauty. Although the search was on to find a suitably equivalent opera company, what resulted was a new company of performers. A Royal Charter was awarded to the Royal Ballet in 1956; the Royal Opera Company received its charter in 1968.

But this isn’t the end of the story. The following morning I return for a Backstage tour, focusing on managerial and technical perspectives. The guide, a Canadian soprano, is friendly and invites questions; the previous guide unfortunately did not.

Life at the House has been shaped by a three-year redevelopment plan (1997–2000) costing £178 million. This resulted in new technical, rehearsal and administrative facilities, backstage and storage areas, orchestra pit and stage, and the creation of the the Linbury Studio and the Clore Studio Upstairs for rehearsals and small-scale performances. Also installed is an extremely sophisticated mechanized system for delivering, relocating and removing sets on site. The Floral Hall was rebuilt to house bars, restaurants and exhibition space; part of its structure was sent to join Borough Market, south of the river.

We venture literally behind the scenes and also visit the lighting workshops, and rehearsals studios, passing through corridors lined with large baskets filled with props and costumes hanging on rails (you can smell the steam irons!). The scale of enterprise staggers. The Victorian core structure and tasteful, modernist additions look too unassuming to harbour the hustle and bustle engaging 900 permanent staff members plus freelancers.

Of the 3500 main stage lights, 800 are permanently fixed on stage; others are situated in the wings, auditorium, outside and underneath the tiers and the dome. Flood, soft and spot lighting are used. Barn doors fronting the lights help to focus; stencil-like light coverings (gobos – go between) create patterns on stage, such as snowflakes, clouds and underwater ripples; coloured light is achieved with coloured plastic sheets (gels) attached to the front of a light. Lighting designers use computerized technology to record the lighting programmes, which are archived. But still the lights must be rigged by hand for each change of production.

The stage floor has six sections, called elevators. Each weighs 18 tonnes, and can be raised up to 2.5 metres and lowered for up to 6.5 metres. The orchestra pit can also be raised or lowered. Huge acoustic doors enclose the performing area ensuring that no sounds from backstage are heard on stage. Rising above the stage is the 37-metre-high fly tower – three times the height of the proscenium arch. There are 106 fly bars descending from the fly tower, which can accommodate up to four shows’ scenery and lighting. The costume, wig, jewellery and prop departments are located at the top of the building in naturally lit workrooms.

Owing to the volume of theatrical enterprise, the props, scenery, costumes and the special collections have to be stored off-site in facilities located in South Wales, Surrey and Kent and transported by mechanized lorries. There are scenery building and painting workshops located in Essex, enabling set designers to see the sets in entirety – rather than piecemeal as used to be the case – before they’re deemed ready for rehearsal and performance.

The third tour introduced me to an exhibition about Monica Mason, whose final season as Director of Ballet draws to an end. Exhibits illustrate Mason’s 54-year career at the Royal Opera House with costumes, costume designs, press cuttings (some collected by her mother), photographs, including warm-hearted snaps taken by Mason of informal life moments with the Company, such as sunbathing with choreographer Kenneth MacMillan while on tour in America.  The exhibition is rich with archive material thanks to the diligence of the Royal Opera House Collections department.  Indeed the exhibition curator, Cristina Franchi, is also ‘on tour’ and overwhelming with welcome, knowledge, and shared staff reverence for Mason and her enthusing and gracious spirit.  Mason, we see, isn’t traditional ballet material given that her body and movement exudes a strong sense of athleticism and power – the antithesis of the fragility and delicacy characteristic of many female ballet dancers. ‘She looked a little like the young Joan Crawford, with those dark expressive eyes,’recalled the dancer Anthony Dowell.

Twice a year the Collections department mounts exhibitions with archive material about people and events vital to the development and personality of the Royal Opera House. The next exhibition focuses on the conductor and opera director Georg Solti, the one following features the opera singer Maria Callas.

The tours and exhibitions are the next best alternative to a comprehensive and substantial museum devoted to the history and artistry of ballet and opera, which doesn’t yet exist, anywhere. I wonder: princely Nutcracker, might you help establish one?


Covent Garden, past and present… The area surrounding the site of the Royal Opera House was once mostly pasture and agricultural land belonging to the Abbey of St Peter at Westminster. After the dissolution of the monasteries, John Russell, the 1st Earl of Bedford, secured the land from the Crown. Later houses for gentlemen were built, as well as a piazza with vaulted arcades and a church – St Paul’s, known as the actors’ church because of its association with the theatre community. Inigo Jones designed the piazza and church. Eventually the wealthy residents gravitated westwards towards Mayfair, as the fruit, vegetable and flower market established in the area expanded – the cries of street hawkers were noisy. Their grand houses became lodgings, Turkish baths, brothels, gambling dens and coffee houses. In 1974, the market was relocated to Nine Elms, south of the river, and today the area around the House is famous for its vast array of fashionable shops, bars, restaurants and the street entertainment of clowns, jugglers, musicians and fire fighters!

For information about tours and facilities, please refer to http://www.roh.org.uk/tours/backstage-tour

Image of portrait of Monica Mason by June Mendoza, courtesy of the artist, and The Royal Opera House.

This article first appeared in Cassone: The International Online Magazine of Art and Art Books in the April 2012 issue.