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The impressive facade of the Royal Opera House gives little hint of the more chequered stages of its career. Until quite recently, the presence of the nearby Covent Garden market was a striking contrast to its aristocratic presence, and at its lowest ebb the Opera House has served as both a furniture store and a dance hall.
The First Buildings
The first theatre on the site was built in 1732, and, inevitably, burned down in 1808. It was the location of the premieres of many of Handel's operas. The second theatre was built in 1808 (9) and again burnt down in 1856. This was the location of the premiere of Carl Maria von Weber's final work Oberon, in 1826, though sadly the combination of his tuberculosis and the English climate killed him.
The New House of 1858
Finances and management have often been precarious, most of time from 1856 to 1946 controlled by syndiactes of wealthy patrons, day-to-day running leased out to various impresarios. Requisitioned as a furniture store in World War I.
The lowest point in its history was probaly reached when the Royal Opera House was used as a dance hall in World War II. These dances for members of the armed forces on leave were a long way from the aristocratic image of a Opera ball.
Post-War Renewal - 1946 and after
After the war, there was a serious question as to whether the Royal Opera House would be restored to its original use or continue as a dance-hall. The impetus actually came from Dame Ninette de Valois and her ballet company, who were established as the Royal Ballet in xxxx. The opera company only acquired the title of the Royal Opera later, in xxxxx Permanent opera company only established in 1946 At the moment, falls between the two stools of financial support - public resentful of state subsidy( which never approached the levels taken for granted in Austria, Germany or France) but not the same level of private donors as have the larger American houses.
the post-war House saw a number of important premieres, including Benjamin Britten's Gloriana (check others) and xxxxx Gawain.
Modernisation and the present House
The Royal Opera House closed for restoration and modernisation in xxxx. At first glance, the auditorium looks little different, though all the paint and plasterwork have been restored and renewed. The floor of the auditorium has been raked, so that the expensive seats in the stalls now have much better sightlines.
There are now two extra performance spaces: the xxxx studio and the xxxx downstairs. Thes give opportunities to smaller, more experimental or poorer companies to put on performances in central London, and are involved in a number of educational and outreach programmes.
The main changes have been backstage and in the surrounding areas: there are now xxx ballet rehearsal studios; soundproof screens allow the use of three different areas for opera rehearsal, and the whole system of scene changing and scenery storage has been revolutionised. A giant lift allows the container trucks with scenery from the long-term storage in south Wales to be quickly transferred to the stage level. A complex system of sliding platforms allows the scenery to be easily changed on stage, and the days of overnight stage crews changing the scenery are gone.
The front-of-house facilities have been greatly improved: the audience in the high balconies is no longer relegated to a backstairs entrance and a second-rate bar, but can mix freely with the rest. The lovely glass-roofed Floral Hall, built as a flower market and for years used only for storage, is now the main bar and foyer space for the audience at the interval.
Visiting the Royal Opera House today
The best way to see the House is of course to attend an opera or ballet. The Royal Opera House's own website (here) gives details of all performances, in the xxxx and xxx as well as in the main auditorium. It is also possible to book a daytime backstage tour, which gives a very interesting view of the rehearsal rooms, prop workshop and backstage area. The terrace café, Floral Hall and other front-of-house areas are open during the day, so even if you are only passing through Covent Garden it is worth dropping in.