The Royal Opera House is an opera house and major performing arts venue in Covent Garden, central London. The large building is often referred to as simply "Covent Garden", after a previous use of the site of the opera house's original construction in 1732. It is the home of The Royal Opera, The Royal Ballet, and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.
The Royal Opera House seats 2,256 people and consists of four tiers of boxes and balconies and the amphitheatre gallery. The proscenium is 12.20 m wide and 14.80 m high.
The foundation of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden lies in the letters patent awarded by Charles II to Sir William Davenant in 1660, allowing Davenant to operate one of only two patent theatre companies (The Duke's Company) in London. The letters patent remained in the possession of the Opera House until shortly after the First World War, when the document was sold to an American university library.
In 1728, John Rich, actor-manager of the Duke's Company at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, commissioned The Beggar's Opera from John Gay. The success of this venture provided him with the capital to build the Theatre Royal (designed by Edward Shepherd) at the site of an ancient convent garden, part of which had been developed by Inigo Jones in the 1630s with a piazza and church. In addition, a Royal Charter had created a fruit and vegetable market in the area, a market which survived in that location until 1974. That theatre opened the 7th December 1732. During the first hundred years or so of its history, the theatre was primarily a playhouse. In 1734, Covent Garden presented its first ballet, Pygmalion. That year saw also the first season of opera at Covent Garden. The first opera was Il pastor fido followed by Ariodante (1735), the première of Alcina, and Atalanta the following year. There was a royal performance of Messiah in 1743. On 20th September 1808 that theatre was destroyed in a fire.
Rebuilding began in December 1808, and the second Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (designed by Robert Smirke) opened on 18 September 1809 with a performance of Macbeth followed by a musical entertainment called The Quaker. In 1817, bare flame gaslight had replaced the former candles and oil lamps that lighted the Covent Garden stage. This was an improvement, but in 1837 Macready employed limelight in the theatre for the first time, during a performance of a pantomime, Peeping Tom of Coventry. This allowed the use of spotlights to highlight performers on the stage.
The Theatres Act 1843 broke the patent theatres' monopoly of drama. At that time Her Majesty's Theatre in the Haymarket was the main centre of ballet and opera but after a dispute with the management in 1846 Michael Costa, conductor at Her Majesty's, transferred his allegiance to Covent Garden, bringing most of the company with him. The auditorium was completely remodelled and the theatre reopened as the Royal Italian Opera on 6 April 1847 with a performance of Rossini's Semiramide.
On 5 March 1856, the theatre was again destroyed by fire. Work on the third theatre, designed by Edward Middleton Barry, started in 1857 and the new building, which still remains as the nucleus of the present theatre, was built by Lucas Brothers and opened on 15 May 1858 with a performance of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots.
The theatre became the Royal Opera House (ROH) in 1892, and the number of French and German works offered increased. Winter and summer seasons of opera and ballet were given, and the building was also used for pantomime, recitals and political meetings.
During the First World War, the theatre was requisitioned by the Ministry of Works for use as a furniture repository.
During the Second World War the ROH became a dance hall. There was a possibility that it would remain so after the war but, following lengthy negotiations, the music publishers Boosey & Hawkes acquired the lease of the building.
The Royal Opera House reopened on 20 February 1946 with a performance of The Sleeping Beauty. On 14 January 1947, the Covent Garden Opera Company gave its first performance of Bizet's Carmen.
Several renovations had taken place to parts of the house in the 1960s, including improvements to the amphitheatre but the theatre clearly needed a major overhaul. In 1975 the Labour government gave land adjacent to the Royal Opera House for a long-overdue modernisation, refurbishment, and extension. In the early 1980s the first part of a major renovation included an extension to the rear of the theatre on the James Street corner. The development added two new ballet studios, offices, a Chorus Rehearsal Room and the Opera Rehearsal room. Dressing rooms were also added.
By 1995, sufficient funds from the Arts Lottery through Arts Council England and private fundraising had been raised to enable the company to embark upon a major £213 million reconstruction of the building, which took place between 1997 and 1999, under the chairmanship of Sir Angus Stirling. This involved the demolition of almost the whole site including several adjacent buildings to make room for a major increase in the size of the complex. The auditorium itself remained, but well over half of the complex is new.
The new building has the same traditional horseshoe-shaped auditorium as before, but with greatly improved technical, rehearsal, office, and educational facilities, a new studio theatre called the Linbury Theatre, and much more public space. The inclusion of the adjacent old Floral Hall which had fallen into disrepair and was used as a scenery store before redevelopment, created a new and extensive public gathering place.
A Young Artists Programme was established in 2001, creating a rich resource for the development of new talent.
In recent years, The Royal Opera has given an average of 150 performances per season, September - July, of approximately 20 operas, nearly half of these being new productions. The company also appears in the Linbury Studio Theatre with chamber opera productions, including several by Benjamin Britten. It has also widened its audience through an increased number of television and radio broadcasts, as well as video and DVD recordings of its productions.