Cranleigh Arts Centre
West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
Royal Opera House Backstage
Thursday, 28th June 2012
Our tour of this wonderful venue commenced with meeting Simon, a very
knowledgeable and entertaining guide. His repartee of the history of the
building, together with an explanation of the technology used in today's
production certainly made this an enthralling visit.
In 1858 after two previous buildings had burnt down, the construction of
the Victorian Royal Opera House was complete. It was then in 1859, surrounded
by the fruit and vegetable market known as Covent Garden. During Victorian
winters the theatre was used for various entertainments including circus and
boxing matches The breathtaking original atmosphere remains to the present day.
The beautiful red stage curtains though recently replaced, were embroidered by
The Royal School of Needlework, replicating the original. The red and gold
lights are no longer gas lamps and modern wizardry hides in the ceiling but the
overall effect is still of a more elegant age.
We sat for a while in the Pit lobby surrounded by photographs of the
illustrious performers who had graced the theatre.
There, we heard the opera singers rehearsing for a revival performance of Les
Noces, a combination of both ballet and opera. Todays's staff levels are 95 in
the ballet, 48 in the opera and 107 musicians plus a large number of unseen
employees behind the scenes. There are on average 3 to 4 differing productions
Ballet itself was really established in the early 1900's with the arrival
of Serge Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe whose principal dancers were Pavlova
and Nijinsky. A dancer named Marie Rambert also joined in Company and many years
later I became a student at the Rambert school and can still remember her
finger poking me in the back when she thought my shoulders were out of alignment
Sadly in 1956 a fire destroyed much of the theatre and scenery, props etc
were stored for forty years. Between 1997 and 1999 there was a major
redevelopment, thanks in part to a fifty eight million pound lottery funding.
As the fruit market had moved to Nine Elms there was a vast expanse of land
available to extend the theatre footprint. In these two years a side stage which
can house three full sized sets was constructed, cleverly hidden behind a
mirrored wall above, in which is housed the restaurant and bar facilities.
are in total ten floors in the new building. On our tour, Simon explained the
logistics of the vast set building area The floor is divided into grey and black
areas and whenever a piece of scenery needs to be moved, rather than deconstruct
something in its path, the next section lowers with whatever piece of set is on
it. This allows lateral movement in all directions above it.
The enormous scenery for the revival of Berlioz Les Troyens took our
breath away. The Horse's scrap metal work head contains gas canisters to
breathe fire through the nostrils. Es Devlin its designer is also the creator of
the closing ceremony for the Olympic Games so watch out for something
spectacular. The sets will move onto San Francisco and La Scala, normally
costumes, props and sets are stored in South Wales until next required.
We also toured the wig and jewellery department, learning that as well as
not constricting voice or movement, each piece of headwear had to be practical
for the performance. Not always the first consideration of the designer.
Lastly on our tour we were enthralled to watch a rehearsal of Birthday
Offering, a revival of a Frederick Ashton ballet. As a former ballet dancer I
never fail to admire the technique and lines of today's dancers. The muscles in
the body are the same as always but with present day training and coaching they
surpass those dancers of even ten to twenty years ago.
I thought my memories of Covent Garden went back as far as 1961 when as
Ballet Rambert students we slept outside on the pavement in order to get seats
for the visiting Kirov Ballet. What a rude awakening we had when the street
sweepers came round with their water carts to wash away the fruit and veg
So, I had
a shock when during our tour, Simon mentioned that during the war period the
theatre was closed and Tea Dances were held. My Father had often told me that he
taught Ballroom Dancing at The Royal Opera House and that was where he met my
Mother. I always thought he was confused as to which theatre. Now I know
differently, but sadly my Father is no longer alive to say "I told you so"
As Tea Dances are still held on one Friday a month, my friend Liz who was
also on the tour suggested that Mike and I should go and trip the light
fantastic in his memory.
Perhaps one day we shall.
our group taking a coffee break
our members about to go in at the new entrance