Covent Garden’s cultural history

Colloquially know to us as Covent Garden, it is the site of the home of The Royal Opera, the Royal Orchestra and the Royal Ballet. They are all housed in the performing arts centre that is the third building to have stood on this site in central London. The district that surrounds the area hosts a large number of upscale shops in the setting of an open air market. The first performance on this site was a ballet that was performed in 1734.

G.F. Handel was the composer and he produced the entire season of oratorios and operas the following year. In 1808 the first structure was destroyed by fire and in 1857 another conflagration leveled its successor. The building that stands today has a façade, foyer and auditorium from the construction of 1858 but all the rest was remodeled in the 1990s.

Among the many operas that premiered here in the Royal Opera House in the first years of Handel being music director included Atalanta, Alcina, and Ariodante plus is own oratorio Messiah.

Besides opera the house served as a venue for theatrical dramas, ballet, comedy acts and pantomimes. Throughout much of the 1800s composers and others from Europe such as Verdi, Rossini and Puccini would come to see London and oversee the productions being performed for the first time in Britain.

Not until 1892 did the name Royal Opera House appear on the building. There were summer and winter seasons for operas with the theatre empty during the dark months. The British government used the main auditorium during much of WWI to store furniture and in the Second World War it was used as a dance hall.

Following the end of the Second World War the opera house was restored to its original purpose. The first post war production was Sleeping Beauty in 1946 that starred Margot Fonteyn. The next year was the first resident company presented their first ever production of Carmen.

The National Lottery helped give the building a much needed face lift in the late 1990s and nearly ₤60 million of the total ₤178m used for the face lift came from the National Lottery. The rest of the funds were received through private individuals, corporate donations and grants from the government. Added in the reconstruction were modern rehearsal facilities, a complete makeover of the public area and a second auditorium to provide an intimate setting for smaller productions.