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The 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 per week.

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.

There 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 market debris!

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.

Pat Butler

Three of our group taking a coffee break

Two of our members about to go in at the new entrance