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Royal Opera House

RA Collection: People and Organisations

The original Covent Garden Theatre was built by John Rich on Bow Street, London, and opened in 7 December 1732. At first the House was primarily a playhouse, although Handel conducted opera performances there from 1735, premiering many of his works in the process.

The building was destroyed by fire in 1808, taking with it priceless collections of material relating to theatre history, not to mention Handel's organ and the records of the Beefsteak Club. A new building was commissioned from Robert Smirke (Sir Robert Smirke RA) and opened in September 1809. The management, now led by J.P. Kemble, were compelled to raise prices to defray the cost of construction. As a result the crowd rebelled, leading to months of disturbance termed the OP (Old Price) riots.

The theatre was transformed into an opera house after the 1843 Theatres Act broke the patent theatres monopoly on drama. The theatre was remodelled and in 1847 opened as the Royal Italian Opera. Another fire in 1856 necessitated complete rebuilding once again.

The current building, designed by E.M. Barry, opened in 1858 and was termed the Royal Opera House from 1892, as the programme now included both French and German opera.

The freehold of the site passed to the British government in 1980. A major development was enabled by a successful bid for lottery funding in 1995. The revised building was completed in 2000.

Source: Royal Opera House Home Page