This article was first published in the November 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.


Just around the corner from the lively string quartets and noisy chatter of London’s Covent Garden stands the magnificent portico of the Royal Opera House: a beacon of culture to opera buffs across the centuries. On today’s visit, the usual daytime hush of the foyer has been replaced by a hubbub of activity. Tonight, the opera season launches with a much-anticipated new production of Puccini’s passionate opera, La Bohème.

The 10 floors of the current Victorian opera house, the third to be built on this site, would have dwarfed its two predecessors. The original theatre was founded in 1732 by theatrical manager and actor John Rich, but this burned to the ground in 1808 after wadding from a gun fired during a performance of the play Pizarro became lodged in the scenery, bursting into flames during the early hours. The theatre was rebuilt the following year but tragically, this second building also succumbed to fire, in 1856, and the third and present theatre opened two years later.

This last building phase saw the addition of the striking glass and iron Floral
Hall, a huge space – three times the length of today’s hall – that
once formed part of Covent
Garden’s flower market and whose design was inspired by the immense glass structure that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851.

But the jewel in the Royal Opera House’s crown, unsurprisingly, is its magnificent Grade I-listed auditorium. Modelled on the theatre design popular in 19th-century Italian opera houses, its horseshoe shape means that singers and actors can be heard from every seat. The royal box, a favourite with Queen Victoria who attended performances here up to four times a week, can be seen from even the dizzying heights of the uppermost tiers, while the room’s sumptuous gold and red furnishings and original artwork give visitors a sense of what watching an opera in a Victorian setting was actually like.

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The huge crystal chandelier that once hung from the auditorium ceiling was removed in 1890 and made into two smaller chandeliers. These can still be seen in the Crush Room (named for the lemon and orange crush that was once enjoyed by Victorian audiences).

The castrati leave their mark

“The history of opera in Britain dates back far beyond the 19th century,” says Susan Rutherford, professor of music at the University of Manchester. “The Siege of Rhodes, although more akin to a masque, is generally considered the first English opera. It was staged in 1656, in a private theatre, due to the closure of all public playhouses during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. But it was shown again in 1661 after the restoration of Charles II; it is this second performance that is widely credited with initiating theatre as spectacle in Britain.”

Over the next 40 years, other experiments with English language operas were made, notably Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, performed in 1689. Italian opera appeared first in London in the shape of Jakob Greber’s Gli amori di Ergasto at the Queen’s Theatre in 1705 – today known as Her Majesty’s Theatre. But the production, sung in Italian, was a dismal failure.

“The real enthusiasm for Italian opera in Britain began with the arrival of George Frideric Handel,” says Rutherford. “His opera Rinaldo for the Queen’s Theatre in 1711 was the first Italian opera to be written specifically for the London stage. Its story of love, sorcery and war during the First Crusade and its spectacular scenery created a sensation with the audience.” But the greatest novelty of Italian opera was its singers – especially the castrati.

“The Italian castrati were the first international superstars of the theatre,” comments Rutherford. “These were male singers who had undergone an operation before puberty that prevented their testicles from developing, and who then were given an intensive musical education. Their voices retained the high, pure sounds of boy singers within the physical frame of an adult male, giving them phenomenal breath control and volume. They introduced an entirely new style of singing to Britain – an elaborate, acrobatic display of vocal effects and agility.”

As Rutherford points out, however, not everyone was impressed. Opera was mocked by critics such as Richard Steele and Joseph Addison as a nonsensical foreign import, sung in a strange language by non-British singers. But the hostility towards Italian opera also led to the emergence of an entirely different dramatic form – English ‘ballad opera’, now considered as the beginnings of musical theatre. John Gay and Johann Christoph Pepusch’s 1728 work The Beggar’s Opera satirised its Italian cousin, using spoken dialogue instead of recitative (sung speech) and set to popular tunes of the day. It ran for 62 consecutive performances – a British theatre record at the time.

These two strands of opera – Italian and English ballad – continued to run side-by- side, and by the early 19th century Britain’s musical landscape was a cosmopolitan mix of Italian, French, German and home-grown music. While Italian opera was still very much the province of the upper classes, who funded its development through private subscription, the social composition of the audience was beginning to change.

“Opera is usually considered as elite entertainment, but it reached much broader audiences than is often supposed,” says Rutherford. “One example is Carl Maria von Weber’s dark, menacing work Der Freischütz, which was staged in English in London in 1824. Based on a German legend, it combined spine-chilling technical effects with atmospheric music. In the words of one critic, it was ‘appalling, terrific, and sublime’ all at the same time. At least six different adaptations of Der Freischütz could be found across theatres in London that same year, proving that there was a popular appetite for opera if it caught the public imagination as both theatre and music.”

The various adaptations of Der Freischütz also demonstrate how opera in one form or another could be heard in a number of London theatres: the English Opera House (now the Lyceum), Covent Garden, Drury Lane, the Surrey Theatre, the Royal Coburg and the Royal Amphitheatre. And almost every opera that made its mark was also parodied in a burlesque version – either in print, such as Septimus Globus and George Cruikshank’s Der Freischütz: A Travestie, in 1824; or Henry James Byron’s later version for the stage, Der Freischütz; or the Bill! the Belle! And the Bullet!!! Nor was opera confined merely to the opera house – it extended far into the world beyond.

“During the 19th century, opera could be heard in all kinds of contexts in Britain: it was performed in the open-air by brass and military bands; sung by professionals in public concerts and music halls, or by amateurs in domestic music making; and it was played in the streets by barrel organs,” says Rutherford. “Even the urban poor could hear something of operatic music without ever setting foot in a theatre. Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore – first staged in London in 1855 – was a particular favourite with street musicians.”

Opera also reached new audiences through the work of a growing number of opera touring companies. The most notable of these was the Carl Rosa company, formed in 1873 and dedicated to presenting opera in English. They performed in theatres and even factories throughout the country, taking opera to different communities. Local musicians were often hired to fill out the company’s orchestra and chorus, and audiences would turn out to see their friends and family perform.

Opera superstars

Opera singers were the celebrities of the Victorian age and audiences flocked to see the men and women they were reading about in newspapers. Busts of some of these can be seen during a walk up the grand staircase of the Royal Opera House (named so since 1892), including that of Italian-French singer Adelina Patti, the highest-paid soprano of the era.

A true Victorian diva, she allegedly demanded payment in cash 30 minutes before the curtain went up each night. Her costumes were notoriously spectacular. One of her dresses, which had 3,700 diamonds sewn onto its bodice, was worth so much (around £23m in today’s money) that two policemen from the nearby Bow Street Police Station were placed in the chorus to ensure her safety.

“The period between the late 19th century and the arrival of cinema in the 1920s was a high-point in opera’s popularity in Britain,” explains Rutherford. “We see the earliest beginnings of the English National Opera company in Lilian Baylis’s ‘opera nights’ in 1898 in a Lambeth music-hall, now the Old Vic theatre – by 1912, the theatre was known as ‘The People’s Opera House’. And in January 1923, the BBC broadcast part of Mozart’s The Magic Flute live from the

Royal Opera House – reaching a size of audience that once could never have been imagined. Nowadays, the cinematic live screenings of productions from the Royal Opera House can be viewed across the globe.”

A tour of the Royal Opera House – from the enormous 30-tonne sets to the elaborate handmade clothes of the costume production department – is testament to opera’s long history and flourishing present in Britain. The expectant hush of the auditorium before the lights dim and the first notes float up from the orchestra pit far below transports spectators back to an era where the human voice reigned supreme.

Opera in britain: five more places to explore


Old Vic Theatre Lambeth, south London

Where opera reached the public

In 1880 social reformer Emma Cons reopened the Old Vic as a temperance music hall, staging scenes from operas every Thursday night. Under Cons and her niece Lilian Baylis, the site’s opera provision gradually expanded into full-scale productions. Baylis later founded the Sadler Wells opera company that would eventually evolve into the English National Opera company.


Her Majesty’s Theatre Haymarket, London

Where 18th-century opera thrived

Her Majesty’s Theatre (whose name changes with the monarch) is the second oldest such site in London that remains in use – the earliest being Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The first of four theatres here was built by dramatist and architect John Vanbrugh and premiered more than 25 operas by Handel between 1711 and 1739. Today’s theatre has been the home to The Phantom of the Opera since 1986.


Glyndebourne Lewes, East Sussex

Where a festival of opera still runs

Glyndebourne’s first annual festival of opera opened in 1934, with its early years mainly focusing on works by Mozart. The original theatre seated 300 but has since been expanded to accommodate 850.


25 Brook Street Mayfair, London

Where Handel made his home

Between 1711 and 1759, Handel wrote 27 operas for the London stage and came to dominate Italian opera in Britain. He moved into Brook Street in 1723 and died there in 1759. His house is open to visitors.


Leeds Grand Theatre, Leeds

Where opera in the north took off

The Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House, as it was originally named, opened in 1878 and became the home of Opera North a century later. The theatre offers behind the scenes tours.


Susan Rutherford is professor of music at the University of Manchester. She has written and presented two documentaries on opera for BBC Radio Three. Words: Charlotte Hodgman