The Definitive Guide to the Royal Opera House

Thinking of visiting the spiritual home of English Opera? Good, then read our comprehensive guide to the venue. Peter Gray reports.

Whether you’re a long time lover of opera, or you’ve never seen a production in your life, you will almost certainly fall under the spell of the Royal Opera House. The building, the home of the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet companies, is one of London’s finest public spaces, with a series of world class performance halls, alongside an array of top class restaurants and bars.

The venue recently underwent a £50.7 million refurbishment project, aimed at opening up the Royal Opera House to all visitors, rather than just to ticket holders.

The work has been a spectacular success, with a new café, bar and restaurant and a refurbished Linbury Theatre now open to the public.

Meanwhile, an impressive programme of free events offer visitors an opportunity to discover the charms of one of England’s finest and most historic performance spaces.

If you’ve always wanted to visit the venue but are unsure of what’s on offer, here’s City Countdown’s definitive guide to the Royal Opera House.

History of the Royal Opera House

A costume from Swan Lake

The first Royal Opera House (then known as the Theatre Royal) was the work of the actor manager John Rich. In those days, permanent theatre companies required the permission of the monarch, and the Theatre Royal was one of only two permanent theatres to secure it (the other being the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane).

Rich used the considerable wealth he had amassed from The Beggar’s Opera to fund the project. He found a site close to Inigo Jones’ new Italianate piazza at Covent Garden, and then enlisted the architect Edward Shepherd to design the building. Shepherd had made a name for himself with a series of impressive projects including several elegant houses in Cavendish Square.

The First Theatre

The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden opened on the 7th of December 1732. On the opening night, Rich was carried in triumph to his new theatre by several of the actors in the venue’s first production.

For over a hundred years, the theatre functioned primarily as a playhouse, albeit with a popular festive pantomime season, and brief interludes for ballet.

The theatre was in almost continual rivalry with its one major competitor, the other Theatre Royal, on Drury Lane. The limitations of 18th century theatre meant that the two venues often found themselves staging the same play at the same time!

The theatre was extensively rebuilt in the 1780s, however tragedy struck in 1808 when the building was devastated by fire. Twenty-three fireman lost their lives fighting the blaze, but it was to be in vain as the entire building was destroyed.

The Second Theatre

The management of the enterprise wasted little time in commencing work on a new theatre with the foundation stone laid on the 31st of December 1808. The architect Robert Smirke was commissioned to create the new building with Smirke completing the job in just eight months.

To pay for the new building, the owner of the theatre increased ticket prices. The move proved unpopular however, with angry theatre goers rioting until the old prices were restored.

In 1843, the Theatres Act led to the end of the patent monopoly which had allowed only two companies to perform plays in London. This led to a dramatic increase in the volume of productions on London’s stages, but meant greater competition for the Theatre Royal.

The Third Theatre

The Grand Staircase in E.M Barry's third Theatre Royal

In 1856, the theatre was once again struck by fire. As in 1808, the entire building was destroyed.  This time E.M Barry was engaged to build a new theatre with work commencing in 1857.

The third Theatre Royal was christened by a performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. In 1892, the theatre was given a new name: The Royal Opera House.

At the outbreak of the first world war the Theatre was repurposed as a furniture repository and during the Second World War the theatre played host to a Mecca Dance Hall.

In the 1990s, the Royal Opera House was given a much needed face-lift. A grant from the newly created National Lottery was used to extend the by now cramped facilities. The work would eventually cost £178m however by the time of completion, the theatre had been utterly transformed. New technical and rehearsal facilities, a new auditorium – the Linbury Studio – and an upgrade and refurbishment of the existing auditorium were all part of the refurbishment.

The performance spaces

The Main Auditorium

The Royal Opera House has a total of five performance spaces. The largest one is the historic main auditorium. This is the 2,256 horseshoe structured auditorium that was such a key feature of E.M Barry’s 3rd Theatre Royal. The space was modelled on the kind of theatres that were popular during that period in Italy. Work was carried out during the 1990s refurbishment to improve the system for moving sets and equipment and to introduce a system of movable floors.

The Paul Hamlyn Hall

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

This stunning iron and glass structure has functioned as a public space since the opening up of the Royal Opera House but the hall is also used as an occasional performance space. The venue hosts a popular champagne bar and restaurant.

The Linbury Studio Theatre

A 1990s addition, the Linbury Studio Theatre is used for more intimate and/or experimental productions. The venue has a moveable floor and retractable raked seats with a 400 visitor capacity. The auditorium has frequently been used by the contemporary production arm of the Royal Opera House, ROH2. The name of the theatre is derived from the surnames of one of the patrons, Lord Sainsbury and his wife, Anya Linden, a former Royal Ballet dancer.

Food and Drink

The Royal Opera House has a variety of unique spaces for eating and drinking with two restaurants (the Piazza Restaurant and the Balconies restaurant), a champagne bar (the Paul Hamlyn Hall Champagne Bar), a café (the Royal Opera House Café) and several bars.

The Piazza Restaurant

The Piazza Restaurant is on the top floor of the Royal Opera House. The venue serves a rotating menu of Italian dishes and international classics with a two course set menu for £30 and three courses for £35.

The Balconies Restaurant

Located on the mezzanine level of the Paul Hamlyn Hall, the Balconies restaurant serves a delightful mix of modern British cuisine in the spectacular iron and glass filled public space.

Paul Hamlyn Hall Champagne Bar

The Paul Hamlyn Hall Champagne Bar is a gorgeous setting to enjoy the finer things in life. The bar has an impressive list of champagnes and fine wines with dining options available for ROH ticket holders.

The Royal Opera House rooftop bar

The Piazza Terrace Bar

No definitive guide to the Royal Opera House would be complete without a word about the venue’s breathtaking rooftop bar. The ROH have dubbed the Piazza Terrace Bar the best kept secret in London but you can discover it for yourself if you visit the venue in Covent Garden. The bar is open Tuesday to Saturday from 11.30am until 10pm. The bar sells a selection of bar snacks including tagiasca olives, marcarona almonds, crostini and a range of boards and platters.

City Countdown’s hot tip

:If you get the chance – check out the Crush Room.  The venue was part of the original 1858 building and it has been perfectly preserved with a number of original features on view, including several original chandeliers, a variety of oil paintings and various pieces of furniture.  The institution use the room for free lunchtime recitals with the shows featuring amongst others the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and the Royal Opera Chorus.

Royal Opera House Seating Plans

Find seating plans for the venue here.

Dress Code

This is an extract from the Royal Opera House website: “Is there a dress code? There is no dress code – feel free to dress up or down.”

More information about the venue can be found here.

If you’d like to discover other great historic buildings in London, please click here.




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