Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden


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The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, provides orchestral accompaniment for the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet and performs its own concert season. The first true opera produced in England was The Siege of Rhodes (1656), produced by William Davenant and written by a group of five composers. Davenant received a patent from King Charles II to build a theater "wherein tragedies, comedies, plays, operas, music, scenes and all other entertainment of the stage..." were to be performed. Davenant's successor, John Rich, in 1728 had in one of the great hits in English operatic history, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Its profits allowed Rich to build the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden, site of an old convent (hence the name), which opened on December 7, 1732, with Congreve's The Way of the World. The theater at Covent Garden was the most popular London opera house, specializing in English opera, often including spoken dialogue. A fire in 1808 destroyed the theater. The second Theatre Royal building opened September 18, 1809, with a production of Shakespeare's Macbeth and a musical piece called The Quaker. The Theatre Royal was better known as a theatrical venue than an operatic one until Michael Costa, conductor of Her Majesty's Theatre at the Haymarket, walked out, and took most of his musicians and singers to Covent Garden. Management remodeled the house for Costa's Royal Italian Opera, reopening with Rossini's Semiramide on April 6, 1847. The theater lasted just under nine more years, burning again on March 5, 1856. It was rebuilt and reopened on May 15, 1858, with Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. In 1892 it was renamed the Royal Opera House. It was used by a variety of different local and visiting opera companies. During World War I, the house was requisitioned for use as a furniture warehouse. It returned to operatic and theatrical use, but in summers was often used as a dance hall. The finances of the hall and its artistic companies were precarious during the Depression. During World War II, the Mecca Cafés Company turned it into a full-time dance hall. Mecca was on the verge of extending its lease for another five years when the music publishers Boosey & Hawkes acquired the lease and established the Covent Garden Opera Trust to run it. The post-war Labour government new arts council backed re-formation of a Covent Garden Opera Company and invited the Sadlers' Wells Ballet Company (founded in 1931) to become Covent Garden's resident ballet troupe. Austrian conductor Karl Rankl was hired to re-form the opera company. He brought in illustrious guest conductors. His successors as music director have been Rafael Kubelik, George Solti, Colin Davis, and Bernard Haitink. The ballet company opened the house with Sleeping Beauty on February 20, 1946. The companies co-produced Purcell's The Fairy Queen in December of that year, and the opera company began with Carmen on January 14, 1947. The companies were renamed the Royal Ballet (in 1956) and Royal Opera (in 1968). As the century ended, the 140-year-old theater was closed for extensive renovation and enlargement (particularly of its backstage facilities) from 1997 to 1999. However, the whole plan was put into question in light of the disclosure of huge deficits and other difficulties. The orchestra took advantage of the Royal Opera House's down time to undertake expanded touring, including participation in a highly acclaimed concert performance of Wagner's Walküre at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The renovated Royal Opera House reopened late in 1999, to generally favorable popular and critical reaction and appeared to have regained its popularity and financial footing.