Monday, 13 February 2017


Today Unraveling Musical Myths takes a look back at the surprisingly calamitous early history of Londons’ [The] Royal Opera House, and the riotous band of brutes and repeated fires that threatened to snuff out the theatre from the world’s cultural map.

[Fig. I] "Killing no Murder. as Performing at the Grand National Theatre" by caricaturist Issac Robert Cruikshank.

We know the Royal Opera House – or, more casually "Covent Garden" – today as one of the operatic sphere’s most esteemed theatres, Britain’s musical Mecca and the launching pad that would catapult into the stratosphere some of the world’s most beloved operatic talent – the likes of Joan Sutherland and Jon Vickers. The ROH is coveted by both singers and dancers across the globe as a "must-perform-at" venue; even so, it wasn’t always a bed of roses for the theatre’s managers (much less for it’s patrons) during it’s many years on British soil.

Originally named the “Theatre Royal,” the Opera House we know and patronize today is actually the third theatre to have been built in its location since the first theatre’s construction in 1732. The theatre that patrons of the arts knew then boasted a repertoire of predominately pantomime and other acting engagements. Ballet and Opera did indeed have a presence at the venue during this period, but they existed only in a minor role. The venue's most notable pioneer of the Operatic genre would be the composer George Frederick Handel – a recently made citizen and émigré from Halle in Germany.[1] Handel would open the theatre’s first season of operas in 1735, and would premiere many an opera and oratorio at the location, almost all of which the composer had written specifically for the theatre. The Theatre Royal, as it were, would gain much prominence as only one of two theatres (the other being Drury Lane, which opened its doors 69 years earlier, in 1663) to be granted permission to present spoken drama, operating under Patents Royal issued by then-reigning King Charles II* in 1662/63 ( *in the case of Drury Lane; the patent for the Theatre at Covent Garden having been issued prior to the building’s construction).*[see footnotes: learn more].

[Fig. II] Interior view of Covent Garden Theatre #1
By all accounts, the Theatre Royal seemed to be a thriving venue during its early reign. Popular performances of the day, however, would soon come to a most unwelcome halt in 1808, when, due to the extremely risky practice of employing candlelight to illuminate the theatre (a first resort for lighting during that era), the theatre, along with the costumes, scenery and manuscripts contained within, burned to the ground. The response was chaotic – the theatre must be rebuilt, and quickly, at that.

And quickly rebuilt it was: With an estimated damage of some £250,000, a plan had to be executed to recover the costs of rebuilding. The British nobility would swiftly step in to help facilitate the funding of such an enterprising endeavor. Acting under King George III, the Dukes of York and Northumberland would contribute a sizable donation to the pot (an amount of £76,000), whilst simultaneously introducing a “public subscription,” to be paid by visitors to the theatre until which time costs could be recouped.

This new financial agenda, however, would prove to be most unfortuitous. Patrons of the theatre were incensed with building management for increasing the costs of seating (from six shillings to seven for the boxes and from 3 shillings and sixpence to four shillings for the pit), not to mention converting the theatre’s entire third tier into private boxes, which would be made accessible only by agreeing to pay a wage of £300 per annum in rent - a wage the middle class could scarcely afford, and which the wealthy - who intended to remain wealthy, thankyouverymuch - refused to pay.

So vitriolic was the public's reaction, theatre-goers attending opening night in September 1809 would erupt into an all-out riot during a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, interrupting the performance by beating sticks on the back of seats, stomping the floor, and breaking out into a hysteria of excessive booing and hissing – at one point even engaging in a frenzied dance of mockery. Police had to be called in by theatre manager John Philip Kemble just to empty the venue as enraged patrons held fast to their seats, refusing to leave the theatre in a defiant act of protest.

[Fig. III] *CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE "Acting Magistrates" read "The Riot Act"
to an incensed crowd in this contemporary illustration.
The already escalating situation at The Theatre Royal would only continue to get worse for both manager and venue following the theatres' calamitous second debut: bands of attendees would purposely arrive mid-way through a performance in an effort to pay a half-priced fare – and they would not arrive quietly. The frustrated patrons continued to chide theatre management by a issuing a barrage of insults, boos, banging and hissing – and for good measure, took to defacing the theatre itself with the early 19th century’s form of graffiti – hanging placards and banners adorned with crass language. [see Fig III]  A coffin was even brought into the theatre with a not-inconspicuous threat attached proclaiming the “death” of the fare-hike by "whooping cough" [i.e. by loud - and violent - protest].

Kemble was not one to respond to threats. In retaliation, the theatre manager hired the English prizefighter Daniel Mendoza (alongside the boxer’s personally selected band of brutes) to use as an intimidation tactic in a bold effort to silence the rioters (who now had a name: the “Old Pricers” - or, the "OPs"). Rumor had it Mendoza and his ‘hitmen’ took the illusion of inexorability quite seriously - by taking to both clubs and fists upon the face of any demonstrator who dared voice his disapproval for the fare increase.

Contemporary caricaturist Isaac Robert Cruikshank would immortalize the theatre’s most disruptive period (which lasted some three months before Kemble finally relented, temporarily lowering the price of admission and issuing a formal apology to theatregoers) in a an etching he called “Killing No Murder as Performing at the Grand National Theatre.” Mendoza serves as the focal point of the image: dead center, with club in hand, he can be seen stomping on the chest of a bloodied protestor, whilst angrily shouting the words “Down down to [Hell] with all OPs & say ‘twas Dan that sent thee there.” [Fig I]

Kemble, it seems, did not learn very quickly. By the opening of the theatre’s next season, he attempted, in vain, to preserve half of the private boxes he had designated "rental" seats in the venues' most popular third tier during the OP riots, which only served to re-incense patrons and re-kindle the riots until such time as he came to his senses and once more yielded to public demand.

English Prizefighter Daniel Mendoza was famously
hired as a de-facto bouncer for the ROH during the
infamous "OP Riots." The boxer, in addition to his
hired band of brutes were alleged to have used both
threats and fists to temper the theatre's rowdy crowds.
Surprisingly, the events of 1808-1809 would not be the last series of calamities thrust upon the ROH. The theatre would again succumb to fire in 1856 – a common occurrence for theatres of this era who had to rely on the lighting and display of candles or the use of limelight (the latter introduced in 1837, which was comprised of a highly combustible mixture of quicklime, oxygen and hydrogen flame) to illuminate both theatre and stage. Both methods of lighting were notoriously risky for their venues (and for the people within it), not to mention highly flammable in their application. The third, and final theatre would be constructed in 1858. It would be converted into a furniture storehouse during the first world war and made into a dance hall during WWII, and would not host an opera or ballet until 1946, when it was reopened as The Royal Opera.[2] The newly established Royal Ballet marked the theatres' 3rd official debut with a production of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty, followed by a joint venture with the also freshly-established Covent Garden Opera Company for a production of English composer Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen in December of opening year - which would itself be followed by the theatres’ first full opera performance in the new year: with French composer Georges Bizet’s Carmen.

Enjoy below the beautiful aria “Lontan del mio tesoro” from George Frederick Handel’s 1734 opera Il Pastor Fido. The opera would be the first of many penned by the composer to be performed at the Theatre Royal. Il Pastor…would be followed by premiere performances of Operas Ariodante in 1735, followed by both Alcina, and Atalanta the following year, and a royal performance of Messiah in 1743.

[1]George Frederick Handel, formerly Georg Frideric Händel, would become a naturalized British citizen on the 20th of February, 1727 in accordance with immigration laws under Kings George I and II which required the German native obtain citizenship to continue on in his role as a composer of Britain and as Composer of the Chapel Royal. 
Read more about this pivotal event in Herr Handel’s history right here on Unraveling Musical Myths:
[2] The Royal Opera (second theatre) would, for a brief period, be known as the “Royal Italian Opera” following the dissolution in 1843 of the Letter Patent previously issued by King Charles II which had decreed the Theatre Royal* as just one of two theatres to have held a monopoly on the production of spoken and serious drama. During this period competitor venues would at last be made aloud to thrive. The theater scored a major boon in 1843 when the revered composer Michael Costa joined the venue, bringing with him a large band of singers. It would prove to be a fortuitous move for the theatre, and following a period of operatic performances sung only in the Italian tongue - from the 1847 performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide to the year 1892, when composer and conductor Gustav Mahler debuted Richard Wagner’s German language Ring Cycle, at which point the word “Italian” was dropped from the name.

* Learn more (external link):
To discover more about the Letters Patent issued by King Charles II, and to learn more about the process, visit

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