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Royal Opera House

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 1440
Held at: Royal Opera House
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Full title: Royal Opera House
Date(s): 18th century-2003
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 282 linear metres; 100 metres squared; and 500 hours of audio recordings
Name of creator(s): Theatre Royal, Covent Garden | 1732-1847
Royal Italian Opera House | 1847-1892
Royal Opera House | 1892-
Covent Garden Opera Company | 1946-1968
Royal Opera Company | 1968-
Sadler's Wells Ballet | 1930-1956
The Royal Ballet | 1956-
Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet | 1946-1956
The Royal Ballet Touring Company 1956-1970
The New Group 1970-1976
Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet 1976-1991
Birmingham Royal Ballet | 1991-


Administrative/Biographical history:

The first Theatre Royal, Covent Garden was built by actor-manager John Rich, designed by the architect Edward Shepherd, and opened on 7 December 1732. It operated under the auspices of letters patent initially granted to Sir William Davenant, as one of only two recognised play houses in London.

It was mainly a playhouse, but music and dance were also performed there. George Frederic Handel wrote a number of operas and oratorios for this theatre, as well as bequeathing his organ to it. In 1791, Thomas Harris took over the management of the theatre and redesigned its interior several times before the building was accidentally burnt down in September 1808. A new theatre was constructed and opened in September 1809, under the joint management of Harris and John Kemble, designed by Robert Smirke.

The Theatres Act of 1843 ended the Theatre Royal's monopoly on drama production. In 1847, it became the Royal Italian Opera when the conductor Michael Costa, along with a number of singers including Giuseppe and Fanny Persiani, and Giulia Grisi, left the Italian Opera at the Queen's Theatre, Haymarket, to establish a rival company. The building was redesigned as an Italian opera house and the Royal Italian Opera was opened. In 1856 the theatre again burnt down. A new theatre was designed by E M Barry, with a glass and iron arcade - the Floral Hall. It opened in May 1858, and its popularity grew, despite the poor access to the auditorium, which meant that the audience took so long to find their seats that the final act of the first performance was cancelled. The Italian Opera ceased in 1892, and the theatre became the Royal Opera House. The building underwent a number of alterations. In 1899, the Conservatory bar was added to the terrace above the portico, and later the stage was remodelled by Edwin O Sachs. Profits declined however, such that during World War 1, the building was used as a warehouse. In 1919, it was sold to the family company of Sir Thomas Beecham, interest revived and the Royal Opera House Company renovated the building in 1933, however the declaration of World War 2 had an adverse effect. During this period, no opera was staged, instead the building was lease to Mecca Cafes Ltd, who converted it for use as a ballroom, which proved very popular.

After the War, the music publishers Boosey and Hawkes acquired the lease of the building. Funding was secured from the Arts Council of Great Britain for the establishment of resident companies - the Covent Garden Opera Company, the Sadler's Wells Ballet Company under the direction of Ninette de Valois. The ballet company obtained its royal charter in 1956, and the opera company in 1968. The Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet remained as a company of the ROH performing at various theatres, until 1991, when it became the Royal Birmingham Ballet.

The building continued to undergo modification, in 1953, the floor was relayed and the angle altered, in 1964 the amphitheatre and gallery were combined into one space, and an extension was built in 1982. Major development undertaken in 1996, with the addition of a new wing along Russell St, and major development of the theatre and site was undertaken between 1996-1999

In 1980, the freehold of the building passed to the Government for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Ltd, which is the parent company of The Royal Opera, The Royal Ballet, and the Orchestra of the ROH.


Scope and content/abstract:

Archives of the Royal Opera House (ROH), comprising:
some business records of the ROH and associated companies including Board minutes and papers of various opera companies using the ROH, 1919-1939; box office returns and payment slips for artists and theatre staff, 1919-1939; individual artist files, containing biographical information, prints and photographs 18thc to present]; production files 1946-present; minutes of the Board of the Royal Opera House Ltd, sub-committees, and management groups, 1946-present; files of the General Administrator/Chief Executive Office, and Assistants to the General Administrator, 1946-present; files of the Chairman of the Board 1946-1997; files of the Company Secretary's office, 1948-1996; files of the Personnel Office -2002 (closed); Contract files 1946-1980s (closed);
Opera Company files 1970s - 1999; Ballet Company files 1947-1996; Birmingham Royal Ballet files 1970s-1991; some early performing company files are found with the General Administrator's files; Finance Department records, 1946-present;

19th century correspondence, including letters of Frederick Gye (1809-1878), opera manager; Giovanni Matteo Mario (1810-1883) Italian tenor; Giulia Grisi (1811-1869), and Michael Costa (1810-1884) conductor;

Press, Publication, Community Relations, Marketing and Box Office departmental files, 1980-2000; House Management files, 1948-1999; Orchestra Office files, 1948-present; Friends of Covent Garden files, 1964-1999;

Ballet for All - education initiative files, 1964-1970s; London Opera Centre records, 1963-1970s; Production Office files, 1946-1980; Fly Department files, 1947-1977; Technical Department files, 1952-present;

audiovisual collection comprising:
audio recordings of oral history interviews relating to the Royal Opera House Development Project, 1997-2000; Verdi Centenary, 2001-2002; recordings of interviews and events at the Royal Opera House, 1964-2003;

photographic collection comprising:
photographs by Donald Southern, including black and white negatives and colour transparencies of performances, events and personnel at the ROH, 1959-1991; photographs by John Graham, including negatives of ballet and opera performances at the ROH, 1940s-1950s; photographs by Felix Fonteyn, including negatives of ballet productions from 1950s; photographs by Richard Holttum, including black and white negatives and colour transparencies of the ROH interior and exterior prior to development 1988-1991; photographs by Rob Moore including contact prints and colour transparencies of the ROH development, 1997-2001; Schal time-lapse photography of the development of the ROH, 1996-1999; Historic Monuments Commission photographic survey of the ROH interior and exterior prior to site development 1990-1996; two albums of photographs compiled by Edwin Sachs of the redevelopment of the ROH stage, 1899-1900, and the workshops; glass plate negatives used to create ballet post cards, 1950s-1960s;

collection of music and choreographic scores comprising:
printed songs, 18th -early 19th century; operas scores (vocal and orchestral) and stage managers scores, 1840s-1939; annotated opera stage managers scores 1946- present; annotated ballet stage managers scores, 1946-present; Staff Director's annotated scores for opera productions, 1946-present; Ninette de Valois' printed and manuscript music for ballet, 1920s -1930s; printed and manuscript ballet music, 1840s-1950s;
choreographic scores for ballets performed by The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet;

design and costume and collections comprising:
Yolanda Sonnabend design collection including notebooks, reference files, and related material, 1973-1995;
Ian Spurling collection of designs, photographs and press cuttings, 1975-1994; Toby Ward collection of drawings of the ROH prior to and during development 1996-1999;
Glynne Boyd Hart collection of watercolours of the ROH development, 1998-1999;
Ruth Hurle collection of drawings of back state, craft workrooms, opera and ballet rehearsals, 1930s-1940s;

costumes and accessories, such as headdresses, jewellery, shoes and wigs, worn by artist appearing at he ROH, 1920s-2003;
Comelli costume design collection including artwork by Attilio Comelli and others for costumes of operas performed at the ROH 1880s-1920s;
Costume design artwork, 1946-present; design artwork for sets and props, 1946-present; models of sets for productions, 1946-present; Model Room files relating to ground plans, and technical drawing or set and prop construction 1946 to present; stage and ground plans, 1939; Production Wardrobe files relating to costume and accessories design 1946-present;

miscellaneous large prints and drawings of performers and performances 19th and 20th century;

collection of advertising posters, 19th century-present;

programme collection including programmes for Gala and Special performances, and decorative programmes 1750s-present;

press cuttings of announcements, reviews, interviews, 18th century, 1847-1939; Harold Rosenthal collection of press puttings, relating mainly to the ROH performances, 1847-1950s; press cuttings of reviews and articles about performers and performances, 1946-present;
miscellaneous albums and scrap books relating to Anna Pavlova, and Nellie Melba, amongst others 1920s;

library collection comprising books, periodicals and specialist publication relating to ballet, dance, opera, music and theatre; libretti, 1840-present; playtexts 1776-[1850]; reports commissioned by the ROH and general arts reports 1946-present; ROH publications and souvenir year books 1956-2002;

special collections comprising:
Royal Ballet Benevolent Fund collection of material relating to the celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Royal Ballet (RB), including papers, photographs, press cuttings, programmes concerning the RB and its predecessors - Vic Wells and Sadler's Wells Ballet companies 1931- 1950s;

Spellman Song Sheet Covers containing illustrations of operas, and ballets late 19th-early 20th century;

albums of Lady de Grey albums containing photographs of singers, composers, conductors, mostly autographed, dedicated to (Constance) Gladys De Grey, (1859-1917) Marchioness of Ripon, and opera patron, 1870-1920;

collection of Dame Margot Fonteyn De Arias (1918-1991) ballet dancer, including costumes, accessories, photographs, correspondence and books, 1920s-1980s;

collection of Dame Ninette de Valois (1898-2001) founder of The Royal Ballet, including awards, honours and correspondence, 1947-1993;

collection of Leslie Edwards (1916-2001), principal dancer The Royal Ballet, including photographs 1920s-1980s;

collection of Eva Turner (1892-1990) English soprano, relating to her singing career, including costumes, accessories, photographs, press cuttings, music and books 1920s-1940s;

diaries of Frederick Gye (1809-1878), Royal Italian Opera General manager, 1847-1878, his daughter Clara Gye, and son Ernest Gye, ROH Manager, 1847-1877;

collection of Olive Grime, dancer with the Beecham Opera Company, including press cuttings, contracts, correspondence, photographs, books and costumes, 1920s-1930s;

collection of Reginald Goodall (1901-1990) English conductor, including correspondence and personal papers, 1900-1958.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:
mainly English, some Italian, German and French.

System of arrangement:

Conditions governing access:

By appointment only. There is currently no telephone access. Contact in writing, The Archivist, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD.
Personnel and Contract records are closed. Administrative records less than 30 years old are closed. Some of the collections are stored off site.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Copies available subject to the condition and status of the original: no material dated pre-1946 is available for photocopying. Certain classes of records are not available for photocopying, these include press cuttings, original designs, drawings, administrative files, financial records and correspondence, and any material where copyright restrictions apply. Copies of audio material are not available.

Finding aids:

In-house catalogues are not available to researcher but Archives staff will advise on the availability of material prior to a visit.

Archival Information

Archival history:

The Archive was formally established in 1969. The pre 1991 archives of the Royal Birmingham Ballet, previously the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet, are held at the ROH.

Immediate source of acquisition:

Material is transferred from within the organisation.

Allied Materials

Related material:

Dame Margot Fonteyn De Arias, (1918-1991) Ballet Dancer, correspondence with Lord Clark c1939-1964 (Ref: TGA 8812), and Dame Ninette De Valois, (1898-2001) Ballet Dancer, Founder of Royal Ballet, correspondence with Lord Clark 1948-1978, (Ref: TGA 8812), held at the Tate Gallery Archive;
Other institutions which hold material relating to the Royal Opera House including The British Library, London, the Theatre Museum, London, and the Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection, Jerwood Library of Performing Arts, Trinity College of Music, Greenwich.

Publication note:

A history of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 1732-1982, A Saint, B A Young, M Clarke, C Crisp, and H Rosenthal, Royal Opera House, 1982; The Royal Opera House in the Twentieth Century, Frances Donaldson, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London 1988; A tale of four houses, Susie Gilbert and Jay Shir, Harper Collins, 2003; The Royal Ballet, the first fifty years, Alexander Bland, Threshold, London, 1981; The Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet, Sarah C Woodcock, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 1858-1958, edited by Harold Rosenthal, London 1958; Opera at Covent Garden: a short history, Harold Rosenthal, Gollanz, London, 1967.

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Historical Manuscripts Commission's On-Line National Register of Archives; A history of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 1732-1982, A Saint, B A Young, M Clarke, C Crisp, and H Rosenthal, Royal Opera House, 1982;
Compiled by Alison Field as part of the London Signpost Survey Project.

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal Place and Corporate Names 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
November 2003

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