Royal Opera House's revamp to entice new audiences

A larger foyer and a lobby fronted by windows and housing a cafe that will open daily from 10am are among the changes at the Royal Opera House.
A larger foyer and a lobby fronted by windows and housing a cafe that will open daily from 10am are among the changes at the Royal Opera House.PHOTO: ROYAL OPERA HOUSE/INSTAGRAM

LONDON • It is "a bit like having open-heart surgery while going for a run".

That is the opinion of Mr Alex Beard, the Royal Opera House (ROH) chief executive, describing a US$66-million (S$90-million) renovation that took nearly three years.

The revamp, which included the London venue's second stage - the 406-seat, three-tier Linbury Theatre, faced challenges because the building is recognised as having historical importance, he noted.

And then there were considerable practical and financial considerations.

"We couldn't afford to lose a single rehearsal, let alone a single performance," he pointed out.

Meetings were every day, said Mr Alan Stanton, co-founder of architecture firm Stanton Williams, which designed the project, where "we'd work out the little windows of time we could make noise".

"You'd have Placido Domingo rehearsing in the main space and, of course, performers like him are sensitive to noise, dust, vibration.

"We couldn't have jackhammers."

The ROH staged almost 1,000 performances during the construction and renovation work.

The upgraded Linbury is perhaps the most notable change.

It was previously little more than a black box into which audience members crammed themselves in, Mr Stanton said.

"It was done as a relatively cheap theatre, almost like an enhanced rehearsal space."

The redesign arranged seats in a horseshoe shape to bring the audience closer to performers and improved the acoustics.

Warm colours and materials were chosen to give an intimate feel.

The Linbury's season will open with a run by ballerina Alessandra Ferri in January, with Herman Cornejo of the American Ballet Theatre, accompanied by pianist Bruce Levingston.

Dance company Rambert had been slated to open the theatre in December, with a new fairy tale called Aisha And Abhaya. But the show's director became ill and the staging has been postponed. A film programme will run instead.

Another highlight of the dance programme will come from British company Lost Dog. It is to present Juliet & Romeo in April, in which the Shakespeare characters survive and find themselves in a mid-life crisis in their 40s.

The Royal Ballet will present works to music by young electronic composers and musicians Mica Levi and Anna Meredith.

But the most important changes to the ROH, Mr Stanton said, were in the public spaces, where the architects tried to entice new audiences.

The foyer is much larger.

The lobby is fronted by windows, allowing people on the street outside to look into the building. And it houses a cafe that will open daily from 10am.

The basement has also been opened up, to hold weekly performances that can be viewed from above.

"It's no longer a slightly introverted institution that just opens its grand doors in the evening," Mr Stanton said.

The opening up of the foyer was helped by one major change, he noted: moving the women's bathrooms from the lobby (where the men's remain) to the basement.

"Spatially, that was a key move," he said, adding that women would now have more stalls available to them than before.

ROH's director of opera Oliver Mears hopes the new, intimate theatre's diverse programme will provide a bridge for youngsters and those not versed in opera.

"We want to create something that is much more surprising in the repertoire, much more unpredictable, more fun and more colourful. Ultimately, the experience is about people singing, which we all know about.

"It's a primal thing, and it's about stories, and everyone loves stories," he said.

"When you combine the theatrical and the musical, it can be quite overwhelming, but there is this unfortunate perception that opera is for toffs," he added. "It can be life-changing if you give it a chance."

NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2018, with the headline 'Royal Opera House's revamp to entice new audiences'. Print Edition | Subscribe