Under the arching glass roof of the Vilar Floral Hall people mill about, greeting each other, drinking champagne. A mirror covers one wall, apparently doubling the size of the place, and were it not for the stylish modern dress of the crowd, it could be a huge 19th century painting come to life. Up on the mirrored wall a balcony hovers in midair, a startling high-tech intrusion into this beautifully restored Victorian glass- and cast-iron interior. It's playful, pretty, and all a bit absurd, with its graceful trees and circular champagne bars, and you can hardly hear yourself over the happy chatter. London's newly reopened Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is a building which emanates joy and celebration and, on the opening night of Verdi's Falstaff, the first operatic production in the restored house, everyone has caught the pervasive excitement.
A sense of delighted relief is highly appropriate, for there have been times in the past couple of years when no one thought the building would ever open again. Staff disputes, dismissals, resignations, revelations of extravagance and inefficiency raged into the final weeks before the official opening, when news that one of the productions scheduled for the new season--Gyorgy Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre--had to be canceled because of problems with the new stage machinery that supposedly is as advanced as that of any opera house in the world. Many of London's music lovers were wondering whether they would ever again see opera or ballet performed on this historic site.
And so the excitement was tinged with apprehension as the orchestra burst into the opening bars of Falstaff and the curtain rose to reveal baritone Bryn Terfel, making his debut--magnificently--at the Royal Opera House in the role of the fat knight, sprawled in a vast bed which almost filled the stage. Later the smoothly executed set changes--trees rising magically from an undulating green landscape or the gaudy hangings of a bed descending from the flies--drew applause from a good-humored and appreciative audience.
In the Floral Hall in the interval, or in the amphitheater bar--from which spectators could spill out onto terraces to enjoy the view of Covent Garden's piazza below--there was a general feeling that it was a miracle that the place had opened on time and was running as well as now seemed. Given the complex nature and multifarious functions required of the building, teething troubles would have been expected in the first weeks. Behind the scenes--a warren of corridors and staircases color-coded so that, in theory, everybody could always know the quickest route to the stage--some of the passages were still blocked or unpainted, and there were rumors that the floor of the orchestra pit, which can be raised or lowered, occasionally tends to sway from side to side. But on the evidence of the first night, things are up and running, and running very well.
Allowances must be made for the particular problems caused by the site. Bounded on three sides by streets, it allows extension to one side and upward only; hence the tower which now soars 37 m above the stage, allowing whole scene changes to be flown during performance, while the space to one side of the stage is big enough to store sets for six productions at once. The auditorium has been modified with a better rake to the stalls, improved sightlines in the amphitheater--the highest tier in the theater--and better wheelchair access. But the retention of the 19th century horseshoe shape means that those in the cheapest seats still stare across the house at each other rather than at the stage.
Another feature of the new theater is an increased provision for the Royal Ballet Company, which shares the building with the Opera Company, thus giving the dancers an adequate home in London for the first time. The complex contains four dance studios--the largest of which, the Clore Studio Upstairs, has bleacher seating for 200 along one wall and can be used for performances as well as practice. Also backstage are massage rooms and facilities for a trained physiotherapist, so that the building now offers the artists of the Royal Ballet all they need to train, rehearse and recover.
The work of the Opera House consists of more than performance. "It's about introducing people who perhaps wouldn't have the opportunity to experience not only the Royal Opera House, its buildings, its companies and artists, but also the art forms it represents," explains Darryl Jaffray, director of education and access. There is, for example, the new Linbury Studio Theatre located beneath one of the rehearsal rooms, which seats 420 and is ideal for small-scale productions. It will be used for recitals, lectures, studio opera, experimental dance and master classes, as well as being available for touring companies.
In the same week that the Opera House was celebrating its opening gala night, a company of children from St. Clement Danes School in London was performing an opera they had devised, written, cast, rehearsed and produced themselves, with the benefit of the sophisticated performance facilities of the Studio Theatre. Under the Arts Development Program various groups will be able to use the Studio Theatre and the Clore Studio, where experts on the Opera House staff will coach them in all aspects of mounting a performance, either of opera or ballet.
The community work of the Royal Opera House includes the Chance to Dance Project, in which London schoolchildren who pass an audition are given expert dance instruction; some of those who take the course will subsequently go on to the Royal Ballet's own school. Educational institutions taking part in the project get priority booking for the many subsidized schools' matinee performances mounted by the Royal Opera House. There are also reduced-price family days to encourage parents to attend with their children. Those occasions usually include some element of performance or lecture demonstration, leading to workshops giving practical experience of different artistic forms. And during a week sponsored by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, all tickets are sold at extremely cheap prices--nothing higher than $20--in order to target a completely new audience.
The work of the Royal Opera House extends beyond the building: artists will go to hospitals and hospices to reach as wide a public as possible because, Jaffray explains, "we feel that, if the Royal Opera House is for everybody, then people who are not by definition able to attend performances here should have some experience of the work we do."
Well, up to a point. Seeing a production in this famous London home of opera and ballet is still not going to be cheap: those in the audience for Falstaff paid a minimum of $80 for a seat giving an unrestricted view, while the best seats are three times as much. But the first night was a sell-out, the audience is lively and moved, giving a rapturous response for Terfel and conductor Sir Bernard Haitink, a few catcalls for director Graham Vick and designer Paul Brown, whose somewhat gimmicky effects seemed inappropriate for this subtle opera, which, despite its moments of knockabout comedy, is a profoundly moving and complex examination of human relationships. Above all, the audience is involved--as involved as this extraordinary building deserves.