The architecture of opera houses

Opera houses and theatres provide some of the most opulent and iconic architecture in the world. The V&A has prints, photographs and models documenting the evolution of these prestigious buildings, from the 17th to the 20th century.

The Duke’s Theatre, London

In 1642 civil war broke out in England and theatres were closed to prevent public disorder. They remained closed for 18 years under Oliver Cromwell and Puritan rule. Illegal performances were only sporadic and many public theatres were demolished. However, some music was tolerated. In 1656, William Davenant succeeded in producing an all-sung version of The Siege of Rhodes at his home, Rutland House, London. While most scholars consider it to be the first English opera, it is possible that the inclusion of music was a way of getting around the law rather than an attempt to write a true opera. Staged with moveable scenery arranged in perspective, it proved highly influential.

At the start of the Restoration, under King Charles II, theatre began to flourish again. In 1661, Davenant opened the Duke’s Company, presenting adaptations of Shakespeare's plays with music, performed in a converted tennis court in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In 1671, after Davenant’s death, the company moved to the new, purpose-built Duke's Theatre at Dorset Garden, thought to be designed by Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul's Cathedral.

The Duke's Theatre, engraving, late 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This imposing, Baroque-style building stood on the banks of the River Thames, with steps leading up from the river for patrons arriving by boat. Very little is known about the internal architecture, but our 19th-century engraved reproduction (of an earlier print depicting a 1673 performance of The Empress of Morocco), is a valuable source of information. The print shows a large and elaborate proscenium arch, one of the first in London, framing the stage. Above it, there appears to be a small room with a curtained opening, presumably used by the musicians.

Engraved reproduction showing the interior of the Duke's Theatre, 1809. Museum no. S.2411-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The inclusion of the proscenium arch shows how advances in scenery and stage effects were impacting on the design of London's theatre buildings. The arch served to conceal machinery, sets, costumes and props, allowing the audience to focus on the theatrical performance without distraction.

The Haymarket, London

On the 18th April, 1704, the foundation stone for a new theatre was laid in a London street called Haymarket. Designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, the Queen’s Theatre (also referred to as the Italian Opera House) opened a year later, with a performance of the Italian opera The Loves of Ergasto.

The Italian Opera House at the Haymarket before the fire June 17 1789, original drawing by William Capon, etching by Charles John Smith, about 1837. Museum no. S.4171-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

With the accession of George I in 1714, the theatre was renamed the King’s Theatre. Between 1711 and 1739, it premiered more than 25 operas by George Frideric Handel. The King’s Theatre production of Handel’s Radamisto is documented in a libretto (prompt book). Notes in the libretto’s text refer to the opera's first performance at the theatre, on the 27th April, 1720.

Libretto for Handel's Radamisto, George Frideric Handel and Nicola Francesco Haym, printed by Thomas Wood, 1720, England. Museum no. S.501-1985. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The theatre, as Handel would have known it, was destroyed by fire in 1789. The fire and subsequent rebuilding of the theatre is referred to in a print from 1820, bearing the inscription: 'This Theatre, destroyed by Fire 17th June 1789, rebuilt by Michael Novosielski Esqr. in 1790-1 Was opened by the Drury Lane company, while their Theatre was rebuilding, in March the same year. The present Elevation after a design by John Nash Esqr. was completed in 1819'.

Engraving of The King's Theatre, Haymarket, published by Robert Wilkinson, 1820, England. Museum no. S.321-1997. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The new theatre was the largest in England. Initially, it hosted the Drury Lane opera company (referred to in the above inscription) while their theatre was being rebuilt. Between 1816 and 1818 the façade was reconstructed by John Nash, with the addition of a colonnade at the front and an arcade at the rear, creating a grand impression. In the 1830s it became the fashionable place to visit. In 1847 the first London performances of Mozart's La Clemenza di tito, Cosi Fan Tutti and Don Giovanni took place. In 1867, it suffered a similar fate to Vanbrugh's building and was destroyed by fire in less than an hour. The current building dates from 1868 and is known as Her Majesty's Theatre.

Lithograph showing the building of Her Majesty's Theatre, Sir William Rothenstein, 1897, England. Museum no. S.1012-1982. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Royal Opera House, London

The current Royal Opera House with its grand classical portico is the third theatre built on the Covent Garden site. Two previous theatres, just like Her Majesty's Theatre, were destroyed by fire – a serious hazard in the era before electricity, when theatres were lit by candle and oil lamp.

Actor-manager John Rich built the first 'Theatre Royal' in Covent Garden with the fortune he had made from the success of The Beggar's Opera. An impression of Rich's theatre can be seen in William Hogarth's satirical print, showing a carriage arriving in Covent Garden, with a procession moving towards the newly opened Theatre Royal. In the carriage is John Rich himself, dressed as the performing dog that appeared in his version of Perseus and Andromeda. Hogarth's low opinion of the quality of Rich's shows is indicated in this depiction of him as a dalmatian.

Rich's Glory or his Triumphant Entry into Covent-Garden, engraving, William Hogarth, 1811, England. Museum no. S.45-2008. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Between 1735 and 1759, the Theatre Royal presented regular performances of Handel's operas and oratorios, including Alcina and Semele. Handel had close links to Covent Garden and eventually bequeathed his organ to John Rich. Sadly, the organ was among many items lost in the fire of 1808, which destroyed the theatre completely and killed 23 firemen. Work on a new theatre began immediately and was opened just over eight months later. The new theatre, designed by Robert Smirke, was in the elegant Neoclassical style.

Engraving of the East Front of the New Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, Samuel Rawle, 1809, England. Museum no. S.1767-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In March 1856, the theatre was again destroyed by fire. The third theatre, designed by Edward Middleton Barry, remains today, now known as the Royal Opera House. The imposing portico at the front of the theatre is captured in a painting by Walter John Bayes, commissioned as part of the 'Recording Britain' collection of topographical watercolours made during the Second World War, demonstrating its importance to Britain's cultural heritage and national identity. The 'Recording Britain' scheme was established by Sir Kenneth Clark, with the intention of documenting British landscape and heritage in the face of imminent threat from bomb damage and invasion.

Watercolour of Covent Garden Opera House, The Colonnade, Walter Bayes, about 1940, England. Museum no. E.1762-1949. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Paris Opéra, France

Opera houses have been built in major cities around the world. Our collections include a series of photographs conveying the monumental task and manual effort involved in constructing the new Paris Opéra between 1861 and 1874. Louis-Emile Durandelle photographed the stages of construction of the building, which was designed by Charles Garnier. Durandelle's images show the façade as a whole, the stone-masons at work, and studies of their decorative chisel-work. The building, in the highly decorated Neo-Baroque style, reflected the confidence and grandeur of Parisian architecture at this time.

'Façade principale, montage des chapiteaux' (main facade, assembling the capitals), Delmaet and Durandelle, 1864 – 67, Paris. Museum no. E.2353-1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
'Façade latérale, côté Est, juin 1867', (east facade, June 1867], Delmaet and Durandelle, 1867, Paris. Museum no E.2351-1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
'Couronnement des chéneaux des frontons, Paris Opera', (coping of the gutters above the pediments, Paris Opera), Delmaet and Durandelle, 1864 – 67, Paris. Museum no. E.2319-1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sydney Opera House, Australia

One of the most iconic 20th-century buildings in the world, the Sydney Opera House, completed in 1973, has transcended its original purpose as a space for performance. Its distinct wave-like roofline is a common symbol of Australian national identity and the building itself is a destination for visitors who would never consider themselves opera enthusiasts. Among our collections are some unusual items attesting to the broad-reaching cultural significance of the Sydney Opera House, including an unmade paper model and a stiffened satin hat worn by an altogether different Australian icon, Dame Edna Everage (Barry Humphries).

Paper model of Sydney Opera House, Paperlandmarks, 21st century, Latvia. Museum no. LOAN:AMERICANFRIENDS.434:303-2006. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Sydney Opera House Ascot hat, designed and worn by Barry Humphries, 1976, possibly Australia. Museum no. S.560-1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London