Locating the ideal London opera house

In recent months we have heard a great deal in the news about the prospect of a new concert hall for London, an idea that has been strongly endorsed by Simon Rattle and appears to have tentative backing from the outgoing government. There has been much online chatter about the acoustic pros and cons of the existing London concert venues, the need or otherwise for a better hall, and about probable locations for it, which include the City or the site of the 2012 Olympics.

Throughout these discussions, I have been reminded of lively debates that took place throughout the 1920s about a much desired new opera house. There was at this time no permanent opera house in London, much to the chagrin and embarrassment of critics who were aware of the superior state of affairs in Germany, Italy and the United States. Opera was performed at a variety of venues in London but on a sporadic basis. Even Covent Garden was only used for opera some of the time: for much of the year it was used for film screenings, dances, jazz, and even boxing matches.

There were numerous calls for a ‘national opera house’, ideally one with a training school for singers attached. The performances would be in English, the performers would be British and the prices would be cheap. There had been previous attempts at setting up a large popular opera house (such as Oscar Hammerstein’s short-lived London Opera House, established on Kingsway in 1911) but all had thus far foundered.

Covent Garden itself was considered thoroughly unsuited to this purpose, on a number of grounds. The structure of its auditorium was incompatible with what many critics held up as a new democratic age of opera-going. It still had many tiers of boxes (for which the theatre was struggling to find aristocratic subscribers) and relatively few affordable seats. ‘The mob’ was crowded onto hard, backless wooden seats in the gallery.

Furthermore, the theatre was considered during the 1920s to be a shabby relic of an earlier, now unfashionable age. A very different beast from today’s smart, welcoming Royal Opera House, it was described as an ‘old, grey  building, surrounded by slums and vegetable stalls’, desperately in need of refurbishment, with an outdated Victorian foyer and winding corridors. It was widely assumed that the theatre would be knocked down within the next few years anyway, in order to make way for the expanding fruit and vegetable market.

Most intriguingly, commentators repeatedly complained that Covent Garden was ‘one of the worst-sited of opera houses’ and expressed their desire for a new national theatre that would be more ‘centrally located’. This has left me wondering where, exactly, the ‘centre’ of London was considered to be at this time. Would an opera house at Oxford Circus have been considered ideal, perhaps, or one near to Marble Arch?

There were numerous other venues where operas were staged during the 1920s: the Old Vic and suburban theatres in Lewisham and Golder’s Green, for instance, but clearly none of these ticked the ‘central’ box. The Coliseum was a varieties theatre and there were no plans to turn it into a theatre devoted to opera at this stage. Semi-staged operas were sometimes put on at the Albert Hall, but its seats were too uncomfortable and too distant, and the masses were no longer prepared to put up with being ‘herded like sheep’ in the upper galleries.

There was nothing for it: London needed a brand new opera house. There were pipe-dreams about opera houses that would hold 3,000, 4,000 or even 10,000 people: commentators speculated that if the seats were priced modestly, such a theatre would be full every night of the year. (There is an ironic resonance here with present-day journalistic discussions about relocating ENO on the grounds that the Coliseum is too large and not economically viable. Charlotte Higgins, for instance, recently wrote in the Guardian that ‘The ideal ENO house would be a theatre half the size, egalitarian, stylish and with a great bar’.)

And then in 1927, a writer for the Illustrated London News reported a new plan that was doing the rounds, which he believed to be the solution to the problem. A theatre could be built on the site of the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury. (The hospital itself had moved out to the countryside and various other plans had been mooted for the site, including – ironically – the relocation of Covent Garden market.) The main hospital building could be preserved as an imposing frontispiece for the theatre. The extensive grounds, meanwhile, would allow ample room to provide parking for 1,000 cars. Interestingly, parking was regarded as a high priority: the number of cars on the road in the West End was considered to be at breaking point, even at this early stage in the history of motoring.

During the 1930s Covent Garden was given a reprieve and a permanent opera company was established at Sadler’s Wells, paving the way for the later move to the Coliseum in the late 1960s and the foundation of ENO. The Bloomsbury project never got off the ground, of course, and the Foundling Hospital was demolished. In similar vein, I wonder whether we will we ever actually see that new London concert hall for the twenty-first century?