A newly opened £50.7m transformation of the Royal Opera House will be a significant step towards opera and ballet losing their elitist tags, its directors hope.
The Covent Garden building has been the subject of a three-year construction project, paid for through philanthropy, which formally opened to the public on Wednesday.
It includes a new more intimate performance space, the Linbury theatre, new airy public spaces with bigger terraces, a cafe, bar, restaurant and better shop. From Friday, there will be a new events programme which will range from the chance of a free performance by one of Covent Garden’s singers, musicians or dancers to a new programme for under-fives.
Alex Beard, the chief executive of the Royal Opera House (ROH), said it “emphatically” wanted to lose the elitist tag which is often associated with opera and ballet. He stressed though that the artists would always be elite.
“I very much hope that over time, the perception of this institution and of our performance will shift from being elitist, but we will keep a sense of being special, of it being extraordinary, engaging and all consuming … but open for a much wider public to connect with.”
He said he wanted as many people as possible to visit “one of the world’s most beautiful theatres, to experience our art forms and to get a taste of the remarkable creativity at play here”.
Oliver Mears, the director of the Royal Opera, said offering lower ticket prices and family operas would help in the mission. There was a huge appetite for live performance, he said. “People are addicted to their screens, very often, and I think there is a hunger for real live experiences and that’s what we can offer in ways perhaps no one else can in the UK.”
The new Linbury theatre’s inaugural programme will include performances in which ticket prices range from £5 to £45, with a quarter of seats priced at £25 or less.
Opera highlights will include the world premiere of Gavin Higgins’s new opera The Monstrous Child, based on the novel by Horrid Henry creator Francesca Simons, a story of Norse Gods and teenage angst.
In March 2019 there will be a new staging of Handel’s Berenice, which returns for the first time since it was premiered at the Covent Garden theatre in 1737. In June 2019 one of the world’s most in-demand stage directors, Ivo van Hove, will bring his production of Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared, to the UK for the first time.
Dance highlights will include include Juliet and Romeo, which imagines them living and surviving into their 40s and not talking; and in June 2019 the inaugural Young Talent festival presenting work from some of the world’s leading junior companies and schools.
A key part of the ROH’s strategy is getting the public into the building, particularly people who may never have thought of it, or perhaps been intimidated by the grandeur of the place.
“There is a real responsibility on us to open our art forms to people right across the country,” said Jillian Barker, director of learning and participation.
She unveiled a free and paid-for events programme which includes Ballet Dots and Opera Dots where adults can bring their babies and toddlers to specially devised dance and opera sessions; “Month of Sundays” where, for £5, visitors can come to events such as a dance workshop or the chance to learn how to make props; and the return of Covent Garden’s popular tea dances.