The end of the 17th century was a period of intense rivalry amongst London's actors, and in 1695 there was a split in the United Company, who had a monopoly on the performance of drama at their two theatres. Dramatist and architect John Vanbrugh saw this as an opportunity to break the duopoly of the patent theatres, and in 1703 he acquired a former stable yard, at a cost of £2,000, for the construction of a new theatre on the Haymarket. In the new business, he hoped to improve the share of profits that would go to playwrights and actors. He raised the money by subscription, probably amongst members of the Kit-Cat Club:
To recover them [that is, Thomas Betterton's company], therefore, to their due Estimation, a new Project was form'd of building them a stately theatre in the Hay-Market, by Sir John Vanbrugh, for which he raised a Subscription of thirty Persons of Quality, at one hundred Pounds each, in Consideration whereof every Subscriber, for his own Life, was to be admitted to whatever Entertainments should be publickly perform'd there, without farther Payment for his Entrance.
—John Vanbrugh's notice of subscription for the new theatre
He was joined in the enterprise by his principal associate and manager William Congreve and an actors' co-operative led by Thomas Betterton.
The theatre provided the first alternative to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, built in 1663 and the Lincoln's Inn, founded in 1660 (forerunner of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, built in 1728). The theatre's site is the second oldest such site in London that remains in use. These three post-interregnum theatres defined the shape and use of modern theatres.
Vanbrugh's theatre: 1705–1789
The land for the theatre was held on a lease renewable in 1740 and was ultimately owned, as it is today, by the Crown Estate. Building was delayed by the necessity of acquiring the street frontage, and a three bay entrance led to a brick shell 130 feet (39.6 m) long and 60 feet (18.3 m) wide. Colley Cibber described the audience fittings as lavish but the facilities for playing poor.
Vanbrugh and Congreve received Queen Anne's authority to form a Company of Comedians on 14 December 1704, and the theatre opened as the Queen's Theatre on 9 April 1705 with imported Italian singers in Gli amori d'Ergasto (The Loves of Ergasto), an opera by Jakob Greber, with an epilogue by Congreve. This was the first Italian opera performed in London. The opera failed, and the season struggled on through May, with revivals of plays and operas. The first new play performed was The Conquest of Spain by Mary Pix. The theatre proved too large for actors' voices to carry across the auditorium, and the first season was a failure. Congreve departed, Vanbrugh bought out his other partners, and the actors reopened the Lincoln's Inn Fields' theatre in the summer. Although early productions combined spoken dialogue with incidental music, a taste was growing amongst the nobility for Italian opera, which was completely sung, and the theatre became devoted to opera. As he became progressively more involved in the construction of Blenheim Palace, Vanbrugh's management of the theatre became increasingly chaotic, showing "numerous signs of confusion, inefficiency, missed opportunities, and bad judgement". On 7 May 1707, experiencing mounting losses and running costs, Vanbrugh was forced to sell a lease on the theatre for fourteen years to Owen Swiny at a considerable loss. In December of that year, the Lord Chamberlain's Office ordered that "all Operas and other Musicall presentments be performed for the future only at Her Majesty's Theatre in the Hay Market" and forbade the performance of further non-musical plays there.
King's (previously Queen's) Theatre, Haymarket, the 18th-century predecessor of the present theatre; watercolour by William Capon
After 1709, the theatre was devoted to Italian opera and was sometimes known informally as the Haymarket Opera House. Young George Frideric Handel produced his English début, Rinaldo, on 24 February 1711 at the theatre, featuring the two leading castrati of the era, Nicolo Grimaldi and Valentino Urbani. This was the first Italian opera composed specifically for the London stage. The work was well received, and Handel was appointed resident composer for the theatre, but losses continued, and Swiney fled abroad to escape his creditors. John James Heidegger took over the management of the theatre and, from 1719, began to extend the stage through arches into the houses to the south of the theatre. A "Royal Academy of Music" was formed by subscription from wealthy sponsors, including the Prince of Wales, to support Handel's productions at the theatre. Under this sponsorship, Handel conducted a series of more than 25 of his original operas, continuing until 1739 Handel was also a partner in the management with Heidegger from 1729 to 1734, and he contributed to incidental music for theatre, including for a revival of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, opening on 14 January 1710.
On the accession of George I in 1714, the theatre was renamed the King's Theatre and remained so named during a succession of male monarchs who occupied the throne. At this time only the two patent theatres were permitted to perform serious drama in London, and lacking letters patent, the theatre remained associated with opera. In 1762, Johann Christian Bach travelled to London to premiere three operas at the theatre, including Orione on 19 February 1763. This established his reputation in England, and he became music master to Queen Charlotte.
In 1778, the lease for the theatre was transferred from James Brook to Thomas Harris, stage manager of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and to the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan for £22,000. They paid for the remodelling of the interior by Robert Adam in the same year. In November 1778, The Morning Chronicle reported that Harris and Sheridan had
... at a considerable expence, almost entirely new built the audience part of the house, and made a great variety of alterations, part of which are calculated for the rendering the theatre more light, elegant and pleasant, and part for the ease and convenience of the company. The sides of the frontispiece are decorated with two figures painted by Gainsborough, which are remarkably picturesque and beautiful; the heavy columns which gave the house so gloomy an aspect that it rather resembled a large mausoleum or a place for funeral dirges, than a theatre, are removed.
—November 1778, The Morning Chronicle
The expense of the improvements was not matched by the box office receipts, and the partnership dissolved, with Sheridan buying out his partner with a mortgage on the theatre of £12,000 obtained from the banker Henry Hoare.
One member of the company, Giovanni Gallini, had made his début at the theatre in 1753 and had risen to the position of dancing master, gaining an international reputation. Gallini had tried to buy Harris' share but had been rebuffed. He now purchased the mortgage. Sheridan quickly became bankrupt after placing the financial affairs of the theatre in the hands of William Taylor, a lawyer. The next few years saw a struggle for control of the theatre and Taylor bought Sheridan's interest in 1781. In 1782 the theatre was remodelled by
Michael Novosielski, formerly a scene painter at the theatre. In May 1783, Taylor was arrested by his creditors, and a forced sale ensued, with Harris purchasing the lease and much of the effects. Further legal action transferred the interests in the theatre to a board of trustees, including Novosielski. The trustees acted with a flagrant disregard for the needs of the theatre or other creditors, seeking only to enrich themselves, and in August 1785 the Lord Chamberlain took over the running of the enterprise, in the interests of the creditors. Gallini, meanwhile, had become manager. In 1788, the Lord Chancellor observed "that there appeared in all the proceedings respecting this business, a wish of distressing the property, and that it would probably be consumed in that very court to which ... [the interested parties] seemed to apply for relief". Performances suffered, with the box receipts taken by Novosielski, rather than given to Gallini to run the house. Money continued to be squandered on endless litigation or was misappropriated. Gallini tried to keep the theatre going, but he was forced to employ amateur performers. The World described a performance as follows: "... the dance, if such it can be called was like the movements of heavy cavalry. It was hissed very abundantly." At other times, Gallini had to defend himself against a dissatisfied audience who charged the stage and destroyed the fittings, as the company ran for their lives.
The theatre burnt down on 17 June 1789 during evening rehearsals, and the dancers fled the building as beams fell onto the stage. The fire had been deliberately set on the roof, and Gallini offered a reward of £300 for capture of the culprit. With the theatre destroyed, each group laid their own plans for a replacement. Gallini obtained a licence from the Lord Chamberlain to perform opera at the nearby Little Theatre, and he entered into a partnership with
R. B. O'Reilly to obtain land in Leicester Fields for a new building, which too would require a licence. The two quarrelled, and each then planned to wrest control of the venture from the other. The authorities refused to grant either of them a patent for Leicester Fields, but O'Reilly was granted a licence for four years to put on opera at the Oxford Street Pantheon. This too, would burn to the ground in 1792. Meanwhile, Taylor reached an agreement with the creditors of the King's Theatre and attempted to purchase the remainder of the lease from Edward Vanbrugh, but this was now promised to O'Reilly. A further complication arose as the theatre needed to expand onto adjacent land that now came into the possession of a Taylor supporter. The scene was set for a further war of attrition between the lessees, but at this point O'Reilly's first season at the Pantheon failed miserably, and he fled to Paris to avoid his creditors.
By 1720, Vanbrugh's direct connection with the theatre had been terminated, but the leases and rents had been transferred to both his own family and that of his wife's through a series of trusts and benefices, with Vanbrugh himself building a new home in Greenwich. After the fire, the Vanbrugh family's long association with the theatre was terminated, and all their leases were surrendered by 1792.
Second theatre: 1791–1867
Taylor completed a new theatre on the site in 1791. Michael Novosielski had again been chosen as architect for the theatre on an enlarged site, but the building was described by Malcolm in 1807 as
fronted by a stone basement in rustic work, with the commencement of a very superb building of the Doric order, consisting of three pillars, two windows, an entablature, pediment, and balustrade. This, if it had been continued, would have contributed considerably to the splendour of London; but the unlucky fragment is fated to stand as a foil to the vile and absurd edifice of brick pieced to it, which I have not patience to describe.
—The critic Malcolm, quoted in Old and New London (1878)
The Lord Chamberlain, a supporter of O'Reilly, refused a performing licence to Taylor. The theatre opened on 26 March 1791 with a private performance of song and dance entertainment, but was not allowed to open to the public. The new theatre was heavily indebted and spanned separate plots of land that were leased to Taylor by four different owners on differing terms of revision. As a later manager of the theatre wrote, "In the history of property, there has probably been no parallel instance wherein the legal labyrinth has been so difficult to thread." Meetings were held at Carlton House and Bedford House attempting to reconcile the parties. On 24 August 1792 a General Opera Trust Deed was signed by the parties. The general management of the theatre was to be entrusted to a committee of noblemen, appointed by the Prince of Wales, who would then appoint a general manager. Funds would be disbursed from the profits to compensate the creditors of both the King's Theatre and the Pantheon. The committee never met, and management devolved to Taylor.
The first public performance of opera in the new theatre took place on 26 January 1793, the dispute with the Lord Chamberlain over the licence having been settled. This theatre was, at that time, the largest in England, and it became the home of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane company while that company's home theatre was itself rebuilt between 1791–94.
From 1793, seven small houses at the east side of the theatre fronting on the Haymarket were demolished and replaced by a large concert room. It was in this room that Joseph Haydn gave a series of concerts, under the sponsorship of Johann Peter Salomon, on his second visit to London in 1794–95. He presented his own symphonies, some of them premieres, conducted by himself, and was paid £50 each for 20 concerts. He was feted in London and returned to Vienna in May 1795 with 12,000 florins.
Royal Opera Arcade, 2008. Theatre entrance was from the left, now occupied by shops.
With the departure of the Drury Lane company in 1794, the theatre returned to opera, hosting the first London performances of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito in 1806, Così fan tutte and Die Zauberflöte in 1811, and Don Giovanni in 1816. Between 1816 and 1818, John Nash and George Repton made alterations to the façade and increased the capacity of the auditorium to 2,500. They also added a shopping arcade, called the Royal Opera Arcade, which has survived fires and renovations and still exists. It runs along the rear of the theatre. In 1818–20, the British premieres of Gioachino Rossini's operas Il barbiere di Siviglia, Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra, L'italiana in Algeri, La Cenerentola and Tancredi took place, and the theatre became known as the Italian Opera House, Haymarket by the 1820s.
In 1797, he was elected as member of Parliament for Leominster, a position that gave him immunity from his creditors. When that parliament dissolved in 1802, he fled to France. Later, he returned, and was member of Parliament for Barnstaple from 1806 to 1812 while continuing his association with the theatre. Taylor paid little of the agreed receipts to performers, or composers, and lived for much of his period of management in the King's Bench, a debtors' prison in Southwark. Here he maintained an apartment next to Lady Hamilton and lived in some luxury, entertaining lavishly.
A riot at the theatre, on 1 May 1813
John Ebers, a bookseller, took over the management of the theatre in 1821, and seven more London premieres of Rossini operas (La gazza ladra, Il turco in Italia, Mosè in Egitto, Otello, La donna del lago, Matilde di Shabran and Ricciardo e Zoraide) took place there in the following three years. Ebers sublet the theatre to Giambattista Benelli in 1824, and Rossini was invited to conduct, remaining for a five-month season, with his wife Isabella Colbran performing. Two more of his operas, Zelmira and Semiramide, received their British premieres during the season, but the theatre sustained huge losses and Benelli absconded without paying either the composer or the artists. Ebers engaged Giuditta Pasta for the 1825 season, but he became involved in lawsuits which, combined with a large increase in the rent of the theatre, forced him into bankruptcy, after which he returned to his bookselling business.
Pierre François Laporte
In 1828, Ebers was succeeded as theatre manager by Pierre François Laporte, who held the position (with a brief gap in 1831–33) until his death in 1841. Two of Rossini's Paris operas (Le comte Ory and Le siège de Corinthe) had their British premieres at the theatre during this period, and Laporte was also the first to introduce the operas of Vincenzo Bellini (La sonnambula, Norma and I puritani) and Gaetano Donizetti (Anna Bolena, Lucia di Lammermoor and Lucrezia Borgia) to the British public. Under Laporte, singers such as Giulia Grisi, Pauline Viardot, Giovanni Battista Rubini, Luigi Lablache and Mario made their London stage debuts at the theatre. Among the musical directors of this period was Nicolas Bochsa, the celebrated and eccentric French harpist. He was appointed in 1827 and remained for six years at this position. When Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, the name of the theatre was changed to Her Majesty's Theatre, Italian Opera House. In the same year, Samuel Phelps made his London début as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at the theatre, also playing in other Shakespearean plays here.
Over the course of the 1840s, Dion Boucicault had five plays produced here: The Bastile [sic], an "after-piece" (1842), Old Heads and Young Hearts (1844), The School for Scheming (1847), Confidence (1848), and The Knight Arva (1848). In 1853, Robert Browning's Colombe's Birthday played at the theatre.
In 1841, disputes arose over Laporte's decision to replace the baritone Antonio Tamburini with a new singer, Colletti. The audience stormed the stage, and the performers formed a 'revolutionary conspiracy'.
Laporte died suddenly, and Benjamin Lumley took over the management in 1842, introducing London audiences to Donizetti's late operas, Don Pasquale and La fille du régiment. Initially, relations between Lumley and Michael Costa, the principal conductor at Her Majesty's were good. Verdi's Ernani, Nabucco and I Lombardi received their British premieres in 1845–46, and Lumley commissioned I masnadieri from the composer. This opera received its world premiere on 22 July 1847, with the Swedish operatic diva Jenny Lind in the role of Amalia, and the British premieres of two more Verdi operas, I due Foscari and Attila, followed in 1847–48. Meanwhile, the performers had continued to feel neglected and the disputes continued. In 1847, Costa finally transferred his opera company to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and the theatre relinquished the sobriquet, 'Italian Opera House', to assume its present title, Her Majesty's Theatre.
Lumley engaged Michael Balfe to conduct the orchestra and entered negotiations with Felix Mendelssohn for a new opera. Jenny Lind had made her English début on 4 May 1847 in the role of Alice in Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable, in the presence of the Royal family and the composer Felix Mendelssohn. Such was the press of people around the theatre that many "arrived at last with dresses crushed and torn, and coats hanging in shreds, having suffered bruises and blows in the struggle". She performed for a number of acclaimed seasons at the theatre, interspersed with national tours, becoming known as the Swedish Nightingale. The secession of the orchestra to Covent Garden was a blow, and the theatre closed in 1852, re-opening in 1856, when a fire closed its rival. After the reopening, Lumley presented two more British premieres of Verdi operas: La traviata in 1856 and Luisa Miller in 1858.
From the early 1830s until the late 1840s Her Majesty's Theatre played host to the heyday of the era of the romantic ballet, and the theatre's resident ballet company was considered the most renowned in Europe, aside from the Ballet du Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique in Paris. The celebrated ballet master Jules Perrot began staging ballet at Her Majesty's in 1830. Lumley appointed him Premier Maître de Ballet (chief choreographer) to the theatre in 1842. Among the works of ballet that he staged were Ondine, ou La Naïade (1843), La Esmeralda (1844), and Catarina, ou La Fille du Bandit (1846), as well as the celebrated divertissement Pas de Quatre (1845). Other ballet masters created works for the ballet of Her Majesty's Theatre throughout the period of the romantic ballet, most notably Paul Taglioni (son of Filippo Taglioni), who staged ballets including Coralia, ou Le Chevalier inconstant (1847) and Electra (1849, the first production of a ballet to make use of electric lighting). Arthur Saint-Léon staged such works as La Vivandière (1844), Le Violin du Diable (1849), and Le Jugement de Pâris (1850), which was considered a sequel of sorts to Pas de Quatre.
The Italian composer Cesare Pugni was appointed Composer of the Ballet Music to the theatre in 1843, a position created for him by Lumley. From 1843 until 1850, he composed nearly every new ballet presented at the theatre. Pugni remains the most prolific composer of the genre, having composed more than 100 original ballets, as well as composing numerous divertissements and incidental dances that were often performed as diversions during the intermissions of opera performances at the theatre. Throughout the era of the romantic ballet, the theatre presented performances by notable ballerinas, including Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Elssler, Lucile Grahn and Fanny Cerrito, performing in the works of Perrot, Taglioni and Saint-Léon.
J. H. Mapleson
The theatre burned down in 1867.
From 1862 to 1867, the theatre was managed by James Henry Mapleson, presenting Italian, French and German opera, including the British premieres of La forza del destino, Médée, Faust and The Merry Wives of Windsor and promoting such singers as Mario, Giulia Grisi, De Murska, Thérèse Tietjens, Antonio Giuglini, Charles Santley and Christine Nilsson. On the night of 6 December 1867, the theatre was destroyed by fire, thought to have been caused by an overheated stove. Only the bare walls of the theatre remained, and most of the adjacent shops in Pall Mall, and the Clergy Club hotel in Charles Street, suffered damage of varying severity. The Royal Opera Arcade, on the western side, survived with only superficial damage. With the destruction of the theatre, Mapleson took his company to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
By the 1850s, with the era of the romantic ballet at an end, the principal personalities of the ballet, such as Perrot, Saint-Léon, Taglioni, and the composer Pugni, joined the Tsar's Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, Russia. Ballet in London went through a considerable decline beginning with the fire at Her Majesty's Theatre, a decline that lasted until the end of the 19th century. Ballet in London was not resurrected until the early 20th century, when such dancers as Adeline Genée began performing. The theatre's ballet company found a new home at the Old Vic and soon took on the name of the Vic-Wells Ballet. Later, moving primarily to the Sadler's Wells Theatre, the company became known as the Sadler's Wells Ballet. Eventually the troupe began performing at the Royal Opera House and became the Royal Ballet, as it is known today.
Third theatre: 1868–1896
's opera company performed at the third theatre.
A third building was constructed in 1868 at a cost of £50,000, within the shell of the old theatre, for Lord Dudley. It was designed by Charles Lee and Sons and their partner, William Pain. They had taken over John Nash's practice on his retirement. The new theatre was designed to be less susceptible to fire, with brick firewalls, iron roof trusses and Dennett's patent gypsum-cement floors. The auditorium had four tiers, with a stage large enough for the greatest spectaculars. For opera, the theatre seated 1,890, and for plays, with the orchestra pit removed, 2,500. As a result of a dispute over the rent between Dudley and Mapleson, and a decline in the popularity of ballet, the theatre remained dark until 1874, when it was sold to a Revivalist Christian group for £31,000.
Mapleson returned to Her Majesty's in 1877 and 1878, after a disastrous attempt to build a 2,000-seat National Opera House on a site subsequently used for the building of Scotland Yard. On the return of the company, all the fittings of the theatre had been removed, including the seats, carpets and even the wallpaper. £6,000 was spent on fitting out the theatre, and on 28 April 1877 the building returned to theatrical use with the opening of Vincenzo Bellini's opera Norma. The London premiere of Bizet's Carmen occurred here on 22 June 1878, and in subsequent seasons the theatre hosted the Carl Rosa Opera Company (Rosa's wife, Euphrosyne Parepa, had made her name in opera partly at Her Majesty's) and a programme of French plays and light opera. The company was the first to produce Carmen in English, at the theatre in February 1879, starring Selina Dolaro in the title role and Durward Lely as Don José. In 1882, the theatre hosted the London premieres of Wagner's Ring cycle.
Mapleson returned in 1887 and 1889, but The Times commented that the repertoire comprised "works that had long ceased to attract a large public, the singers were exclusively of second-rate quality, and the standard of performance was extremely low". Rigoletto, on 25 May 1889, was the last operatic performance given in the house.