Opera Comique, London

Coordinates: 51°30′47″N 0°07′07″W / 51.513056°N 0.118611°W / 51.513056; -0.118611

The Opera Comique was a 19th-century theatre constructed between Wych Street and Holywell Street with entrances on the East Strand. It opened in 1870 and was demolished in 1902, to make way for the construction of the Aldwych and Kingsway. It is perhaps best remembered for hosting several of the early Gilbert and Sullivan operas.


Early years

The Opera Comique opened in 1870, followed shortly by construction of the adjoining Globe Theatre in Newcastle Street. It had a seating capacity of 862. The two theatres, both owned by Sefton Parry, were built back to back and called the "Rickety Twins", on the site of the former Lyon's Inn, an old Inn of Chancery, previously belonging to the Inner Temple. The theatre, built partly underground, had three entrances through long narrow tunnels from three streets (including the Strand) and was therefore nicknamed the "Theatre Royal, Tunnels". It was reportedly hastily built and draughty, and its long flight of stairs leading down to the level of the stalls was a dangerous fire hazard. However, it was nicely decorated. Parry built the theatre cheaply, hoping "to make handsome profits in compensation when the area was demolished, which was even then in contemplation".

The theatre was opened with a French company led by the veteran actress Pauline Virginie Déjazet. This was followed by the Parisian company, Comédie-Française, who made the theatre their base during the Franco-Prussian War.

The first home-grown production at the theatre was a musical play in 1871, Marie, with music by Richard D'Oyly Carte and a libretto by E. Spencer Mott. This accompanied an English adaptation of a Molière work, called The Doctor in Spite of Himself, which was a failure. The theatre then turned to presenting French works in translation; however, the public did not approve of its French name and repertoire, and the theatre was not popular. In 1873, Italian tragedienne Adelaide Ristori appeared there. In 1874, Carte's light opera company presented The Broken Branch, an English version of Gaston Serpette's La branch cassée, starring Pauline Rita. The following year, Rita starred in the title role, Clairette Angot, in a revival of Lecocq's La fille de Madame Angot at the theatre.

Gilbert and Sullivan

In November 1877, the Comedy Opera Company, managed by Carte, took on the lease and returned to produce the première of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Sorcerer, a proudly English comic opera, at the theatre. This was followed in 1878 by the same team's patriotic H.M.S. Pinafore, which became a nearly unprecedented hit, running for 571 performances. During the performance on 31 July 1879, Carte's former business partners in the Comedy Opera Company (with whom Carte, Gilbert and Sullivan had split) tried to seize the set, creating a celebrated fracas. Over Christmas 1878, during the run of Pinafore, the theatre was renovated and redecorated by E. W. Bradwell, reopening on 1 February 1879. The theatrical newspaper, The Era commented, "We can hardly overpraise the beauty and grace of the Opera Comique as it now appears to the delighted audience."

Two more Gilbert and Sullivan successes followed, now produced by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company: The Pirates of Penzance (1880) and, finally, Patience (1881), which was later transferred to Carte's larger new theatre, the Savoy Theatre. During this period, Carte also presented various companion pieces with the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, including the 1877 revival of Dora's Dream by Arthur Cecil and Alfred Cellier; The Spectre Knight (1878); revivals of Trial by Jury; several pieces by George Grossmith beginning in 1878: Beauties on the Beach, A Silver Wedding, Five Hamlets, and Cups and Saucers; revivals of Gilbert's After All!; a Children's Pinafore with an entirely juvenile cast (1878); In the Sulks (1880); and Uncle Samuel (1881).

Later years

Once D'Oyly Carte left the Opera Comique, the theatre's fortunes declined. It was unoccupied from October to the end of 1881. At the start of 1882, John Hollingshead and Richard Barker presented Mother-in-Law, a frivolous comedy by George R. Sims, which ran in a double bill with a burlesque called Vulcan until May. They were followed by a spoof called The Wreck of the Pinafore by H. Lingard and Luscombe Searelle, described by The Era as "chiefly remarkable for its impudence", which ran until October. During the rest of the 1880s a succession of managements presented a wide range of genres, from adaptations of French plays, Shakespeare, Sheridan, Ibsen, a Dickens adaptation by the novelist's son, to musical shows, including The Fay o' Fire by Edward Jones and Henry Herman, which The Era later described as "notable as introducing Miss Marie Tempest to the regular stage." Composers whose works were presented at the Opera Comique in this period included Julia Woolf, Meyer Lutz and Victor Roger. Performers included Nelly Bromley, Frank Wyatt, Johnston Forbes-Robertson, Julia Gwynne and W. S. Penley.

The theatre was again renovated in 1885, under the proprietorship of the actor-manager, David James. The Era thought that the refurbishments made it "one of the most convenient, handsome, and acceptable places of entertainment in London." James had bought adjoining premises in Holywell Street to make room for an extension to the theatre. The bars and circulation areas were, according to The Era, much improved, a spacious smoking room was added, and new emergency exits were installed. In 1891, George Edwardes took on the management of the theatre and presented a burlesque of Joan of Arc by Adrian Ross, J. L. Shine and Frank Osmond Carr, with a cast including Arthur Roberts and Marion Hood. It was well-received and ran from January to September. After that, the theatre reverted to its pattern of rapidly-changing productions and short-lived managements.

A feature of the early 1890s was the frequent presentation of adaptations from, or original works by, novelists such as Henry James, Rudyard Kipling and George Moore. A further season of French plays, performed in their original language, was followed by a German season, also given in the original tongue in 1894, which ran for more than two months. In 1895, "Nellie Farren started her unfortunate season here with a bad comedy … and a worse burlesque".Charles Villiers Stanford's comic opera Shamus O'Brien ran for two months from March to May the same year. Osmond Carr's The Maid of Athens, ran for a month in June 1897, after which, said The Era, "nothing worthy of any record whatever has been attempted at this temple of the drama, which has had a singularly eccentric and mostly disastrous career." A revival of a musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland with music by Walter Slaughter, produced by Horace Sedger, opened for the Christmas season of 1898 and ran until mid-February 1899. In March 1899, Sedger announced a burlesque for the Opera Comique, Great Caesar, by Paul and Walter Rubens and George Grossmith Jr., but he changed his plans and presented it at the Comedy Theatre.

The Opera Comique closed in 1899 and was compulsorily purchased by the London County Council for £40,000. It was demolished in 1902 when the maze of slums in the area was redeveloped to create Aldwych (named after old Wych Street) and Kingsway.


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