Backstage tour of the Royal Opera House

Sunday 29 April 2007

Say what you like about the West End Whingers, but when they get an idea into their heads (thankfully a rare occurrence) they will not be swayed from their aim.

Having looked at the backstage tours available in the West End, they naturally picked on the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, hoping for a glimpse of all the new stage machinery that’s sitting there waiting to malfunction in Lord of the Rings. Phil even purchased an extra-large spanner to surrepetitiously throw in as a “belt and braces” initiative, but the plan was thwarted by the response from the theatre that the tours were on hold until Lord of the Rings actually opened.

The next phone call was to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket but unfortunately the number provided was that of the stage doorman who was unable to help the Whingers with their enquiries, not even those relating to the state of Dame Maggie Smith’s dressing room.

Exhausted by the effort involved in trying to give yet more money to theatres, they eventually opted for the Royal Opera House backstage tour which seemed the most organised. It might not be a proper theatre (doing opera and ballet mostly) but beggars can’t be choosers.

Simon our Royal Opera House tour guideSo it was that they and about a dozen others were shown around the building by a man sporting a purple sweater over his shoulders called Simon. Another member of staff followed up the rear to prevent people from straggling and to ensure that the Whingers did not steal any of the wigs.

Fat chance. When we enquired about the wig department a shadow of anxiety appeared in Simon’s eyes and he tactfully explained that the Head of Wigs wasn’t keen on the tour visiting her department, a statement which the Whingers immediately interpreted as meaning “she’s a dragon” and made a mental note to find out where she drinks.

Still, we did get to visit a costume department where we saw no end of tutus (hand embroidered!) and assorted ladies’ trim and a roll of material which was to become Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak in the forthcoming production of Into the Woods although as Simon pointed out rather apologetically that “that’s certainly not opera; it’s musical theatre”.

There was also a chance to see the Royal Ballet’s director Monica Mason OBE taking a class in the studio and Simon helpfully pointed out who the boy dancers were – Ivan Putrov and Stephen McRae – but volunteered no information about any of the girls. No matter, the Whingers were transfixed by the extravagance of their being a grand piano in the studio – no Shelley Winters playing at an upright here unfortunately.

Simon then gave us an overview of a dancer’s day and the Whingers wondered if they had missed their true vocations when they heard that the dancers usually start their day with 15 or 20 minutes at the bar.

There wasn’t really much to see backstage – you only get to see it through windows built specifically for the purpose, but as always with this kind of thing, the most interesting things are often those which you’re supposed to overlook. And presumably this is why you’re not allowed to take photographs.
We were particularly drawn to a noticeboard outside the ballet studio with information on help available to give up smoking, and a notice on a window saying “Danger! Do not open window”. A notice on one door announced, “rodent problem. No Food, No Drink, No Exceptions”. Perhaps in a valiant attempt to battle against the relentless lurid green of the corridor walls, Jessica and Morag had brightened up the door to their office with a technicolour sign showing off the full capabilities of their colour laser printer. (The public areas have some great signs too – we enjoyed “Fold up bikes can’t be accepted at the Royal Opera House”)

The official tour did reveal some interesting facts –

  • The width of the staircase is that of a Victorian hooped skirt (although despite much questioning and debate the tour never really resolved the question of how wide the seats must have been or whether the skirts folded in and if so by how much)
  • The last time the house burnt down was as a result of a masked ball.
  • There are 900 people on the payroll, four of them in the dye shop alone.
  • The ballet shoes bill comes to £225,000 per annum
  • The biggest headache of costume department is that the vital statistics provided by the principals’ agents are at best optimistic and at worst fictional. The biggest (!) culprit was Debra Voigt who was apparently banned by the Royal Opera House but seems to have been reprieved as she is taking part in next year’s programme alongside Nicholas Hytners’ moonlighting exercise Don Carlos.
  • When royalty are present, the red lampshades on the royal box are replaced with cream ones to prevent them looking flushed (Queen Victoria insisted on this apparently) and after the tour the Whingers were straight into John Lewis to pick up cream lampshades to take with them on every theatre outing from now on.
  • We found out what Melba Toast is and made plans for introducing Whingers Toast – bread marinaded in wine then fried.

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