The Royal Opera House: a personal backstage tour

Tonight, it’s Carmen, but not as you know it. For tonight only it will be Carmen in 3D.

It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon and the Royal Opera House team seem extremely busy. A noticeable section of chairs in front of the stage have been taken out. In it’s place, cameras on massive booms are being arranged. Scenery and lights are flying in and out beyond the curtain area, aided swiftly by a large number of backstage  crew. There also seems to be rather a lot of “chiefs” pointing and delegating into ear-mikes. Despite the capability of a chaotic situation, things actually seem to be rolling along rather smoothly. My guide for the afternoon is Suzie Hickinbotham from the Production department. Unfazed by the commotion, Suzie states that this is the norm in the ROH.

It is only when we leave the grand auditorium and move onto the stage area do I realize what I’m up against. The stage area is 15 metres square and sits behind a proscenium frame. Behind and above this frame you have a grid system called the fly tower for the lights and backdrops that commands a height of 37 metres. It accommodates 106 fly bars that can each carry up to 1 tonne of equipment. Most theatres have space above the stage for two lengths of 11 metre backdrops. The ROH is greedy. It has three lengths. The first level is for the current day’s performance, the second is for other running shows, with the last for future productions.

With production for each show starting well over a year in advance, every single minute detail of how the stage is put together has to be programmed by Suzie and the rest of the Production team so there is no error on the night.

The recent redevelopment in technology at ROH has cut stage turnaround time in half. This also means that performers have more time to familiarize themselves with the stage setup. The overall effect of the grid is mind-blowing. You feel like a dwarf that has just entered the Matrix. Each set is built on wagons that are rolled on and off stage mechanically and moved around backstage like a rubik cube. Each wagon is capable of supporting a set of up to 30 tonnes.

As well as the area for storing current production there are two other set rehearsal rooms, both equal to the size of the main stage, and 5 ballet rehearsal spaces. You then have the different departments for Production, Costume and Props.

The atmosphere is of both extreme efficiency and open-armed friendliness. There were no suspicious glances at my intrusive lens. They seem very open to the idea of sharing their brilliance with outsiders. And progressive too, for with Carmen in 3D the idea is to bring the best seat in town to your very own local cinema. Everybody can afford opera now. You still can’t beat the real thing in my humble opinion. Having been witness to the extent of precision and expertise involved in each production, I doubt I will ever quibble over the price of a ticket ever again.

Discover the Royal Opera House for yourself.

Backstage tours now available

Watch the virtual tour of the ROH

Watch the timelapse set change of the ROH

NEXT WEEK’S LONDON INSIGHT: Living on a canal-a guide to blissful living by Matt and Zoe Laroche


About londoninsight

A compassionate photographer working to better her understanding of her town, her village, London.
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5 Responses to The Royal Opera House: a personal backstage tour

  1. carol bisoni says:

    Amazing, I had no idea that so many props would be kept in one place, or that they take one year to produce each production. Another fantastic insight Stephanie, and fabulous photos

  2. Michael Stevens says:

    I never realised how much engineering went into the construction of the grid…
    Not only that but the whole assembly is stationed 37metres above the stage.

    If the grid is that high up, how high is the main ceiling in the auditorium.. Any suggestions?

    • If you have a look at the digital 2-D cross sections of the ROH that the set designers work with, especially the last one of the 3 that I’ve included in this post, you can see that the auditorium is about 2/3 the height of the stage area behind the proscenium. For exact measurements you would have to ask the ROH directly.

  3. Grace J says:

    I am doing research on the Royal Opera House, trying to investigate how the stage systems work, i. e. what components are involved and how each work together in a network. Do you have any information regarding that?

    Also, where did you get the drawings for the ROH? It would be of great help if you could provide me with the original files. Thank you.

  4. teresastokes says:

    I was privileged to go on a backstage tour about a year ago when they were making the props for Alice in Wonderland, fascinating stuff. I remember that eagle.

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