The present Royal Opera was formed as the Covent Garden Opera Company in 1946, but behind it lays a tradition of operatic performance which goes back for more than 260 years at its home in Covent Garden. In each of the three theatres that have been on the site opera has played an important role. It all began on Sunday 7th December 1732 when the Royal Opera House opened at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in London with a performance of William Congreve’s ‘The Way of the World’.
Four years previous John Rich, the actor-manager of the Duke’s Company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, had commissioned ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ from John Gay. That had been a major success and had provided Rich with the necessary capital to build a new theatre. This was designed by Edward Shepherd, a prominent London-based English architect and was built on the site of a medieval convent garden, part of which had been developed by Inigo Jones in the 1630s with a piazza and a church. Rich named his new building ‘The Theatre Royal’.
At its opening on this Sunday 7th December 1732 he was carried in processional triumph by his actors into the theatre for its’ first production. Less than two years later, in 1734, he presented its first ballet, Pygmalion. That caused a stir when Marie Sallé – a French dancer and choreographer known for her expressive, dramatic performances rather than a series of “leaps and frolics” typical of ballet of her time – discarded her corset and danced in diaphanous robes!