Have you ever wondered what happens behind the red velvet curtains at the Royal Opera House? Do you relish a bit of backstage gossip or enjoy looking at centuries-old instruments? London has a rich variety of tours and collections for opera and classical-music enthusiasts. Here’s a selection.
Royal Opera House
Who were some of the women who made history at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden? It’s a question that the opera house is answering in detail in a tour that runs through Aug. 12.
Among the many stars the tour is spotlighting is a soprano who gave a whole new meaning to the word “diva”: Adelina Patti (1843-1919), an Italian who made her opera debut in New York at 16, then crossed the Atlantic for a 23-year Covent Garden career.
She was admired for her coloratura singing and feared for her business chops. According to the tour organizers, she demanded to be paid in gold at least half an hour before each stage appearance and commanded $100,000 per show (in today’s money). And in a performance as Violetta in “La Traviata,” she wore a custom gown encrusted with 3,700 of her own diamonds.
The singer comes up in another tour: an outdoor one organized jointly by the Royal Opera House and the Bow Street Police Museum that runs through Aug. 31. During Patti’s diamond-studded performance of “La Traviata” at the Theatre Royal (the precursor of the current opera house), security had to be reinforced in a big way because of the precious stones embedded in her gown. Covent Garden at the time teemed with pickpockets, robbers, criminals and even murderers. So police officers surreptitiously joined the chorus onstage — where they could get as close as possible to the soprano and go unnoticed.
Royal Albert Hall
With 5,272 seats, Royal Albert Hall is more comparable in size to an arena than to a classical-music concert hall; in fact, the Cirque du Soleil regularly performs there. It’s named after Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, and was inaugurated in 1871, a decade after his death. You can hear that royal back story and get the lowdown on the hall’s tricky acoustics in an hourlong tour. The tour also covers some of the luminaries who graced the main stage (such as Albert Einstein and Muhammad Ali) and some of the more outlandish events held in the hall, including a séance and an opera performance for which the auditorium was flooded with 56,000 liters (nearly 15,000 gallons) of water.
Handel Hendrix House
The museum, in a Georgian townhouse at 25 Brook Street in Mayfair, has a rich history: George Frideric Handel lived there from 1723 until his death in 1759. (Jimi Hendrix rented an apartment on the top floor in the late 1960s, but that’s another story.) The house is now a museum where you can visit Handel’s bedroom, the dining room where he rehearsed and gave private recitals, and the basement kitchen. This is where Handel composed “Zadok the Priest,” the British coronation anthem, which was recently performed for King Charles III. Here, too, Handel wrote “Messiah,” which took him about three weeks to compose.
Speaking of “Messiah,” if you would like to see the first published score of songs from the oratorio, head to the Foundling Museum, on the grounds of the Foundling Hospital, a children’s home in Bloomsbury. The score was donated by Handel, one of the hospital’s major benefactors, who gave benefit concerts there and even composed an anthem for his first one. Also on display: Handel’s will.
Royal College of Music
The Royal College of Music has a collection of more than 14,000 objects covering five centuries of music making. That includes about 1,000 musical instruments, such as the world’s earliest-dated guitar.
A new exhibition features hidden treasures from the collection, including a photograph of Mary Garden. She was a Scottish-born soprano who moved to the United States in the late 19th century, joined the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1900 and premiered the role of Mélisande in “Pelléas et Mélisande,” the only opera that Debussy ever completed.
Also on display is a yuequin, a stringed instrument from the ancient city of Guangzhou in China, which was brought to London in the early 19th century and acquired by King George IV.