Step away from the tourist attractions and London has plenty of secrets waiting to be explored. I spend a lot of time walking around various corners of the country, prowling into places I probably shouldn’t be, and recently I had a nose around behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden which offered up its fair share of surprises.
It’s got a long, storied history – the current building dates from 1858 (two previous opera houses were destroyed by fire) – and it’s regularly reinvented itself. Builders have been knocking holes in things for the last few years, but now it’s just about ready for the 21st century.
The design is still fantastic, though, right?
With the focus understandably being on what’s taking place on the stage, most people don’t realise there’s a hidden city – or at least village – behind the scenery. More than a thousand people working around the clock, in shifts: the opera house is always open.
The vast acreage behind the stage is a series of interlocking squares which can be moved mechanically around into any formation, like one of those puzzle games you used to get in Christmas crackers. It’s got the biggest lift in Europe, the size of an articulated lorry, used for moving cages of scenery and props up and down three storeys, once they’ve been transported from the off-site storage facility. All of the scenery and props are kept.
Apart from an astonishing costume department, smaller theatres, screening rooms, the rehearsal studio for the ballet and many more, there’s an actual armoury, with a resident armourer. These are lethal weapons – axes, swords, not the least – so they’re all kept under lock and key, with restricted entry.
And what would an opera house be without a phantom? Although it’s not been widely publicised, my guide revealed there’s a section of the old building where the staff won’t work alone at night. Strange sights, strange sounds, cold spots and a presence. Ghosts are stories that hang around forever.
- My next book – Pendragon: A Novel of the Dark Age – can be preordered now, either from your local bookstore, or via Amazon here. It’s a historical mystery – how the legend of King Arthur was formed, the bloodline that led to the myth through a hundred years of war and carnage.