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The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: The Opera House

Jonathan Schofield on a recently repainted Manchester landmark

Written by . Published on January 18th 2011.

The Good, the Standard and the Ugly: The Opera House

Category: Excellent facade and interior, terrible round the back and the sides

What, when and who?
The Opera House, opened in 1912 as the New Theatre costing £40,000. The architects were Richardson and Gill with Farquharson. Slippery name Opera House though.

Why slippery?
The name went from the New Theatre in 1912, to the New Queen’s Theatre in 1915, to the New Queen’s and Opera House in 1917, to the Opera House in 1920 – it was even a bingo hall for a time between 1979 and 1984. The current name is odd?

Why odd? Did people think the New Queen would have been better suited on Canal Street?
Naughty. No it’s odd because there’s never been much opera performed at the Opera House. Loads of musicals though. And I’ve seen the Chuckle brothers there, and a bull being encouraged to get it up. But I digress: shall I tell you about the building first?

Yes, please
Well it was conceived rather grandly as the ‘new Shakespearian theatre’ and designed in the florid French First Empire style rather than in the restrained masculine Baroque in favour throughout much of the UK - think St James’ Buildings on Oxford Road. There’s a conscious referencing of Charles Cockerell’s 1840s Bank of England building with the Opera House - check the comparison below.

The facade’s a cracker at the Opera House, created out of plaster pretending to be stone with a big pediment, huge fluted Ionic columns, friezes and a gorgeous tympanum (the half circle under an arch in this case) called ‘The Dawn of the Heroic Age’. This recently restored gold bas-relief (the technical term for this sort of sculpture) shows Greek Gods Hermes and Apollo. The former is the God of oratory and wit, of literature and poetry (as well as thieves), the latter in his chariot, the main god of the arts, and of the sun. Here he’s stood in his chariot ready to pull the sun across the sky.

A good bit of font-love on a building is always rewarding if carved and cut with permanence and confidence. Here there’s a pithy summary of the function of the place: ‘The Play Mirrors Life’. On stumpy little altars stand the names of great theatrical writers and actors. The letters here have lost some of their definition over the years. One reads Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, Sheridan, Marlowe and Vawblsh.

Yea, I think during the November/December 2010 repainting the workmen couldn’t read the thing properly and panicked. So they wrote Vawblsh. There’s no such person. Probably should be the writer Sir John Vanburgh...or maybe the main sponsor of the project Irene Vanburgh. But not Mr or Mrs Vawblsh. That’s as malformed as most of the rest of the outside of the building.

What do you mean?
Well round the corner from the Quay Street facade there’s a bit more fancy in plaster but mostly it looks like a factory, blank windows set in horrible bright red Accrington brick. Very theatrical in some respects, a stage set, all the show facing the audience, nothing behind. It gets worse round the back on Atkinson Street, where there’s merely a wall of cheap, patchy brick. Very different from the auditorium with its capacity of 1,920.

Is the auditorium magnificent?
It is, a rich excess of piled on ornamentation with a grand proscenium arch, swags, and garlands and rich colour: a joy. Could any modern architect or designer carry this level of glorious yet balanced excess off? Would they want to? Has Modernism forced so many designers into the cold verities of the sharp line and the uncompromising material, or could they cut free and go mad like this and provide the joy and delight that every child, every adult feels when they walk into the Opera House auditorium? Probably they couldn't, or they'd go horribly wrong as with the Trafford Centre interior. Do you know what?

Go on?
I’m going to ask a few of Manchester’s architects whether they could design such an interior and see what they say?

Good for you. Anything else?
Yes the quality of the wine and beer is shocking in the Opera House, a disgrace, a slap in the face for the ambition of the interior and the facade. The owners should be ashamed of themselves.

I meant anything else about the building and its history?
Where to begin? First a shout out for Raymond Slater who in the seventies and eighties did so much to bring the Opera House and the Palace Theatre back into proper use. Then there’s the opening night comment from one of the architects, Richardson, which reads: ‘At the first performance in 1912, sewer rats came out of the river among the audience.’ Nice. Or the WW1 propaganda production called: The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, ‘a tremendous photo-drama that strips naked the soul of history’s maddest murder king’. Or all the European premiers here such as Oklahoma, The King and I, West Side Story, South Pacific. So much. The last musical has a lovely link to James Bond.

Shaken not stirred?
Something like that. Anyway in the cast of South Pacific was Sean Connery, who while in Manchester was asked to sign for Manchester United by Matt Busby. He refused. He became Bond - and scored all over the globe with lots of glamorous foreign lady players. Then of course there’s been the Chuckle Brothers. Forget Gielgud who performed at the Opera House in Lear.

And earlier you mentioned a bull getting it up?
Ah yes. That was in Manchester International Festival’s first outing in 2007. Read the report here of the remarkable Il Tempo del Postino (click here). Also I love the perhaps apocryphal tale of Frank Randle, a risqué Mancunian comedian of the post war years, who on being banned from the theatre after being very drunk on the premises hired a light aircraft and bombed the place with toilet rolls.

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8 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AtalantaJanuary 5th 2011.

Well I never. So it is (Hermes and Apollo on the front). You've just made a geek's day.

Jonathan SchofieldJanuary 5th 2011.

If you want to be really geeky Atalanta then also on the tympanum are two of the ancient seven wonders of the world: the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (the one no-one can remember) and the Parthenon. There mustn't have been room for the other five.

AtalantaJanuary 5th 2011.

Parthenon? An ancient wonder? You sure you've got that right?

Jonathan SchofieldJanuary 5th 2011.

Oops. A little learning is a dangerous thing. I meant the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus didn't I?

AtalantaJanuary 5th 2011.

That's more like it... ;)

Mark Garner, the PublisherJanuary 7th 2011.

<---hangs his head in shame

Arthur TwistJanuary 7th 2011.

"the apocryphal tale of Frank Randle..." I think not. The BBC seems to think it was Accrington, but local legend says it was Blackpool. Ask the venerable Dr. C.P Lee...

J E SibberingJanuary 11th 2011.

Noel Coward's 'Words and Music' revue was first tried out here in 1932, before transferring to London. It contains the famous songs 'Mad About The Boy' and 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen'.

The Manchester Guardian wrote of the show,
"Mr. Coward has never sharpened his quill to better purpose than here. In many of the numbers his neatly polished libretto has more than mere verbal ingenuity, and his musical score, though by this time its conventions are familiar, shows a wide and diverting range both in parody and in construction... an acid Anglo-Indian scene with a chorus of sahibs declaiming that 'no matter how much we sozzle and souse, the sun never sets upon Government House', leads to a swinging mock-heroic number with the refrain 'But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun' that has a true Gilbertian flavour."

(Sir) John Mills was in it too.

I'm such a bloody nerd.

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