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Opera Comique
A 1901 postcard of Wych Street, shortly before its demolition
Designation Demolished
Owned by Sefton Parry
Type Opera house
Opened 1870
Rebuilt 1895 William Emden (?)
Closed 1899
Current use Site occupied by Bush House
Coordinates: 51°30′47″N 0°07′07″W / 51.513056°N 0.118611°W / 51.513056; -0.118611

The Opera Comique was a 19th-century theatre constructed between Wych Street and Holywell Street with entrances on the East Strand. It opened in 1870 and was demolished in 1902, to make way for the construction of the Aldwych and Kingsway. It is perhaps best remembered for hosting several of the early Gilbert and Sullivan operas.



The Opera Comique opened in 1870, followed shortly by construction of the adjoining Globe Theatre in Newcastle Street. It had a seating capacity of 862.[1] The two theatres, both owned by Sefton Parry, were built back to back and called the "Rickety Twins", on the site of the former Lyon's Inn, an old Inn of Chancery, previously belonging to the Inner Temple.[2] The theatre, built partly underground, had three entrances through long narrow tunnels from three streets (including the Strand) and was therefore nicknamed the "Theatre Royal, Tunnels". It was reportedly hastily built and draughty, and its long flight of stairs leading down to the level of the stalls was a dangerous fire hazard. However, it was nicely decorated.[3] Parry built the theatre cheaply, hoping "to make handsome profits in compensation when the area was demolished, which was even then in contemplation".[4]

The theatre was opened with a French company led by the veteran actress Pauline Virginie Déjazet. This was followed by the Parisian company, Comédie-Française, who made the theatre their base during the Franco-Prussian War.[5]

1878 programme cover

The first home-grown production at the theatre was a musical play in 1871, Marie, with music by Richard D'Oyly Carte and a libretto by E. Spencer Mott. This accompanied an English adaptation of a Molière work, called The Doctor in Spite of Himself, which was a failure.[6][7] The theatre then turned to presenting French works in translation; however, the public did not approve of its French name and repertoire, and the theatre was not popular. In 1873, Italian tragedienne Adelaide Ristori appeared there. In 1874, Carte's light opera company presented The Broken Branch, an English version of Gaston Serpette's La branch cassée, starring Pauline Rita.[8] The following year, Rita starred in the title role, Clairette Angot, in a revival of Lecocq's La fille de Madame Angot at the theatre.[9]

In November 1877, Carte took on the lease and returned to produce the première of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Sorcerer, a proudly English comic opera, at the theatre. This was followed in 1878 by the patriotic H.M.S. Pinafore, which became a nearly unprecedented hit, running for 571 performances. During the performance on 31 July 1879, Carte's former business partners tried to seize the set, creating a celebrated fracas.[10] Two more Gilbert and Sullivan successes followed, The Pirates of Penzance (1880) and, finally, Patience (1881), which was later transferred to Carte's larger new theatre, the Savoy Theatre. During this period, Carte also presented various companion pieces with the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, including the 1877 revival of Dora's Dream by Arthur Cecil and Alfred Cellier; The Spectre Knight (1878); revivals of Trial by Jury; several pieces by George Grossmith beginning in 1878: Beauties on the Beach, A Silver Wedding, Five Hamlets, and Cups and Saucers; revivals of Gilbert's After All!; a Children's Pinafore with an entirely juvenile cast (1878); In the Sulks (1880); and Uncle Samuel (1881).

Once the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company left the theatre, its fortunes declined. Later productions includied farces and burlesque, such as Mother-In-Law (1885, by George R. Sims), which was paired with Vulcan, by Rose and Harris.

The Opera Comique was rebuilt in 1895 but closed in 1899, to be demolished in 1902 when the maze of slums in the area was redeveloped to create Aldwych (named after old Wych Street) and Kingsway.

See also


  1. ^ Wearing, J. P. "The London West End Theatre in the 1890s", Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 29, No. 3 (October 1977), pp. 320-32, The Johns Hopkins University Press (online by subscription to JSTOR)
  2. ^ 'This Inn, never of much importance, had fallen utterly into disrepute before the beginning of [the 19th] century, and become the resort of gamblers and swindlers... [and] was sold about the year 1863’The Strand (northern tributaries): Clement's Inn, New Inn, Lyon's Inn etc., Old and New London: Volume 3 (1878), pp. 32-35 accessed: 06 December 2007
  3. ^ Information from the Arthur Lloyd website accessed 01 Mar 2007
  4. ^ London Encyclopedia, p. 319. See also this information about theatres of The Strand accessed 20 March 2007
  5. ^ The Assault on The Opera Comique accessed 6 Dec 2007
  6. ^ Ainger, p. 92
  7. ^ "Original Correspondence", The Era, 10 September 1871
  8. ^ The Graphic, 29 August 1874, p. 211; also The Pall Mall Gazette, 29 August, 1874, p. 11
  9. ^ Fitz-Gerald, S. J. Adair. The Story of the Savoy Opera, p. 12, D. Appleton and Company (1925)
  10. ^ "The Fracas at the Opera Comique", The Era, 10 August 1879, p. 5. See also "The Fracas at the Opera Comique", The Leeds Mercury, 13 August, 1879, p. 8 and Gillan, Don, Account of the "Fracas at the Opera Comique".

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