Christmas – Backstage at the Royal Opera House

Our December meeting always has a festive theme and this year we welcomed Sarah Lenton to take us on a virtual reality trip round the Royal Opera house as the Christmas season swings into action. Having spent her working life in the theatre, mainly at the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and English National Opera, she was well qualified to reveal the drama and excitement in the dressing rooms, in the wings, up in the ‘fly’ as well as on stage.

She began by reminding us that there are two companies at the Opera House – the Royal Ballet and the Opera House and a different show staged each night plus the regular matinees. The Opera House is fortunate to have a stage made of five pallets. Scenery can be set off stage and slid on as the previous pallet comes off into a rehearsal studio. Taking the Nutcracker as an example, she explained how something like the tree actually gets bigger on stage. Its full height can be accommodated under the stage and then it grows up from under the stage as the story progresses. Working on the principle that what the audience can’t see doesn’t need to be made, the tree will be hollow inside and have no back.  A production such as The Nutcracker could involve as many as fifteen princes and thirteen sugar Plum Fairies and the costume rails need to be meticulously indexed.

Many theatres still rely on the C19th model of fly system or rigging to raise the stage cloth. In the past, the stage crews working this were often ex sailors who had the sailing ship skills. Once again, the Opera House renovations have meant it has the benefit of a more digitized system and stage elevator. In the snow scene, the bags of ‘snow’ suspended from the two bars have holes in them and as the bars move, the snow falls through and wafts downwards. Unless, as has happened, something is amiss and the snowfall becomes a snowstorm!

Unlike opera, the cast need to warm up in the wings after having had rehearsals that afternoon and so are ready to perform in the evening. Sarah emphasized how a ballet dancer learns a role with the help of face-to-face demonstrations from a dancer who has performed that role. Little gestures are worked on intensively. The trapdoor is always a real feature of a Christmas show. King Rat comes up through one but such an opening can be a major hazard for the mice who can’t look down at where their feet are placed. If one should fall through a net should cushion the thirty-foot drop!


Our first meeting of 2020 is on Thursday January 9, at 2pm in Grayshott Village Hall. In ‘Turner v Constable: The Great British Paint Off”, Nicola Moorby will search for the Star Painter. For more information please contact Kathy on 01428723565