I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the exterior designs of arts venues, and whether this is reflective of the bubbling arts that thrive within. I’ve also wondered a fair amount about the reputation of arts venues in relation to their work, and if they align. A few months ago I attended a meeting at the Roundhouse in relation to its Roundhouse Studios, which offers young people facilities including practice rooms, a sound studio, TV and radio editing suits, DJ booths and a wealth of other facilities. Until that meeting I had no idea it existed. I also didn’t know that the Roundhouse programmes more performance work than it does music. My idea of what the Roundhouse produces is dramatically different from the reality, and I’m sure a lot of people will be surprised to learn of the studios that exist, hidden underneath the iconic round auditorium. Was it ignorance on my part to not know of the hidden depths of the Roundhouse, or just a matter that had completely passed me by on my visits previously?

However, it is not the Roundhouse’s exterior design and reputation that I am keen to write about, but rather those of the Royal Opera House. Opera and ballet are two areas of the arts that I have very little experience in – even writing them now they seem elusive to me. I have often declared that I am an open minded person when it comes to experiencing the arts, but I’ve never truly found my way into the realms of these particular art forms. The Royal Opera House as a building stands like the keystone that holds Covent Garden together, partly because the building itself dominates a quarter of the Covent Garden market site.

From the outside, the building – which is the third theatre to be built on the site after devastating fires destroyed the others – was designed by E.M. Barry and is rather striking. Yet it’s not the glass and iron Floral Hall to the left of the theatre, nor the gloriously prominent pillars that support the facade of the entrance that I’m particularly interested in (although they are impressive). It is rather how little of the inside of the Royal Opera House that you can see that piques my interest.

The walls are cream, and every so often you are met with a poster displaying the ROH’s ‘A World Stage’ marketing. The walls of Floral Hall allow the glass roof to perch eloquently on. They are several meters high, leaving spectators on the outside to gaze up admiringly towards the roof. The entrane for the theatre itself contains a series of high glass fronted doors that don’t allow much to be seen beyond. In fact, so little of the inside of the Royal Opera House can be seen from the outside that it is no wonder that I literally have no idea what lies beyond. This high walled building, with the grand title of ‘THE Royal…’, offering a cycle of shows in an art form that I’ve had little experience of, is actually a rather oppressive building for me.

There is a reputation that also seems to seep out of the Royal Opera House, in relation to the audience (although I first wrote ‘clientele’) that attends. Through some films and television shows, those who attend the opera are depicted as being only those who can afford to go, and those that see it as a social occasion to be seen at. I am not saying this is always the case, but the high ticket prices do mean that the average Joe finds himself up in the Gods – although this is true for any West End theatre at the moment. Yet it is my perceived notion that in order to go to the Royal Opera House you must have a certain amount of money, you must be of… dare I say it… pedigree. This has always been a block for me, coupled with a building that doesn’t seem to be inviting from the outside.

I was however lucky enough to be invited along to the Royal Opera House on an initiative to begin dialogues between the organisation, the work it produces and the online world of ‘the bloggers’. Only last week I praised its efforts in bringing The Ballet Bag into the opening night of Alices Adventures in Wonderland through Twitter, and this week I find myself being guided around the building in the care of the press and digital team.

I’ve spoken about the outside of the building offering little of the inside, but what I saw within was actually rather spectacular. The Floral Hall is a beautifully bright and open space which seems to scream ‘I’m a work of modern art’. The inside of the theatre itself is surprisingly simple whilst still being completely dumbfounding. I was taken aback by the wooden flooring within the stalls… for some reason I imagined red carpets throughout to match that of the seating. I imagined a glistening chandelier that would loom over the audience, when the reality is a simple curved dome with intricate sweeping colours. I also imagined an audience made up of the elite wealthy, but the truth is, they’re just like you or me. Those that enjoy the arts, and find pleasure in attending such spectacles.

Note that I call attending the Royal Opera House a ‘spectacle’, not least because the production of Aida that I was treated to (the final dress rehearsal) was nothing short of a spectacle. I’m not entirely sure what I imagined from the three hours of opera that was offered but a spectacular treat was what I received. It’s worth attending for ther production values alone, and whilst it is a relatively non-technical production,¬† the sheer volume of people on stage during some of the more climatic moments is phenomenal.

Image by Bill Cooper

As my first true experience of opera (I’m not going to class Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna as a true reflection of the form), I found myself wrapped up in the slow revealing of story. Aida centers on a war between the Egyptians and the Ethiopians, and a love triangle that forms between Aida, an Ethiopian slave; Amneris, the daughter of the King of Egypt; and their undeniable love for the same man, Radames the Captain of the Guard. Aida allows for a certain theatrical feel to be brought into the presentation of Egypt. Whilst there were no live animals (which I am told there often are!), there are phenomenal scenes containing over 70 ensemble members, seen in the form of servants, warriers, entertainers and Egyptian people. Jean-Marc Puissant’s design sees large structures that loom over the staging like the troublesome gods who are continually referenced. There is a excellent moment when figures attached to ropes descend from the heavens to represent the fallen victims within the army.

Whilst set within Egypt, David McVicar has give his direction of Aida a more universal feel, offering reflections of Eastern traditions, especially in his use of martial arts and through Mortiz Junge’s costume designs. Aida is undeniably ritualistic, where scarifices are made by drawing blood from devoted men strung up by ropes – with¬† which the servants then cover Radames to give him the strength of the people during battle. It is gutsy and extremely visual, making the first act an outstanding benchmark for the rest of the production.

Due to my lack of experience of operas, it’s hard for me to judge the singing of the principals, although I learnt that these are international opera singers who travel the world at short notice to give their performances. I guess it would be fair to say that with such a level of international performers, the Royal Opera House wouldn’t exactly hire a bad singer, although I’m sure techniques would vary between them. Micaela Carosi who sings Aida was a joy, she is fortunate that there are wonderful arias to which she can bring the emotional depth of a woman torn between country and love. [EDIT: Since writing this Carosi has had to leave the production of Aida due to pregnancy and has been replaced by Liudm yla Monastyrska]

One of the glorious moments of Aida is relatively simple compared to the elaborate starting acts; and that is of the final moments within the opera. As Radames and Aida hold tightly to each other in their prison to die, Amneris (Olga Borodina) sits above mourning the loss of her love, but understanding that Aida is the one who has given more love than she can truly give. As the trio sing the closing lines, a sense of truly understanding how opera might be at times grand and epic whilst also being able to capture the smallest of gestures and moments so beautifully begins to emerge.

From my time at the Royal Opera House I learnt a multitude of things, the most prominent was perhaps the understanding that opera does serve a diverse audience, and openly welcomes young people. My previous notions of those that attend are somewhat true but who says that opera should be exclusively for those that can afford to sit in the stalls? Equally, I may only be starting out on my personal journey of experiencing opera, but I’ve learnt how even the most epic of stories can contain the simplest of moments. Whilst the Royal Opera House does appear to confine the work it presents behind high walls that is no reflection on the openness of its staff and the dynamism of the work that is presented. Not everyone may have known the story of Aida but I’m sure the ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the newest opera Anna Nicole would stir even the youngest of audience members to attend.

My advice for attending the Royal Opera House is simple: understand that there are certain rules, but this is true of any venue presenting the arts. If you are unsure about anything ask a member of staff, they are there to assist you. The Royal Opera House has an excellent website which allows you to find out not only about the history of the building, but what to expect upon arrival, and of course in depth information and media on all its productions currently in rep. Attending the opera doesn’t have to be a daunting experience, it can be a joyful celebration of a slightly different form of the arts than your usual night at the theatre. See it as a treat, an experience that informs the large ideas of what culture is and can be.

Aida is playing at The Royal Opera House until 15th April. For information and tickets, see the website here.