Anne Hailes: Curtain lifts on Grand Opera House's stunning rebirth
The Grand Opera House in Belfast after has undergone a £12.2 million restoration during the Covid pandemic. Anne Hailes, one of the first to visit the refurbished landmark, finds the magic of theatre alive and well
"The curtains parted. The elegant Belfast audience - the leaders of the professions and commerce and their wives - sat in the comfortable seats and waited. It was a notable occasion and all the dignitaries of civic and political life were present. The occupants of the stalls and the circle and the gallery marvelled at the decoration and luxury around them. They were privileged to be present and they respected the expertise and sense of purpose of those who had brought this evening about."
THIS description of a special opening night begins the story of the Grand Opera House in Lyn Gallagher's excellent history of the gracious theatre and it could well reflect the much awaited re-opening in 2021. However, it was in fact recalling the debut of the Opera House in December 1895.
Today she sits on what was once known as Belfast's Golden Mile and the newly refurbished building in Great Victoria Street promises to lead the way to rejuvenating the area once again.
I was fortunate to be given a guided tour last week and, as promised, £12.2 million has been well spent.
The view through the big glass doors gives a glimpse of the foyer. Once they glide open, the full extent of the modern and functional layout - completely remodelled, with cool colours, marble surfaces and a sweeping spiral staircase up to a swirling light - is revealed.
And then comes the surprise. The doors into the auditorium were open, with a warm glow inviting visitors in. It's a spectacle to behold - 1,067 red plush seats sit waiting; they are comfortable and there is leg room, with pillars no longer restricting the view, and the circle has been remodelled to allow more seating.
John Tracey, director of Tracey Brothers specialist construction firm, told me: "It was an unusual project as nothing is square."
The magic of theatre. For so many families this magic first happens when attending the legendary Christmas pantomime, a production which often involves pyrotechnics and, as John confirmed, these firework displays had left their sooty mark on the ornate ceilings. It took four women conservators 14 weeks of painstaking work to bring back the vibrant colours, using small specialist toothbrushes.
THIS THEATRE MEANS A LOT TO ME
When I was about four, I belonged to Miss Lena King's ballet class and we were to appear in a Christmas Extravaganza.
My ever-loving family booked the front row to see their little darling prance and dance in tutu and pink ballet shoes. They were disappointed... Their little darling refused point blank to allow lipstick or rouge to be applied. I feel the same way today - a positive reason for wearing a mask.
I suppose it served me right that they were not impressed and scolded me, my grandmother telling me I was part of a team and I must not let them down. But it was too late, the moment had passed and the show went on - without me.
Certainly teamwork is the watchword when it comes to the refurbishment of this building. Dozens of craftsmen and women, with 60 sub-contractors, worked for well over a year, with electricians rewiring to give a much improved end product for the audience and the workings behind the scenes are state-of-the-art.
The stage now looks out over a sea of scarlet with hundreds of silver studs keeping the plush fabric in place.
Half-a-century on from my 'almost' debut, I was invited to join the cast of the summer show Beauty and the Beast. I was to be the Countess, mother to a really naughty son called Danton, played by song and dance man Lionel Blair.
It was an experience I shall never forget. I'm not allowed to, as Lionel phones on Christmas morning and Mother's Day - sometimes to make sure we are all safe and well, other times to get a recipe for potato bread, and he always asks after the Opera House.
WORKING IN THEATRE IS SPECIAL
There was no small talk - many actors already know each other from being on the circuit - but for someone like me being accepted, as I was, meant I was immediately part of a family.
And this is a family theatre, a palace of variety in every sense of the word but now sympathetically updated. The paintwork proves that, with special restoration paint inside the auditorium and modern paint in the foyer.
There are more toilets, with an increased number for people with a disability, an exhibition area, only the gods remain untouched.
This is where I went after school to see D'Oyly Carte perform Gilbert and Sullivan, to watch the Gang Show and, on one memorable occasion, spend the night with the NI Paranormal Research Association.
At one in the morning, I sat on my own in the dark but for a 'ghost' safety light; I thought I saw it flicker, but it was the soft noises of the old building shifting on piles above the Lagan.
It was far from scary - in fact, it was the most gently relaxing experience sitting back on top of the world.
But where were those thespians who once graced this stage - Sarah Bernhardt, Harry Lauder, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Gracie Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Pavarotti? None of them put in an appearance. They had exited stage left.
After my debut as the Countess, one of the band asked me did I enjoy the experience. It was terrifying and wonderful, an adventure to walk on the same stage as Charlie Chaplin.
Then he asked would I do it again. A bass guitar very quickly answered for me: "You can only be a virgin once."
Not so the Grand Opera House. This latest rebirth is magnificent, for artists, staff and audience, and when it opens later this year it will be a new and memorable experience, just as it was in 1895.
Book a theatre tour at goh.co.uk