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The Changing face of Cork Opera House

‘The Opera House in Cork began its life as the ‘Athenaeum’, after the old Greek centres of culture and art. It was built by the trustees of the ‘Royal Cork Institution’ at a cost of £6,ooo. Its architect Sir John Benson had been responsible for many of the architectural features of the city. It was built for the ‘promotion of science, literature and the fine arts, and the diffusion of architectural knowledge’. It was to be used for the purpose of lectures, meetings, and experiments and for the formation of a museum and the collection of fine arts in connection with such subjects. It was also to be used for balls and other assemblies and sometimes for concerts and was equipped for theatrical performances.’

Friends Black and White

Cork Opera House

So begins an article written for the Cork Examiner on October 30th 1965. However, with all the pomp and ceremony which accompanied its opening on May 21st 1855, (it was opened by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Carlisle), it soon became obvious that the building was unsuitable for its purpose, the acoustics being most unsatisfactory. Some noteworthy people who did appear on its stage were; Charles Dickens, who lectured twice in the old Athenaeum; Brian Dillon, who sang there at a Fenian concert and Parnell, who spoke there at a meeting – it was on that occasion in fact, that he made his famous statement: “No man has a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation.” Nevertheless in 1873, it was re-modelled and renamed the Munster Hall, but neither was that venture a success.

At this time Cork’s principle theatre was the Theatre Royal in George’s St., but when this was taken over by the postal authorities, Cork was left without a main theatre for the performing arts. Accordingly, a group of citizens, under the chairmanship of Mr. John George McCarthy, formed the Great and Royal Opera House Co., and purchased the Munster Hall. In his book Day by Day, A Miscellany of Cork History, Sean Beecher informs us of a Mr. C.J. Phipps of London, who was then responsible for about twenty theatres, including the Gaiety Theatres in both Dublin and London. He was commissioned to design the Cork Opera House, which he re-designed and re-equipped as a theatre proper. Finally on September 17th, 1877, Cork’s Opera House opened its doors to the public.

The new theatre began its long life with a visit from the immortal Sarah Bernhardt and her famous company. She came from America for this visit and, as the liner was late in arriving at Cobh, the company, costumes and effects were transferred to a tug which sailed up the river and tied up at the quayside alongside the Opera House. Financially, however, the new venture did not prove successful for the Great and Royal Opera Co., and it wound up in 1888. There was sufficient enthusiasm in the city nevertheless for the theatre, and in the same year The Cork Opera House Co. was formed with a capital of £12,000.

A View of the Opera House and its Artistes

Sean O’ Faolain, in his book A Nest of Simple Folk, probably gives one of the more intimate descriptions of the type of people who treaded the boards of the Opera House. Growing up in Half Moon St., in the shadow of the Opera House, he transplants his own boyhood memories onto the central figure of his book. In this extract the young boy tells of the strange and exotic actors and actresses who stayed in his mother’s boarding-house:

“[The house was] filled from floor to attics with ladies in fur coats, fair-haired and beautiful, with scents flowing from them, and English accents that intimidated him because he had always thought of an English accent as belonging to rich and educated people only, like the D.I. or Canon Richey. He had never before seen such loveliness or such gentleness. And when he stole into their rooms at night, where the musk of grease-paint and the dying staleness of cigarette smoke and personal odours still clung in the air, and fingered their silver travelling clocks, or their leather-framed photographs of their friends, he again felt there was a gentleness and a grace and a comfort in life that he had never even suspected before. He would gaze secretly for long spells, wondering where they came from out of the great width of England, and what London was like.”

Voices from the Gods

It has often been said that Cork audiences are the hardest to please. There are certainly many stories testifying that they knew exactly what they wanted, like the tale of the the tenor who had a fondness for drink and kept the audience well entertained during the First Act of Il Trovatore. By the Second Act where his character was supposedly asleep, the reality proved he actually was. Upon the introduction of the Third Act, the audience was informed that the said tenor couldn’t appear as he had had a sudden attack of malaria. With that, a voice from the gods proclaimed, “I wouldn’t mind a bottle of that myself.” There was a particular phenomenon known by Cork audiences as ‘the early door’. Tickets could not be pre-booked for the gods unlike other parts of the theatre. This meant that people had to queue on the steps that were running up the side of the Opera House until the doors were opened. Queuing could begin as early as 6 o’clock, then there would be a mad rush for the doors as one only received tickets on a first come first served basis.

The Visiting Touring Companies

The years preceding the turn of the 20th century it was perhaps in the field of professional grand opera that the Opera House excelled itself in those by gone days. The great Madame Patti sang here and also the Cork Soprano Bridie Conway. The more regular companies to visit Cork at the turn of the 20th century were the Moody Manner, Carl Rosa Opera Co., O’ Mara Opera Co. and Savoy. In 1890 the D’ Oyly Carte Co. paid an unexpected visit to the Cork Opera House when they were left stranded while waiting for a liner to take them to America from Cobh. As their visit was somewhat unplanned there was no scenery available, so the local scene painter, J. A. Camerin stayed up all night to finish the backcloth for just one set. His magnificent cloth of the Grand Canal in Venice was still in use in the Opera House when it was burned in 1955 – sixty-four years after it was painted.

Tragedy Strikes at the Opera House

“The final curtain has fallen. The ‘Cork Opera House’ is no more. A hundred years of stage history has come to an end. Never had the last moments of any drama, played on this stage, such an audience as last night’s farewell one. In heavy rain, a vast crowd stood silently as flames enveloped a proud landmark in our city. They watched it from the short first burst of fire on its roof until the building crumbled before their eyes.”

So read the main news in the ‘Cork Examiner’ on Tuesday, December 13, 1955, when the disastrous fire that tore at the heartstrings of the people of Cork, left the city without a major theatre for the first time in 250 years. It was the boast of the Opera House that its tradition was continuous. When fighting in the South was at its bitterest, even when most of Cork was burned down, the Opera House kept running, only closing for pantomime rehearsals and in Holy Week. It was during the rehearsals for the forthcoming Christmas pantomime that the fatal fire started. Fortunately, all people were evacuated, but the building built entirely from wood didn’t stand a chance from the merciless fire. What began as an electrical fault blazed into an inferno within minutes. Soon the skyline of the city was lit up as the fire did its worst.

Ten years later, on Feb. 23, 1963, the tender of Messrs. O’Shea, South Mall was accepted for the rebuilding of the Opera House. A month later the work began, the foundation stone being laid by Lord Mayor Casey on June 21st, 1963. The citizens watched the building construction with keen interest as the new building gradually took shape month by month. Finally the day arrived for the casting aside of hoardings and scaffoldings. Immediately controversy began regarding the much disputed ‘North-Wall’. Criticism was levelled at the lack of architectural or artistic embellishment on the exterior of the new building and the square, squat tower on top of the roof designed to ease set changing, came in for a lot of unfavourable comment and criticism. This was a very natural reaction as the old Opera House had a very special place in the hearts of Corkonians of every generation during its existence. Most of the criticism was uninformed, for few were aware of the difficulties, financially and technically that the project incurred. Whatever about the exterior appearance, however, everyone who had an opportunity to inspect the interior of the theatre could find no fault. There was nothing but praise for the design, the decor, the lay-out of the seating accommodation and, above all, the intimate atmosphere which had been a traditional part of the venerable old building, and which was now faithfully preserved in the new.

An Opera House for the Millennium

In 1993 plans were put in place for renovating and beautifying the present Cork Opera House. The commission, which was received by Murray O’ Laoire Associates, was quoted as being “a vision of the building, which takes the architecture of Cork City into the 21st century.” This vision has been conducted in three phases, the development of the Half Moon Club, completion of the North Wall development plan, and the refurbishment plan for the Front of House and Reception, doubling the foyer and bar areas. The Cork Opera House is the only purpose built Opera House in the country. It has been part of the pattern of the cultural and social life of the city for 145 years. Having reinvented itself over three centuries, today its grand facade stands proudly in the wake of an historic past and in the expectancy of an evermore positive future.