Belfast’s majestic Grand Opera House has delivered laughter, tears and applause since 1895. Since opening its doors to the public for the first time more than a century ago, this beloved venue has played host to some of the biggest names from the world of entertainment.
The curtain rose on the first performance at the Grand Opera House on 23 December 1895, heralding the achievements of architect Frank Matcham and proprietor Joseph F. Warden.
The first season included burlesque acts, musical comedies, farces and melodramas. There was also a market for classical opera and drama with regular performances of Shakespeare.
The theatre flourished during its early years, offering escapism to the worlds of comedy and drama, including a visit by Gracie Fields in 1933 which was a sold-out success.
Due to restrictions on travel during the Second World War, the theatre presented weekly performances by the Savoy Players, a repertory company of actors who were performing in Ireland at that time. They famously performed for General Dwight Eisenhower when he visited the Grand Opera House with Field Marshall Montgomery in 1945.
The end of the war brought touring opportunities to Belfast once again, and audiences were treated to leading opera and ballet performances, plus popular acts including George Formby and Laurel & Hardy. In 1963, an unknown Italian singer named Luciano Pavarotti made his UK debut on the stage of the Grand Opera House in the role of Lieutenant Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly.
However, civil unrest took hold of Northern Ireland in 1969 and the city centre became a no-go area at night. By 1972, Rank, who had bought the Grand Opera House, had taken the decision to close the building and sell it to property developers.
With demolition imminent, the Ulster Architectural Society launched a campaign to save the building and in the 1974, the Grand Opera House became the first listed building in Northern Ireland. With listed status guaranteed, the building had survived – however its future as a theatre was not guaranteed.
Following a survey of the building in 1976 by the esteemed architect Robert McKinstry, the Arts Council voted to buy the building back from developers, and return it to use as a commercial theatre. Between 1976 and 1980, the Grand Opera House was extensively restored, including the restoration of the ceiling panels in the main auditorium, and the construction of the crush bar on the front of the building, overlooking Great Victoria Street.
Throughout the 1980s, the theatre continued to prosper with healthy audience numbers and hit shows from London’s West End.
In 1991 and again in 1993, the Grand Opera House suffered extensive damage following two car bombs in Glengall Street. Major refurbishment work followed both bombs, including the addition of blast walls to protect the auditorium in the future. In a very public display of resilience, the Grand Opera House hosted the BAFTA awards on Sunday 14 September 1994.
Later that year, the Arts Council handed over management and the running of the theatre to the newly formed Grand Opera House Trust Ltd. The building remained the property of the Arts Council who leased it to the Trust until 2000, when the deeds were gifted to the Trust by the Arts Council.
The extension to the theatre opened in October 2006 with a gala performance. Built on the site where the Hippodrome Theatre once stood, the extension provided much needed hospitality facilities and lift access between the floors. It also enabled Box Office, located opposite the theatre in Great Victoria Street, to be relocated inside the foyer and provided much needed back of house space, including additional dressing rooms.