Towering over Covent Garden is one of London’s most prestigious buildings, the Royal Opera House. The stunning new entrance on Bow Street, created following a three year £50million transformation unveiled in September 2018, is designed to entice passers- by through the stylish glass entrance into an 11,000 sq ft foyer; its aim to welcome everyone from visitors to the local community.
Also stepping through the doors most mornings is the towering figure of Barry Stewart, the ROH’s Head of Tours. An imposing figure at well over 6ft, Barry has been a staff member for over 13 years and still gets a buzz from being part of a world-renowned institution and thoroughly revels in his role, which has grown exponentially over the years and looks set to expand even further with the Open Up project. “We now have a team of ten tour guides who can tell you about every aspect of life here at the Opera House and in Thurrock. (home to the Production Centre and Costume workshop). There are Backstage tours, Auditorium tours (known as Velvet, Gilt & Glamour) and we recently introduced Legends & Landmarks, which features the history and legends of this area and takes you outside as well,” explains Barry.
As you can imagine this all takes careful planning so Barry arrives first thing after a short trip from his home across the river. “I really enjoy the walk up past the Lyceum and then take advantage of breakfast in the staff canteen,” he said. With over 1,000 staff employed at the ROH, which is home to The Royal Opera, The Royal Ballet and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, it’s a village within the village of Covent Garden.
“It’s a real mix of everyone who works here; ballet dancers, technicians, wig makers, costumiers, cleaners, Front of House and the Executives.”
Fortified, Barry gets on with his day, checking the staff rotas, issuing the day sheets to the Guides, checking the routes of the Tours – sometimes certain areas have to be closed if there’s a rehearsal or maintenance taking place – and with the Health & Safety of visitors and employees always uppermost, Barry makes sure everything’s ready for the doors opening at 10am.
The meeting point for the Tours is in the beautiful new marble-floored foyer which is furnished with leather- upholstered modern chairs, bespoke tables and leather sofas. A large cloakroom is available to store coats and bags and you’re given a headset so you won’t miss any information amid the hubbub of the vibrant foyer.
“All of our guides tend to be people who are working or have worked in the Arts,” Barry told me. This is in addition, of course, to Barry’s carefully crafted tour scripts.
“With Opera singers, Musical Theatre performers, writers and directors, there’ll always be some personal snippets of backstage life and gossip to be shared!”
Taking a tour entitles you to a 10% discount at the ROH shop and the café on the day of your tour so another reason to relax over coffee and a pastry or a snack afterwards. However regardless of whether you’re seeing a show or have been on a tour all the facilities are open to everyone so perhaps have a drink and dinner too.
At the front of the main foyer, a curved glass balcony frames the view down into the renovated Linbury Theatre’s new foyer bar.
Up the dramatically lit staircase there’s the amazing Floral Hall, or the Paul Hamlyn Hall to give it its proper name where there’s a terrace, perfect for watching the world go by. You can then take a ride on one of the longest escalators in Europe to the redesigned top-floor restaurant, bars and spacious loggia terraces, both open-air and covered, where you can enjoy coffee, lunch or dinner.
Barry’s day continues liaising with other departments, preparing for upcoming tours, managing staff and with the Open Up project now in full swing integrating the tours
with the other ROH daytime events such as Dance with the Royal Ballet, Crafternoons, Tea Dances, Family Sundays and
so much more, so check out www.roh.org.uk/about/daytime-events.
If there’s an evening performance Barry’s day can last well into the late evening as the public space is open until 30 minutes after the show, otherwise the ROH closes its doors at 7pm and Barry can take the opportunity to relax away from the public gaze. “I tend to head for the Phoenix Arts Club on Phoenix Street or the CAA (the Club for Acts and Actors) on Bedford St. They’re both friendly and welcoming and a great way to wind down.”
As if to emphasize how much Barry loves being a part of the ROH, even on his days off or after his shift, you may spot him using his skills as a trained actor – he has appeared in the guise of King Rat in a pre- performance show and has appeared as the Doormouse from Alice in Wonderland.
“It’s so exciting to be here and be part of the transformation that has taken place. Encouraging everyone to come and participate or just enjoy the space is really important.”
“I hope we can get the message out that the Royal Opera House is open and accessible to everyone.”
With a character like Barry helping to spread the word it’s hard to imagine that it won’t be heard!