Following Google Maps’s directions to the Opera House, I find myself outside a sweet shop in Girgaum, a historic neighbourhood in south Mumbai. The signboards around me indicate that I have arrived. Yet, there is no sign of the famed building that gave the area its name. When I finally turn a corner, I gasp in amazement. This shining white beauty in the heart of Girgaum is the newest old kid on the block. It is a window into the city’s grand baroque past and a piece of living history that both residents and visitors can enjoy once again.
Inaugurated by King George V in 1911, the 574-seater Royal Opera House hosted operas and films from around the world, drawing the city’s elite to its doors. As the popularity of cinema grew, so did the opera house’s lure as one of the city’s premier movie theatres hosting the most popular films of the time. In 1952, Maharaja Bhojrajsingh of Gondal bought the space and it continued screening films till the 1990s, when it was finally shut down due to losses.
Exactly 23 years later, the opera house has finally reopened its doors after undergoing a remarkable facelift. The Gondal family commissioned conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah to restore the building in 2010. It took six years for her team of civil contractors, conservators, stagecraft and acoustic specialists to refurbish the old structure and renovate the interiors to fit modern standards of comfort and safety. The building’s status as a heritage structure threw up numerous challenges as the team worked to convert the Opera House into a modern state-of-the-art performance venue while retaining its original design. In some cases, layers of later renovations and plasterwork were removed to reveal the original baroque detailing. In others, damaged bits were carefully recreated after consulting old records.
Today, the interiors are in a rich red-and-gold palette befitting a grand opera house. The wooden panelling and detailed plasterwork has been repainted. The historic ceiling has been restored to its original baroque style and the royal boxes have been refitted. The foyer with its beautiful Minton tiling is decorated with elegant marble statues and magnificent 19th-century chandeliers. Walking through, I imagine that the three-level auditorium looks exactly as it would have a century ago. The first few events after its reopening included an operatic performance by Mumbai-born soprano Patricia Rozario as well as the opening ceremony of the city’s MAMI film festival. Asad Lalljee, curator of programming at the Royal Opera House has an exciting roster of events scheduled, ranging from traditional operas to TED talks. The plan is to make the Royal Opera House a centre for the performing arts again, and return a piece of heritage to the city. At par with some of the great opera houses of the world, this is an invaluable addition to Mumbai’s urban landscape, and another reason to visit the city.
Appeared in the December 2016 issue as “Back For an Encore”.
is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.
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