In 1728, John Rich, an actor and manager, commissioned The Beggar's Opera from John Gay. The success of the venture provided the capital for the first theatre at the site, which opened on December 7, 1732.
The first hundred years or so of its history the theatre was primarily a playhouse; the Letters Patent granted by Charles II had given Covent Garden and Drury Lane virtually exclusive rights to present spoken drama in London.
The first serious musical works to be heard at Covent Garden were the operas of Handel. From 1735 until his death in 1759 he gave regular seasons there, and many of his operas and oratorios were written for Covent Garden or had their first London performances there. He bequeathed his organ to John Rich, and it was placed in a prominent position on the stage. Unfortunately, it was among many valuable items lost in a fire that destroyed the theatre in 1808.
Rebuilding began in December of the same year, and the second Theatre Royal, Covent Garden opened on September 18, 1809 with a performance of Macbeth followed by a musical entertainment called The Quaker. The management raised seat prices to help recoup the cost of rebuilding, but the move was so unpopular that audiences disrupted performances by beating sticks, hissing, booing and dancing. The Old Prices riots lasted over two months, and the management was finally forced to accede to the audience's demands.
During this time, entertainments were varied; opera and ballet were presented, but not exclusively. In 1843, the Theatres Act broke the patent theatres' monopoly of drama. At that time Her Majesty's Theatre in the Haymarket was the main centre of ballet and opera, but after a dispute with the management in 1846 Michael Costa, conductor at Her Majesty's, transferred his allegiance to Covent Garden, bringing most of the company with him. The auditorium was completely remodelled and the theatre reopened as the Royal Italian Opera on April 6, 1847 with a performance of Rossini's Semiramide.
On March 5, 1856, the theatre was again destroyed by fire. Work on the third and present theatre (designed by Edward Middleton Barry) eventually started in 1857 and the new building opened on May 15, 1858 with a performance of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. The theatre became the Royal Opera House in 1892 and the number of French and German works in the repertory increased. Winter and summer seasons of opera and ballet were given.
During the First World War the theatre was requisitioned by the Ministry of Works for use as a furniture repository. During the Second World War it became a dance hall. There was a possibility that it would remain so after the war but, following lengthy negotiations, the music publishers Boosey and Hawkes acquired the lease of the building. David Webster was appointed General Administrator and Sadler's Wells Ballet was invited to become the resident ballet company.
The Opera House reopened on February 20, 1946 with a performance of The Sleeping Beauty in a extravagant new production designed by Oliver Messel. There was no opera company suitable for transfer to the Royal Opera House, but Webster, with his music director Karl Rankl, immediately began to build a comparable resident company. In December, 1946, they shared their first production, Purcell's The Fairy Queen, with the ballet company. On January 14, 1947 the Covent Garden Opera Company gave its first performance of Bizet's Carmen.
In 1975 the Labour government gave land adjacent to the Royal Opera House for a long-overdue modernisation, refurbishment and extension. By 1995, sufficient private funds had been raised to enable the company to embark upon a substantial renovation of the building between 1996 and 2000, during which period the theatre was closed.