With its huge curved roof, 40,000 square-foot white floor and dizzying viewing galleries, a new building outside London looks fit for a James Bond villain.
It actually has been designed for a different type of nasty character. The building is the home of baddies such as the evil Scarpia (from Puccini’s “Tosca”) and Iago (Verdi’s “Otello”). The Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop is where the sets and scenery are created for the Royal Opera House. It has carpentry, metalwork and fiberglass workshops under one roof as well as an ecologically efficient planted sedum roof and a 100-meter borehole providing the heating.
Based in Purfleet, an impoverished riverside suburb about 20 miles from central London, the facility, designed by Nicholas Hare Associates LLP, cost 8.4 million pounds ($13 million) to build. Although the Royal Opera declined to disclose the exact amount of the gift from the Manoukian Charitable Foundation, the donation is part of a total of 1.77 million pounds raised from private funding.
This latter figure also includes 500,000 pounds from the Foyle Foundation, a charity established by the former owner of Foyle’s bookstore in London. The rest of the construction was funded by the government via Arts Council England.
Bob and Tamar Manoukian, longstanding supporters of the Royal Opera, explained in a statement prepared for Bloomberg News why they gave the money. “We wanted to support a scheme which would bring employment to an area of London undergoing regeneration,” they said. “Projects involving children and local communities are close to our hearts too.”
Armenian-born philanthropist Bob Manoukian, 65, has interests in finance and property, and has been living in the U.K. since the 1970s.
David Hall, chief executive of the Foyle Foundation, made the first pledge of 500,000 pounds to the project in the hope that it would encourage other donors to come forward.
“It’s our largest single grant,” Hall, 53, said. “I realized it would be difficult for the Royal Opera to fundraise for this project because it’s about backstage skills and so less sexy than some other projects. We’re a flexible charity, though, and we’re attracted to difficult things. The fact that the project was always going to involve local people and offer educational opportunities was exciting.”
Generously, he didn’t take up the naming rights. “We wanted to be flexible about it, and deliberately deferred that decision,” Hall said. “If the naming rights would help encourage other later donors, we didn’t want to be rigid.”
The Royal Opera’s cramped former workshop was in Bow, in east London. A compulsory purchase order for the 2012 Olympics made it necessary to relocate. In 2008, the company set about fundraising for a new and better workshop, built specifically to accommodate the large sets required for opera and ballet.
Now, for the first time, sets can be built and checked in their entirety. They are then packed into containers and driven (at night, so as to cause minimal traffic disturbance) to Covent Garden.
The workshop also contains viewing galleries for the public to see the work that goes on. People can visit by arrangement. Much can be seen at anytime from outside through large picture windows deliberately designed to encourage passers-by to look through.
The building is part of a larger 60 million pound urban-regeneration project called High House Production Park. The 14-acre complex is a creative hub for the learning and practicing of backstage skills in all the performing arts, not just opera, and includes space for small-business units and artists’ studios. The Royal Opera is a major partner.
The complex stands on the site of a once-beautiful 16th-century farmhouse that had fallen prey to squatters and been derelict for years. During the course of the restoration, two Roman skeletons and Ice Age hand axes were found.
The house, barns and gardens have retained their former glory, and been joined by the Manoukian Production Workshop. The baddies, and the goodies too, have a striking new home.
Information: High House, http://blog.roh.org.uk/?tag=production-park, Royal Opera http://www.roh.org.uk, Foyle Foundation http://www.foylefoundation.org.uk, Manoukian Charitable Foundation http://opencharities.org/charities/1084065.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)