Exterior of the restored Royal Opera House, October 2016. Photo: Royal Opera House Mumbai
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A 21st-Century Overture

Exterior of the restored Royal Opera House, October 2016. Photo: Royal Opera House Mumbai

The Royal Opera House in Mumbai, India, reopened in 2016 following a long period of abandonment. In 2012, the site had been included on the World Monuments Watch to raise awareness about its significance and to support the effort of its owner to preserve the building. Amita Baig, WMF Representative in India, writes about the historic site.

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Celebrating a Century

Listed on the World Monuments Watch in 2012, the Royal Opera House in South Mumbai is the oldest and only surviving opera house in all of India. It was established by Maurice Bandmann and Jehangir Karaka in 1916 as Mumbai's premier performance and opera venue. In time, the site gave way to Indian theater and became a main attraction for a much larger audience beyond opera. Although it was closed for over 23 years, as cinema theaters overtook live theater, the Opera House was and remains a landmark building in Mumbai, its very name lending itself to the name of the precinct. In October 2016—exactly one hundred years after it first opened—the historic Opera House reopened with an opera featuring Patricia Rozario, a well-known soprano who was born in Mumbai.

Mumbai's cultural cognoscenti flocked to the Opera House for two days of celebration, each attendee euphoric to see the site restored to the cultural life of the city. Richly restored, three-tiered interiors in red and gold are not just reminiscent of a great past but a robust present. Purchased by the erstwhile Maharaja and Maharani of Gondal, and restored under their ownership, this work is a tribute to the conservation movement in Mumbai as well as a deeply committed owner. Ahead, there are plans for restaurants and events which will ensure the theater is maintained.

The entire conservation project took almost six years in planning and execution and each element has been devotedly brought back to how it used to be.

The Project

Conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah worked on this building with a profound understanding of how it functioned, as well as the need to introduce contemporary facilities in a historic site.

"It was a conscious decision by both the owners and the design team to reopen this project not as a cinema hall but exactly the way the building was conceived and originally designed,” said Lambah. “We all took a leap of faith and decided that [the] Opera House would re-open after 100 years as a live performance theater. To achieve this end, we worked fanatically and painstakingly with a huge team of painting conservators, stained glass conservators, acoustic consultants, sound and theater specialists, stage craft specialists, civil contractors, HVAC engineers, [and] electrical and public health engineers as well as a very dedicated team of conservation architects in my firm…towards making this restoration happen.

“Since the period of significance was 1916, we decided to restore the interiors back to the baroque style of the architectural interior and we have been able to piece together a jigsaw of pieces of the architectural and interior history and archival images of the building…to restore the historic plasters, the Corinthian columns, the side balconies, and all the trims and trappings of the historic theater that are original and authentic to the building's original construction."

The Opera House will host film festivals and other cultural events, making certain it is once again the center of the cultural life of Mumbai. The baroque exterior, as much as its heavily embellished interior, is today a subject of great pride in a city which has been historically at the forefront of the conservation movement.