Designed by the prolific, and very talented, English theatre architect Frank Matcham (1854-1920), the London Coliseum, home of the English National Opera (ENO), first opened its doors on Christmas Eve in December 1904. One hundred years later, this important historic landmark topped with a distinctive tower and revolving globe, has been renovated by architects at The Arts Team of RHWL, a UK firm that specializes in theatre renovation. Carr & Angier served as theatre consultants, with acoustical improvements by Arup Acoustics. When the doors to the Coliseum re-opened in February 2004, the theatre had been restored to its original splendor, with a stunning red, purple, gold, and cream color scheme inside and the magnificent terra cotta facade restored outside.

“One important goal of the renovation was to create a better environment for the public,” says Loretta Tomasi, the ENO's executive director. “The building hadn't really been touched in 100 years.” By moving bars and rest rooms, opening up more public spaces, adding stairs, and replacing an original glass roof that had been bombed in WWII, the theatre now has much more public space, an increase of roughly 40%, as well as better audience flow and circulation patterns. A new multi-purpose space allows the ENO's Baylis Education program to hold events, such as opera workshops for students, in the building, and a new conservatory area with glass walls and a tile floor looks out over Trafalgar Square.

“A lot of photographic research was done in conjunction with the Matcham Society,” Tomasi explains. Original wallpaper has been reproduced, and the theatre's original color scheme has been restored, bringing the richness of vibrant reds and regal purples against cooler gold and cream in the auditorium, where the center dome in the ceiling has been uncovered and renovated, adding to the splendor of the room. “The original color scheme is a complete change from the blue and mushroom brown that the theatre had been painted,” notes Tomasi.

In the stalls, or orchestra level, the seating configuration was changed as well, with curved rows of seats (that were straight across before the renovation) echoing the shape of an enlarged orchestra pit. One row of seats was removed in order to increase legroom. In the balcony, theatre seats replace old bench seating. The London firm of Kirwin and Simpson provided the new seats.

The Yorkshire-based theatre drapery manufacturer J&C Joel who regularly supply stage drapes to ENO, manufactured and installed the fabric and draperies for the auditorium, Coliseum room, rehearsal space, and Royal retiring room. They provided everything from the ornate tympanum, with its intricate embellishments and golden eagle, to the front of house curtain plus drapes and pelmets for the boxes and additional drapes to cover the decorative windows and doors around the auditorium.

Working toward the goal of restoring the theatre to its original glory, J&C Joel worked closely with members of Arts Team @ RHWL. Working from faded postcards and black and white photographs, the design team was able to put together an image of what the original auditorium would have looked like. In addition, an old newspaper report on the Coliseum that described the color scheme as “Imperial purple” really set the wheels in motion. Architect David Wright explains that interior design consultant Claire Ferraby took her research to the Victoria and Albert Museum to find the correct interpretation for what the Edwardians described as “Imperial purple.”

The next step was to translate this information into contemporary fabric and trimmings from J&C Joel. Graham Jordan, their manufacturing and installation director, noted: “Our job at this stage involved laboratory dying the fabrics and producing samples to reproduce the original color scheme.”

With the color samples finalized by last June, the next stage involved making sure the intricate decoration was historically accurate. “The auditorium bore no trace of any of the original detail,” says David Wright. “Photographs had to be blown up to get a closer look at the motifs.” Each minute detail was drawn to scale and then passed to J&C Joel, who manufactured according to these designs. The team at J&C Joel included drapery manager Neal Cartwright, who ensured that the intricate detail around the jacquards, fringes, braids, and tassels was exactly the same as the original.

Using several different satins to recreate the golden eagle (the fabric was turned and reversed to give different light reflection) and smaller embellishments, and a silk/wool mix sourced from India to produce the heavy fringing, J&C Joel had the task of ensuring the accuracy of the pattern work. Mark Taylor of J&C Joel points out: “What you don't realize, looking at the tympanum from the auditorium, is the enormous scale of the project. The pelmet is more than 18m [59'] wide by 10m [33'] long and weighs almost half a ton, the tassels measure a meter and weigh nearly 20kg [44 lbs] each!

“Visitors will also be oblivious to the fact that all the golden embellishments are individual pieces,” he continues. “Each leaf on the wreaths around the eagle is individual and even has veins stitched into it. The eagle's feet and wings are separate to the main torso, each ribbon is a separate item, as are both wreaths and the padded Coliseum sign.

“While we're extremely proud of all the hard work we've put into recreating the original decoration, most people will never really see or appreciate the amount of detail, love, and attention that's gone into making everything as authentic as possible. We're sure Frank Matcham would be delighted with it if he were here today!”

Backstage was also renovated in an attempt to provide more space. “The stage at the Coliseum is large but not large enough by opera standards,” says Peter Angier of Carr & Angier theatre consultants in Bath, England. The stage has a proscenium opening of 50' and a working depth of 52' (taking into consideration sightlines from the balcony), with a grid at 70' above the stage. There is also an old original turntable that is still in place, yet covered over.

“The first priority backstage was to increase storage space, but there was no room to expand as the theatre is landlocked.” One solution was to remove several backstage columns and run a large truss across the stage right wing with columns only at each end. “We also reduced the wing height,” says Angier. This allowed space for a new dimmer room to be created above, and freed up space at the stage level for other uses. In terms of rigging, the old manual counterweight system is still in place with some temporary automated rigging until a permanent system is installed.

The major work done backstage was the installation of a state-of-the-art lighting system by Strand Lighting that included rewiring the entire theatre, upgrading of power feeds, creating two new dimmer rooms, and increasing circuits. Bill Richards of Strand's London office served as project manager. The work included the installation of 16 racks of Strand SLD dimmers with RCD circuit protection, the extension of Strand's ShowNet network to provide Ethernet directly to all dimmer racks, and updating the software in two existing Strand 550 series consoles and the system file server.

The Coliseum has used Strand dimmers for decades, with this recent updating of the system bringing the number of channels from 350 to 1280, using the new Strand SLD dimmer racks. Now one of the largest installations of Strand SLD dimmers worldwide, the Coliseum has fifteen 96-way SLD dimmer racks creating a configuration of over 1350 circuits. A further 96-way SLD dimmer rack with a total of 89 circuits controls house light dimming. Circuit breaker status is monitored on 15 single 10A dimmer modules, marked in red for easy identification.

“From the start of this project the intention was to retain the ENO's existing Strand 500 series control system, upgrading it with the latest operating software, and increasing the channel/ attribute count. When Northern Light offered networking and the new high density SLD dimmer racks from Strand Lighting, we had the opportunity of presenting the client with a complete Strand dimming and control system to meet our specification,” says Steve Roberts, also of Carr & Angier.

“The SLD dimmers were a brand new product when the decision was made to install them with significant improvements being made between the lighting package going out to tender and the contract being awarded,” continues Roberts. “As you might expect, there were some teething problems, which Strand and Northern Light have worked to resolve. ENO now has a complete Strand dimming and control system with an up-to-date specification running the latest software.”

Northern Light, a Strand distributor in Edinburgh, Scotland, supplied and installed the systems, with special consideration to the phasing requirements of the installation. Simon Cooper worked with ENO staff to find the optimal solution. Rob Bridges, ENO's Head of Stage Systems says, “We will make full use of the Reporter facility to monitor house light loads preventing the need for daily lamp rounds on the 2500 house light fittings”

The existing 510i Show Controller unit was refurbished, upgrading it with state-of-the-art resources including 1.2 GHz Pentium III processors and 256Mb of RAM. This together with a further 510i Backup Unit and a custom 550i Series Control console with additional features provide a very flexible control system.

An early decision in terms of system design was to embrace Ethernet technology using Strand's ShowNet system and to lay the foundations for the new ACN protocols.

“What you really had was an ancient theatre being brought up to modern standards,” says Bill Richards. “A few years ago they put in the 500 series consoles. This time around, we took them back and super-charged them as control for the next millennium. The biggest challenge was that it was a two-phase project. In phase one, we got the dimmers in but they just sat there for a year or so until we had access to the theatre again.”

Arup Acoustics in London worked to fine tune the auditorium, including the installation of a custom-designed ventilation system that better protects the room from surrounding noise and helps create a better musical dynamic range. Additional sound absorbing and reflecting materials were also installed to help reduce weaknesses in the overall acoustics.

From the positive response by the opera company members and audiences alike, it looks as if the £41 million has been well spent on the renovation of the Coliseum. It is now an appropriate companion to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, providing London with two handsome historic venues brought up to contemporary performance standards. “It looks very smart indeed,” quips Angier.

ENO Selected Lighting Equipment List

Production Control System:
2 Custom Strand 510i controllers, each fitted with Pentium III Processors and 256Mb of RAM
1 Custom Strand 550i Control console with extra keypad
1 Strand ShowNet File Server
1 SN102 2U High Rack Mounting Network Node
2 SN103/R 1U High Rack Mounting 4 port DMX Nodes
20 SN110 Rugged remotely-powered dual port DMX Nodes using Power over Ethernet technology
2 SN110 Dual custom network nodes
Dimming Equipment:
15 Strand SLD Dimmer Racks fitted with:
Dimming Modules
466 Dual 15A Dimmer Modules with RCD
124 Dual 25A Dimmer Modules with RCD
14 Single 10kW Dimmer Modules
50 Dual 15A Relay Modules with RCD
23 Dual 20A Relay Modules with RCD
House Lights:
1 96-way Strand SLD Dimmer Rack