"When we got here the first time, the walls were leaking. The roof was not stable. There were trees growing out of the facade," said conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, who's been working on restoring it for the last six years.
It was in 1911 that King George V inaugurated the Royal Opera House and it played host to great artistes like Bal Gandharv, Prithviraj Kapoor, Dinanath and Lata Mangeshkar. When patronage for live performances fell, it was converted into a single screen cinema hall. When the footfalls started falling for the theatre, it was shut down in the early 90s. (See Pics)
Maharani Kumud Kumari of the Gondal Family that owns the Opera House hopes it again becomes a cultural hub of the city as it was once. "It's a baroque building which is not there anywhere in India. Earlier some people said it's like a ghost house," she laughs.
"Now it's absolutely transformed. People can't imagine how it looks like now," she added.
In 2004, the Royal Opera House found itself on the World Monuments' Fund's list of 50 most endangered monuments in the world. But since it was privately owned, the rules didn't allow any government funding for its restoration or maintenance.
The restoration effort itself has been a labour of love over the last six years years supported by the Royal family of Gondal. It took two years just to get all the permissions in place to get renovation work started since it's a heritage structure.
A great deal of attention was paid to ensure that the originality of structure stays intact, from the chandeliers in the foyer to the ivory, gold combination in the main theatre or retaining the Burma teakwood panelling for the ground floor boxes, also incorporating the needs of a 21st century setup when it came to acoustics, air conditioning, fire safety norms.
It started with help from a single photograph from historian Sharda Dwivedi's research and then followed pictures from unexpected quarters; old films shot and even a fantastic stroke of serendipity
"A professor of theatre in Australia sent me an e-mail saying he was sending a 1917 catalog that documented some of the Opera Houses of the world and the Mumbai Opera House was one of those. It had photographs and details that were very helpful to understand how the whole place looked at that time," says Ms. Lambah.
Actor Rishi Kapoor, whose grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor performed at the theatre, also walked down the memory lane with the newly renovated opera theatre. He wrote on twitter:
Royal Opera House. So many memories attached! Dadaji's plays,chips,samosa,mangola Acted as a sleeping kid in one play.Saw films Anand,AAA... pic.twitter.com/XG7qhk8fTz— Rishi Kapoor (@chintskap) October 13, 2016
Maharani Kumud Kumari also remembers watching Prithviraj Kapoor and his three sons perform here. Alyque Padamsee is excited about its re-opening saying in its ambience and setting he will be hearing the echoes of Prithviraj Kapoor once again.
(The Royal Opera House will be re-opening to the public with the inauguration of the MAMI film festival)