20. Who built the Opera House and what makes it uniquely special?
Adelina Patti was the highest paid opera singer of her time, probably of all time, earning £1,000 (£500,000 in today’s money) a performance.
With a Matinee and Evening Performance on the same day she could (and did) earn £1m a day in today’s money. She insisted on being paid in cash or gold.
How often she would perform twice in one day I do not know – but imagine being able to earn a £1m in today’s money, just for four or five hours singing? Granted, she was practicing for several hours every day between performances, the Castle always full of song.
She was the ‘Madonna’ of her day, singing privately for Queen Victoria for 25 years, travelling the World, and probably away 6 – 9 months of the year, during which time the castle kept being extended, altered and then altered again – see the changes within and after the various old postcards of the Castle here. Patti had her own personal railway carriage (just like the Royal Family) and spent £100,000 of her own money (£50m in today’s money) extending and altering her castle. She was forever changing things, so must have employed an army of builders and stone masons.
As well as keeping a team of builders expensively occupied for nigh on 40 years, she employed a huge team of gardeners and groundsmen in her extensive grounds. At one point she apparently owned 17,000 acres. What is now the Country Park was all her gardens.
In the castle itself she had 40 household servants. When anyone retired, if they had nowhere to live, she would house them. She had a reputation as a kind and generous employer and contributed hugely to charity locally, sponsoring and supporting many charity concerts.
In 1891 she had her own private opera house built, so she could practice her opera singing and perform for honoured private guests.
When you enter the Opera House it feels as if you’re stepping back 130 years in time, back to when the theatre was first built in 1891, for nothing in the theatre has changed much since Patti died in 1919. The opera house still has all its original stage hatches, pulleys and ropes, an original curtain and backdrop.
The remaining backdrop was one of 17, sadly third husband Cederstrom burnt the other 16 on her death, not knowing what to do with them. The one that’s still hanging he only kept, “to cover the bricks”.
Since Patti died the opera house has not been used for opera or performances, other than a few isolated performances put on by a local opera group before our time, and an isolated period where we tried putting on opera and other ticketed events ourselves.
Sadly, we could not make opera pay, as the opera house is too small to house a large enough number of opera goers to be viable, plus the Brecon Beacons is really too remote to attract large audiences even if there was the space. We did have some success with solo singers with a good following, such as Joe Longthorne, for a few years.
This is what makes Patti’s small opera house unique. Most theatres remain in constant use, evolving over time as new performances are put on and new stage technology evolves, and old scenery and backdrops are cast aside for new ones.
This never happened with the opera house at Craig y Nos Castle, because it was never intended for public performances. That is why today it is too small for commercial opera. The cost of putting on a professional opera is huge, requiring at least 450 – 550 seats to make it pay, not to mention all the performing arts subsidies.
The Patti theatre’s auditorium is not much bigger than the stage. At most it will seat 150, though Patti probably designed it for a much lower number of guests, with plenty of space for each guest to move around.
The floor is also unique as it was one of the first, and the only surviving example, of a floor that can be altered from a raked (sloping) position, to a flat (ballroom) position. This was done so guests could watch her perform before dinner, then go through to the Conservatory or the dining room for dinner, before returning to the theatre with the floor raised flat, for ballroom dancing.
Unlike today, Patti did not have a function room – as what is now the function room was then her sitting room and billiard room. Instead, she used the theatre for ballroom dancing after dinner, by having her servants raise the floor to its flat position during dinner.
The opera house was also the first building in Wales to have private electricity. Early stage lighting consisted of primitive gas uplighters at the front of the stage. The long dresses of the performers would brush against the gas uplighters and catch fire. This is why theatres frequently burnt down – Patti herself would have a fire officer in the wings to put her out if her swirling costume brushed the flames as she danced.
Spotlights used burning lime, hence the phrase “in the limelight” which originates from being in the spotlight on a stage in the olden days.
As you discover more and more about the history of the Castle and its Opera House, you will really begin to appreciate why the Castle is such a unique place to stay. Nothing else quite compares in terms of history and romance.
We haven’t even touched on why Patti bought it yet – that’s another very romantic, and rather scandalous, tale – for next time.
Owner / Craig y Nos Castle