The Grand Opera House in Belfast was designed by renowned theatre architect Frank Matcham at the request of founder Joseph F. Warden. The first performance took place on the 23rd of December 1895 and has since hosted thousands of performances from Shakespearian drama, opera, and ballet to comedy, music, and pantomime.
The venue held its own during times of international conflict, providing patrons with a much-needed respite from the worries of war, but it ran into difficulty during the troubles when it was at risk of demolition. In 1969, Belfast was a dangerous place to be and then owners, the Rank Organisation, closed the venue and sold it to developers. Thankfully, a campaign orchestrated by the Ulster Architectural Society saw the building being granted “listed” status in 1974, saving it from the bulldozers. While the future of the structure was now secure, there was doubt as to whether it would remain a theatre.
In 1976, the Arts Council purchased the building and committed to its future as an entertainment venue. By 1980, the Opera House had been completely restored and a new era began, with audiences returning to enjoy large-scale productions and shows from London’s West End. However, the turmoil in Northern Ireland temporarily brought the curtain down in 1991 and again in 1993 when car bombs were detonated in Glengall Street, causing extensive damage to the building. Unperturbed, the Opera House reopened after the second attack and hosted the 1994 BAFTA awards in an act of defiance against the terrorists.
Since the year 2000, the venue has been owned by the Grand Opera House Trust Ltd. The theatre was extended in 2006 to improve accessibility and to provide new hospitality and backstage facilities, and in 2020, another significant investment was made to restore the auditorium, upgrade the sound and lighting systems and refurbish the fly gallery. The Grand Opera House has seen its fair share of drama, but it is clearly a much-loved asset to the now thriving city of Belfast. Little wonder that some of the characters from the venue’s past have chosen to remain and have made it one of Northern Ireland’s most haunted properties.
Several performers and crew members have reported a feeling of being watched or followed as they worked on the stage, but when they turned to see who was there, they were alone. These experiences may be attributed to the figure dressed in a dark, flowing robe who has been spotted from time to time in this area. Many believe that the mysterious character is the ghost of a (sadly unidentified) actor who is waiting for one last curtain call.
A pianist was rehearsing for a performance early one morning when he noticed a figure sitting in the auditorium. He assumed that it was a member of staff and continued his practice but was shocked to learn a short while later that there were only two people in the building at the time – himself and a member of staff who was in another part of the building. He had been completely alone for the duration of his rehearsal.
During an investigation conducted by the Northern Ireland Paranormal Research Association, the group claimed to have contacted two stagehands who worked at the venue in the 1980s and who had since died. They also claimed to have contacted the spirit of a former cleaner, a flyman, and an electrician who used to be employed at the opera house. Perhaps these are the mysterious figures that have been spotted staring out of the upper floor windows when that part of the building has been empty.
The ghost of a long-serving, assistant manager who died of a heart attack while manning the theatre box office in 1928, is also said to haunt the theatre foyer.
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