As an aspiring opera singer (currently working in admin but hoping to go back to college in the near future), I try to attend as much live opera as I can. Living in London is great for this - we are spoilt with 2 international level opera houses, as well as numerous touring companies and high standard amateur productions. English National Opera is generally seen as the Royal Opera House's more accessible sibling - slightly cooler, slightly more modern. All productions are staged in English and the singing is generally of a very high standard.
English National Opera's home is the Coliseum on St Martin's Lane, just off Trafalgar Square, so easily accessible from Charing Cross Station (Mainline or underground) or bus routes 3, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 23, 24, 29, 53, 77a, 88, 91, 139, 159, 176, or if you're travelling by car, ENO patrons receive a 50% discount at nearby carparks if you validate your car park ticket at the box office. This includes carparks at Cavendish Square, Poland St (Soho), Newport Place (Chinatown), Marble Arch, and Park Lane.
The entire theatre underwent a major renovation a few years ago and is in my opinion one of the best theatres in the West End. You can see the globe that sits on top of the Colisuem all lit up at night and it does look lovely. Although the building itself is not quite as architecturally stunning as the Royal Opera House, it does look beautiful, with gorgeous red carpets covering the floor and sweeping majestic staircases. There are two lifts to all levels for those who find stairs difficult. The theatre dates from 1904 and has been beautifully restored. The auditorium is decorated with fabulously intricate moulding, lots of gilding and beautiful purple velvet drapes and looks thoroughly impressive.
There are a number of bars on various levels for pre-theatre drinks, and they're not too ridiculously priced. They open one hour before performances. Diners can reserve their table from 6pm, choosing from The American Bar on the lower ground floor, which serves modern British food, or the Sky Bar on the Upper Circle level serves lighter meal options. I've not eaten at the Coliseum myself, as I prefer to get something quick elsewhere, but the dining seems to be laid back and unfussy.
I think opera gets a bad rap from the public, who often see it as the realm of the posh and snobby. I think ENO does a really good job to dispel that myth - the atmosphere is laid back but exciting, the staff are down to earth and helpful, and while you always get one or two snooty members of the audience, generally the audience has a nice cross section of society attending. The dress code for ENO is fairly casual - last time I went in jeans and my Ugg boots, so no need to feel you have to get dressed up! Of course, there will be people dressed up, so if you want to go formal you can!
The auditorium is huge - there are 4 levels, the Stalls at the bottom, and moving up, the Grand Circle, the Upper Circle and the Balcony. I do find with the Coliseum that wherever you sit, the view tends to be quite good, as the stage itself is so big and the seats are well positioned, so unless you are unlucky enough to sit behind a rude leaner forward (in which case give them an equally rude whack on the head!) you should have a pretty good view. Seat prices for different productions will vary, but you can expect to pay around £86 for a stalls ticket, between £65-£86 for the Grand Circle, between £21-£60 for the Upper Circle and £15-£21 for the Balcony. The seats are reasonably comfortable with (for a London theatre!) a reasonable amount of leg room.
I think ENO tend to get a good balance in their programme, combining the 'standard' popular operas with a couple each season which are more adventurous. This season for example, they are performing a new production by Jonathan Miller of La Boheme, and Nicholas Hynter's revived production of The Magic Flute, alongside John Adam's Doctor Atomic and Janácek's Jenùfa. I'm hoping to get to see Britten's Peter Grimes in May and also Anthony Minghella's production of Madama Butterfly when it returns in June.
All performances are sung in English and have English surtitles. While ENO have come under a lot of criticism for this, with people saying it shows a lack of confidence in the diction of their singers, I do think it's a good idea - the nature of opera means that in ensemble singing you often cannot understand everything that is being sung, and as a soprano reaches her upper register, naturally diction will suffer. The surtitles mean that there is that backup in case you didn't quite catch something. Any seats where surtitles aren't visable will advise you on booking. The English translations are always carefully thought out and updated - I hate hearing English translations in poorly translated, old fashioned English - and are so popular ENO actually publish them in their Opera Guides.
The productions themselves I think are generally of a very high standard. I like the fact that ENO have a tendency to perform operas in a modern (or twentieth century) setting wherever it seems they have the opportunity as I do think it makes them more accessible (my boyfriend who likes opera but certainly doesn't love it tends to prefer operas at ENO than the Royal Opera House). Occasionally they've had a few productions that go down the controversial route (the Don Giovanni directed by Calixto Bieto which included a scene with the Don shooting up, as well as numerous sex scenes - not entirely inappropriate for Don Giovanni, but I suspect just thrown in for shock value) but the productions I've seen lately have all been beautifully done. I saw Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci and remember thinking how perfectly Pagliacci had been translated in both setting and in the libretto. If I'm honest, I don't always find the standard of singing at ENO to be of a truly international standard, and doesn't quite come up to the standard that I expect when I go to the Royal Opera House. But then that's why tickets tend to be slightly cheaper at ENO! For example, we recently went to see the revival of The Magic Flute (which we had seen on a previous run), and while Roderick William's Papageno was superb, and Sarastro and the Three Ladies also very good, the Queen of the Night was rather disappointing, as was Tamino. The staging however was wonderful - all bustling period dresses and perfectly capturing the fantasy element of the opera.
But where ENO far outstrip the Royal Opera House is in the amount of emphasis they place on their education programme and the way in which they attempt to introduce young people to the opera. ENO Bayliss (their education programme) runs family events, pre-performance talks, and training programmes for young singers. Many of these are completely free of charge. When I was studying for my Masters, we were given free access to attend a number of rehearsals which was really interesting and enjoyable (and even meant we sat a level down from my usual Upper Circle seat!). ENO also run a wonderful, but massively under publicized, scheme called Access all Arias. Ignore the cheesy name - this is a fantastic completely free to join scheme for under 30's and full-time students to get reduced price seats! Just go to http://www.eno.org/accessallarias/main.html and sign up and you will receive a membership card in the post. Seats are offered at £30 for stalls, £20 for Dress Circle, and £10 for Upper Circle which, as you'll see from the regular prices listed above, is a fantastic price. As a member you qualify for 2 discounted tickets to each performance and a half price programme on production of your membership card. You just need to make sure you get in early and book, as they will have a certain number of these seats allocated for each performance.
All in all, I would thoroughly recommend English National Opera, and it's the perfect introduction for those new to opera. Careful though, it may be the start of an expensive addiction!
When we saw the advert for all tickets to the Magic Flute priced at £5, we instantly decided to go, despite the fact we'd never been to the opera and hadn't even heard an opera before! A cheap night out in London is as rare as hen's teeth and I've been gradually trying to introduce myself to a little bit more culture - a classical music CD here, some more good literature there. My girlfriend is always up for anything involving big frocks and a stage, so we booked the instant the tickets went on sale. We ended up in the dress circle (it seems that the boxes were already taken), but our seats were fantastic. I priced for the same show on a normal night and we would have spent over £70 for them. After the evening we had, I can honestly say that paying full price would have been no skin off my nose.
Our evening at the ENO's beautiful venue (the Coliseum) started off sharp at 7:30 pm and it seems only fair to give you a small description of the surroundings and a brief potted history of the opera company itself.
Tenors and tantrums:
1898 - Lilian Baylis presented a series of concerts at the Old Vic theatre, later establishing a theatre company that grew into an opera company, complete with dancers. The combined company was known as the Vic-Wells Opera Company, which doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. Interestingly enough, the dancers eventually went their own way, forming what is now the Royal Ballet.
World War II - Now known as the Sadler's Wells Opera Company, the company tours extensively during the war years.
1968 - The company moves to the Coliseum, their current home and an architectural gem in the heart of Covent Garden.
1974 - The decision is taken to rename the company the English National Opera, a moniker which has remained since.
2007-08 - This season shows the best ticket sales in a decade, as an increasingly imaginative and business-savvy company makes great use of the talents of their performers and their beautiful venue, with a range of clever initiatives and a great website. Capacity soars from 68-85% and subscriptions and a range of clubs serve to bring fans back again and again.
As I've already admitted, I'm not an opera buff. It is, however, well-documented that the English National Opera has not always done so well. Their modernistic presentations of classics and tensions within their management staff led to some real problems and there have been some damning articles in the press on their past inability to pull together as a team. Opera was less than fashionable and certain members of staff were alienating a lot of the potential audience. In an article taken from the Times in 2002, a group of senior staff from the company set out a new direction by saying that 'the aim must be to create a new audience that does not see opera as a middle-class trophy art form'. You know what? I think that they've done it:
Staff are courteous and welcoming and more than happy to offer directions, advice and assistance. They are all willing to help out (with the exception, perhaps, of the surly bar staff) and I did not feel at all out of place. For someone whose typical night out is a gig or a trip to the pub, it was a pleasant surprise. I didn't detect even a trace of elitism among the staff, although there were a few rather snippy members of the public in attendance. In short, it was entirely different from what I expected. The audience was varied (perhaps more so than usual?) and I can honestly say that there appeared to be a pretty representative cross-section of the population there, from city gents to folk in sports wear. I did think it a little lazy that some people couldn't be bothered even wearing a shirt for a classy night out, but it takes all sorts!
Tickets for performances at the Coliseum range from ~£10-100 and you can get a glass of wine from £4-12, depending upon your budget and preferences. You could 'slum it' in the cheap seats and get a cup of coffee for less than £25 a couple, or you could go nuts and spend £300 on a box and a bottle of Bollinger...
All seats are not created equal:
While our seats were great, there are some in the theatre with slightly restricted view where you can't see the surtitles. In case you're wondering, these are the opera version of subtitles! They appear above the proscenium arch and are fantastic for those of you who're a little hard of hearing. Also, for the purists out there, surtitles aren't as odd as they sound - traditionally the lyrics to operas were sold before the performance, much as we buy programmes these days. Still, for the bargain rates charged for the seats at the cheaper end of the spectrum, there's really no room for complaint.
The Coliseum theatre was designed by famous theatre architect Frank Matcham and opened in 1904, although the ENO did not move in 'til later. They were able to purchase the freehold in 1992 and the cost of £12.8 million was considerable, even for the location. It is a beautiful traditional theatre, with immense drapes, red velvet and ornate gilding *everywhere*. It's a large venue for a theatre and can sit almost 2,500 patrons in comfort. It has a gigantic proscenium arch (the 'frame' for the stage) and wonderful murals and artwork.
The Coliseum can be found at:
8 Saint Martin's Lane
London, WC2N 4, United Kingdom
+44 20 76328300
The Magic Flute
Was a wonderful production, with true love, adventure and wit to spare. That and a heck of a lot of Freemasons! The costumes were flamboyant, the bosoms heaving and the singing epic. Whether they were mired in the depths of despair, singing yet another massive chorus or extolling their love for each other, the cast dragged me along on an emotional roller coaster. The sets were minimal but well thought out and the production staff had clearly done a very good job of planning sections that could be interchanged easily. It's incredible what they are able to do with so little. The Magic Flute is somewhat long in the tooth as far as the ENO's performances go, but it remains very vital and amusing. The ENO are well known for mixing more traditional performances such as this and La Boheme with more modern operas such as Britten's Peter Grimes, or even Doctor Atomic. The opera were on fine form and they definitely deserved the 10 minutes of clapping they got at the end. Opera seems to be a 40/40/20 split between singing, music, drama and comedy and it's a mix that works well.
Why not check out what other operas you can see at www.eno.org ?
A fantastic venue in the heart of London, with welcoming staff, great productions, class and a hell of a lot of character!
Some figures taken from www.eno.org, www.timesonline.co.uk and www.wikipedia.org