London’s third permanent opera house – after the Royal Opera House and the London Coliseum, home to English National Opera - officially launches tonight (15 April 2004), with the opening of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, the first production in the inaugural season of the Savoy Opera, based at the West End's Savoy Theatre (See News, 29 Oct 2003).

The brainchild of impresario Raymond Gubbay and theatre owner Stephen Waley-Cohen, the Savoy Opera aims to make the art form more accessible to conventional West End audiences, presenting popular pieces in repertory with tickets priced from £10 to £49.50, often less than half the norm for opera. All operas are sung in English, without amplification.

Savoy Opera’s second production, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, opens tomorrow night (16 April 2004), continuing in repertory with The Barber of Seville until 19 June. The two launch productions are due to be followed by Bizet's Carmen and Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore (3 July to 11 September 2004), Verdi's La Traviata and Offenbach's La Belle Helene (25 September to 4 December 2004) and Mozart's The Magic Flute (15 December 2004 to 5 February 2005).

The new company comes under the artistic direction of Steven Pimlott, David Parry and Sarah Playfair, who’ve previously worked together at the Leeds-based Opera North. Pimlott is familiar to London theatregoers for his many productions as an RSC associate director and for the current West End musical Bombay Dreams. He is also joint artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre (See "Changing of the Guard", Features, 21 Apr 2003).

Producer Raymond Gubbay has previously backed numerous D'Oyly Carte seasons of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at the Savoy, while this past Christmas, he presented a pair of productions, The Pirates of Penzance and Peter Pan, starring Anthony Head, at the theatre (See News, 1 Sep 2003).

Elsewhere, Gubbay has had success with his in-the-round opera presentations at the Royal Albert Hall as well as high-profile musical revivals like Follies and last summer's On Your Toes, starring Adam Cooper, at the Royal Festival Hall. All of which is in addition to the 600-plus classical concerts he mounts across the country each year.

Built in 1882, the Savoy Theatre was the original home for numerous premieres of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. It was the first public building to be lit throughout by electricity. The theatre was virtually destroyed by fire in 1990 but, after extensive refurbishments, it reopened in 1993. With a capacity of some 1,100 seats, the Savoy is about half the size of Covent Garden's Royal Opera House, a factor that will contribute to the company's aim to produce more intimate and accessible productions.

- by Terri Paddock