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A Brief Guide to London Opera

London is as well served as any major city with world-class, as well as smaller and more experimental opera companies. There are plenty of opportunities to experience the art form at more affordable prices than those of the two main houses. Here is a run-down of both venues and companies on the current London scene:

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Royal Opera

Widely regarded as the grande dame of UK opera companies, Royal Opera also occupies a unique block of real estate – there has been a theatre on this Covent Garden site for nearly three hundred years. Since its establishment after World War II, the current Royal Opera company has staged a wide range of repertoire, generally sung in its original language, and commissioned a number of successful new operas. For better or worse, it is also well known for its patronage of international super-stars. Prices: £10-£205, www.roh.org.uk

English National Opera

Originally founded as the Vic-Wells Opera Company in 1931 by the legendary impresario Lilian Baylis, the company moved to its current location at the grandiose Coliseum theatre in 1968 and six years later changed its name to mark its commitment to opera sung in English. In recent years the company has been both commended and castigated for daring, hit-and-miss productions but also credited for its admirable support of home-grown talent. Prices: £15-86, www.eno.org

English Touring Opera

2009 marks the 30th anniversary of English Touring Opera. Originally named Opera 80, the company was set up with the aim of taking opera to parts of the country that would not normally have access to high quality productions. Over the years ETO have nurtured the early careers of many established singers, including Mary Plazas, Susan Gritton and Sarah Connolly, and offered a platform for world-class directors such as Richard Jones, Robert Carsen and Steven Pimlott. The company usually launches its tours at Hackney Empire but will also use the RCM’s Britten Theatre this autumn. Prices: up to around £30, www.englishtouringopera.org.uk

Transition Opera

Transition Opera, run by director/designer Netia Jones and the early music specialist Christian Curnyn, has fast established itself as one of the most daring and dynamic young companies around. Repertoire focuses on early music – a recent production of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis was especially well received – and modern and contemporary works, and the directorial approach is often experimental. Their residence at Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s East End, which claims to be the oldest surviving music hall in the world, provides them with an inspiring venue. Prices: up to around £40, www.transition-opera.com

The Opera Group

In just over a decade this young company, run by the director John Fulljames, have shot to the forefront of the contemporary classical scene. At the heart of their philosophy is a keen interest in musical story telling and this is explored in two new productions each year. The company scored a recent success with the London premiere of George Benjamin’s new opera Into the Little Hill at the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio and touring. Prices: up to around £30, www.theoperagroup.co.uk

Opera Holland Park

Now a staple British summer festival, Opera Holland Park presents its productions at a temporary venue in Holland Park, in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Events go ahead come rain or shine, but since the canopy and other facilities were improved in 2007 the experience is considerably more comfortable. Their choice of repertoire leans towards the classics but in recent years the company have performed riskier productions and lesser-known operas, such as Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re, which proved a big hit. OHP recently toured to nearby Richmond Theatre. Prices: £10-54, www.ohp.rbkc.gov.uk

London Lyric Opera

Concert performances of opera have increased in popularity over the years and the recently founded London Lyric Opera aims to capitalise on this trend. A new work is performed every four months throughout the year at a variety of different venues, from the Cadogan Hall to the Barbican Hall. So far they have proved ambitious – recent performances include Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer and Beethoven’s Fidelio – and have attracted some high-profile collaborative artists. www.londonlyricopera.com

Classical Opera Company

As the name suggests, this young opera company focuses its attention on operas by Mozart and his contemporaries. Founded in 1997 by the conductor Ian Page, it has helped to launch the careers of many well-known artists, including Emma Bell, Sally Matthews, Robert Murray and Lawrence Zazzo, and has recently made its recording debut. A long-anticipated collaboration with Royal Opera comes to fruition later this year. COC appears at the Linbury Studio, Sadler’s Wells, The Barbican, Wigmore Hall and Kings Place (including a series of Haydn opera evenings this month (11-15 March). www.classicalopera.co.uk

Royal Academy of Music

One of Europe’s oldest music conservatoires, the Royal Academy of Music attracts some of the finest musical talent, which is showcased in regular opera productions at the academy’s home base in Marylebone Road. www.ram.ac.uk

Royal College of Music

Like the RAM, the Royal College of Music regularly presents performances by its talented undergraduate and postgraduate students in its well-equipped Britten Theatre at Kensington (just behind the Royal Albert Hall). www.rcm.ac.uk

Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Based in London’s Barbican Centre, this conservatoire for the performing arts puts on a diverse range of public events, including high-quality opera productions, throughout the year. www.guildhall.ac.uk

Almeida Theatre

Almeida Opera, an annual event featuring contemporary work, seems to have finished but the Islington venue still hosts visiting opera companies during its Summer Festival.

Riverside Studios

The Hammersmith venue hosts opera works by such groups as Bill Bankes-Jones’ Tete a Tete, who put on annual festivals of new work. Last year saw The Opera Festival, which had 50 performances over 12 days, showcasing work by 23 different companies. A similar programme is planned for this August, as well as a new commission based on Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna in November.

Concert performances

Concert versions of opera are regularly given at all London venues: The Barbican, South Bank Centre, Cadogan Hall, St John’s Smith Square and the new Kings Place. Prices are comparable with the higher end of the range for classical concerts.

Glyndebourne on Tour

Glyndebourne on Tour, the touring wing of the illustrious summer festival, brings scaled-down productions to London and provincial towns throughout the UK.

Opera North

From its home in Leeds, Opera North tours its wide ranging productions and operatic projects throughout the north England and the midlands, also appearing in London at Sadler’s Wells in the early part of the year.

Welsh National Opera

Although based at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, WNO are also one of Europe’s busiest touring companies and, if not actually playing in London, come close to the capital on an annual basis (for instance Milton Keynes this Spring).


Aldeburgh became the permanent home of Benjamin Britten’s and Peter Pears’ English Opera Group and the company maintains its founders’ commitment to new work. They have toured the last couple of years to the Almeida Theatre and Kings Place.

- Laura Battle


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