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Ten operas for theatregoers

We've cherry picked ten operas for anyone who is not sure where to start

Tickets for the English National Opera's new season are now available exclusively, apart from members priority, through WhatsOnStage.

To celebrate, our opera editor Mark Valencia has rounded up some of the best shows you can see this season for the theatregoing opera newbie. Tempted to dip a toe in the waters of opera but unsure where to start? It's not just the music that makes them tick; the best of them are brilliant theatre too.

Here are ten of the best. One for each toe.

Book tickets exclusively for the new ENO season here

Scottish Opera's La bohème starring Jeanine De Bique (Musetta) and the chorus of Scottish Opera
© Sally Jubb

La bohème

Starvation and death were never so romantic. The tale of Rodolfo's love for poor, consumptive Mimì in snowbound 19th-century Paris can lay claim to being the most popular opera of them all, and with good reason. It's a three-hanky show.

Listen out for: the love scena in act one, Musetta's showstopper in act two, and Puccini's masterly, atmospheric music for act three.

Where can I see it? Scottish Opera's new production is touring north of the border from now until mid-June, and in August Alex Ollé's Turin production plays at the Edinburgh Festival. In London, the new production by Richard Jones opens at the Royal Opera House in September and returns in June 2018. You're never far from a Bohème.

If you enjoy it, try: Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Manon Lescaut


It may be constructed like an operetta, but Carmen is a dark drama that sets human freedom on a collision course with human frailty. The fatal ingredient is lust, and as the hapless Don José becomes lost in its thrall it can only end in tragedy.

Listen out for: a cascade of well-known, sun-soaked arias. You'll know them even if you think you don't. Not for nothing is Carmen dubbed the first musical.

Where can I see it? Annabel Arden's new production opens at The Grange Festival on 11 June and a radically rethought staging by Barrie Kosky opens at the Royal Opera House in February 2018. Also, hugely recommended for its close-up drama, catch Peter Brook's chamber version, La tragédie de Carmen, when the Royal Opera's young artists stage it at Wilton's Music Hall this coming November.

If you enjoy it, try: The Pearl Fishers, Djamileh, The Tales of Hoffmann (Offenbach)

Carmen Giannattasio as Nedda in Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci
© ROH. Photographer: Catherine Ashmore

Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci

Two composers, one double-bill. For some, Cav & Pag are just a double bill of Italian schlock; for others they are what the summit of verismo – opera drawn from life, in this case a pair of rural tragedies rich in adultery, revenge and murder.

Listen out for: Luscious set pieces: The Intermezzo and Easter Hymn from Mascagni's Cav; Tonio's prologue and Canio's final tirade from Leoncavallo's Pag.

Where can I see them? Both operas are included in Opera North's season of six one-acters, Little Greats opening in September. Damiano Micheletto's Olivier Award-winning production of the classic double feature returns to the Royal Opera House in December.

If you enjoy them, try: Zazà (Leoncavallo), L'Amico Fritz (Mascagni), Il trittico (Puccini)

Opera Holland Park's Don Giovanni
© Caroline Blackburn

Don Giovanni

Mozart's retelling of the Don Juan story benefits from a thrilling score and a punchy libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte that likes its humour grim and its drama dark. The opera's hurtling narrative culminates in a stunning sequence in which the serial womaniser (and probable rapist) is dragged down to hell.

Listen out for: everything! Leporello's ‘catalogue' aria (an early patter song in which the Don's manservant lists his master's affairs); the two arias for tenor, "Dalla sua pace" and "Il mio tesoro", and Zerlina's "Batti, batti", a less-than-innocent invitation to her husband-to-be to beat her if he doesn't trust her.

Where can I see it? Oliver Platt's new production opens at Opera Holland Park in June, Iván Fischer's Budapest production plays at the Edinburgh Festival in August, Allessandro Talevi's audacious staging is revived by Opera North next Feburary, and Kasper Holten's big, video-heavy staging returns to the Royal Opera House in June 2018.

If you enjoy it, try: The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte, The Magic Flute


Verdi's final opera, a rare comedy, is his crowning masterpiece. It's derived from The Merry Wives of Windsor veined through with fragments from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and the composer's depiction of Shakespeare's ‘fat knight' dazzles with its dynamic humour and its huge heart.

Listen out for: The eight-part patter ensemble in act one, "Del tuo barbaro" and the great final fugue, "Tutto nel mondo".

Where can I see it? In June 2018 Garsington Opera stages a new production by Bruno Ravella, while Robert Carsen's witty version, complete with a scene-stealing horse, returns to the Royal Opera House a month later.

If you enjoy it, try: Otello, La traviata, Rigoletto

Opera Holland Park where Kat'a Kabanova will be revived
© Opera Holland Park

Kat'a Kabanova

Janacek dramatises stories with a greater theatricality than almost any other composer. For anyone who's a theatregoer at heart, he is number one. Based on Ostovsky's play The Storm, this Russian tale inspired its Moravian composer to a tense score of tangy East European colours. Its portrait of domestic tragedy overflows with compassion.

Listen out for: two great female roles and a cast of sharply defined characters, all with their own musical style.

Where can I see it? Catch the acclaimed production by Olivia Fuchs when it's revived this July by Opera Holland Park.

If you enjoy it, try: Jenufa, The Makropulos Case, The Cunning Little Vixen

ENO's A Midsummer Night's Dream
© Bill Cooper

A Midsummer Night's Dream

For anyone who loves Shakespeare, this is the first opera par excellence. Britten reshapes the play but remains faithful to the text, and the music's evocation of nocturnal shenanigans is magical.

Listen out for: Oberon, sung by the ethereal voice of a countertenor, and the opera's closing minutes of aural enchantment.

Where can I see it? Next month in a star-studded new production by Netia Jones at Snape Maltings as part of the 2017 Aldeburgh Festival, and again in March 2018 when Robert Carsen's legendary ‘bed' production returns to ENO.

If you enjoy it, try: Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, Billy Budd

An image of the Royal Opera House's production of Salome
© ROH / Clive Barda


Stark, heartless and exhilarating, Richard Strauss's setting of Oscar Wilde's play, performed with no interval, pulls no punches in its depiction of a young girl's depravity. Banned in its early days for its eroticised depiction of biblical material, it retains its shock value through its luxuriant dramatisation of appalling transgressive behaviour.

Listen out for: Salome's outburst of perverted ecstasy "Jochanaan, ich bin verliebt" and the famous Dance of the Seven Veils

Where can I see it? David McVicar's visceral production returns to the Royal Opera House in January 2018. A new semi-staged production from Opera North plays in Leeds, Edinburgh, Coventry and Liverpool the following April.

If you enjoy it, try: Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos

Skills Ensemble and Alan Oke in ENO's Satyagrah
© Donald Cooper


...or the Gandhi opera. Philip Glass's minimalism isn't to everybody's taste but, as ENO's Akhnaten showed last year, when it's allied to Phelim McDermott's breathtaking visual sensations his music becomes hypnotic and beautiful. Audiences have loved this 1979 opera in Julian Crouch's epic designs. Dive in and soak it up.

Listen out for: tenor Toby Spence in his role debut as Gandhi.

Where can I see it? ENO's production returns to the London Coliseum for its third revival in February 2018.

If you enjoy it, try: Akhnaten, In the Penal Colony, Einstein on the Beach

The Open Air Theatre's staging of Porgy and Bess where Turn of the Screw will run
© David Jensen

The Turn of the Screw

Taut, short and shuddersome, Britten's claustrophobic retelling of Henry James's ghost story is a small masterpiece that rarely fails to deliver chills. In the right hands, the tale of a governess whose young charges may or may not be possessed by the evil dead makes brilliant theatre.

Listen out for: the eerie, melismatic call of the ghosts that closes act one; the piano and letter scenes in act two.

Where can I see it? in June 2018 Timothy Sheader directs a new production at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. It's a co-production with English National Opera.

If you enjoy it, try: Curlew River, Owen Wingrave, Death in Venice

Book tickets exclusively for the new ENO season here


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