English National Opera traces its roots back to 1931 when Lilian Baylis established the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company at the newly re-opened the Sadler’s Wells Theatre.
Baylis had been presenting opera concerts and theatre in London since 1898 and was passionate about providing audiences with the best theatre and opera at affordable prices, a belief that remains today at the heart of ENO.
During the Second World War the Sadler’s Wells Theatre was closed and the company toured the provinces, returning to its home in June 1945 for the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, which proved to be the most important British opera since Purcell’s time. Britten remains at the heart of ENO’s repertoire and a new, sold-out production of Peter Grimes in 2009 was universally acclaimed.
In 1968 Sadler’s Wells Opera relocated from Sadler’s Wells Theatre to the London Coliseum, a theatre designed by Frank Matcham in 1904 for the theatre impresario Oswald Stoll. Six years after the move to the London Coliseum, the Company was renamed English National Opera.
In the 1960s Sadler’s Wells Opera went from strength to strength, developing a reputation for nurturing British singers and exploring the then little-known operas of Janácek under the leadership of Charles Mackerras. The ‘powerhouse’ years of the 1980s saw important productions by, among others, David Pountney, David Alden and Nicholas Hytner. In 1984 ENO became the first British opera company to tour the United States, and in 1990 the first major foreign opera company to tour what was then the Soviet Union.
In 1992 ENO acquired the freehold to the London Coliseum and in 2000 embarked on a four-year restoration programme supported by National Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, The National Lottery through Arts Council England, Vernon and Hazel Ellis and a number of generous trust and individual donors to whom we are extremely grateful. The magnificently restored theatre re-opened in 2004.
Since the re-opening ENO has gone from strength to strength and in spring 2009 the Company received every available UK opera award for work in 2008, a unique achievement.
Today ENO is known for producing groundbreaking stagings of new and core repertoire and for its exceptionally high musical standards. In recent years ENO has had particular success in attracting new audiences to opera, forging creative partherships with opera companies around the world and in developing the careers of young British opera singers.
1898 Lilian Baylis, at the age of 23, presents a series of opera recitals at the Old Vic theatre in the Waterloo Road.
1912 She goes on to establish a theatre company at the Old Vic, initially performing cut-down versions of Shakespeare.
1928 Lilian Baylis takes on a small group of dancers: later renamed the Vic-Wells Ballet, the company eventually moved to Covent Garden to become the Royal Ballet.
1931Sadler's Wells Theatre re-opens and the Vic-Wells Opera Company is formed. Initially the Company performs at both the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells, alternating with straight theatre.
1937Lilian Baylis dies.
1939–1945 During World War II Sadler's Wells is requisitioned and the Company goes on weekly tour around the country, initially based in Burnley and later at the New Theatre, St Martin’s Lane.
1945 Sadler's Wells re-opens with Britten's Peter Grimes, introducing the first English opera composer since Purcell to receive international acclaim.
1968 Managing Director Stephen Arlen moves Sadler's Wells Opera from Sadler's Wells Theatre to the London Coliseum.
1974 Sadler's Wells Opera becomes English National Opera (ENO).
1984 ENO is the first British opera company to tour the United States.
1990 ENO is the first major foreign opera company to tour the former Soviet Union.
1992 ENO acquires the freehold to the London Coliseum.
2000 The Company embarks on a four-year restoration programme on its home, the London Coliseum, supported by English Heritage, The National Lottery through Arts Council England, Vernon & Hazel Ellis, and a number of generous trust and individual donors.
2004 The magnificently restored London Coliseum re-opens to the public.
2009 ENO wins all four UK opera awards and a new production of Peter Grimes, directed by David Alden with Stuart Skelton and Amanda Roocroft, receives universal acclaim and sells out.
2009 In a world first for broadcasting, Jonathan Miller’s new production of Puccini’s La bohème is screened live on Sky Arts 2 and Sky Arts HD while live backstage streamed on Sky Arts 1.
2010 ENO stages its first site specific opera at Great Eastern Quay in London’s Royal Albert Basin, Newham. The Duchess of Malfi is a collaboration between ENO and theatre company Punchdrunk and is also the subject of a Channel 4 documentary.
2011 ENO collaborates with broadcaster BSkyB to create the world’s first opera live in 3D - Hollywood filmmaker Mike Figgis’s staging of Lucrezia Borgia.
ENO wins The Royal Philharmonic Society Audience Development Award for reaching new audiences through The Duchess of Malfi and Access All Arias - a free scheme through people can book pairs of discounted tickets and buy half-priced programmes.
2012 The company was recognised for its work through winning all four available UK opera awards: the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera for the 'breadth and diversity of the artistic programme', Castor and Pollux (Olivier Award), Damnation of Faust (South Bank Sky Arts) and Eugene Onegin (Royal Philharmonic Society).
Lilian Baylis (1874–1937) was an English theatrical producer and manager. She managed the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells theatres in London, and established an opera company, which became ENO, a theatre company, which evolved into the National Theatre, and a ballet company, which eventually became the Royal Ballet.
Born in London, her education was mainly in music, and she began performing and teaching music at an early age. She spent some years (1891–1898) in South Africa as a music and dance teacher. The other major influence in Baylis’s life was her aunt, Emma Cons, who was an associate of Octavia Hill and worked energetically to improve the quality of life for those living in London’s slums. Cons owned a lot of property in slum areas around Waterloo and believed that providing alternative forms of entertainment to the pub would benefit people in the area. She owned the Old Vic Theatre and began to put on popular shows with cheap refreshments. When Baylis returned from South Africa, she helped her aunt with the management of the Old Vic. Discovering that she had a natural aptitude for the business, she gradually took on more management duties until, on Cons’s death in 1912, she took over the Old Vic, which she ran until her own death in 1937.
While she shared her aunt’s passionate devotion to the poor, her approach to the programming at the Old Vic was different. She wanted to give her audience the very best in theatrical entertainment and believed this was opera and Shakespeare. Because this was all new to the people in Waterloo, she made sure that the opera was always sung in English.
In 1925, Baylis began a campaign to re-open the derelict Sadler's Wells Theatre in North London, something she finally achieved with a gala opening on 6 January 1931, launching the combined ‘Vic-Wells’ opera, ballet and drama companies, of which ENO is a direct descendant.
In 1937 Baylis died of a heart attack at the age of 63 but the principles on which her theatre companies were founded remain at the heart of ENO to this day. Most productions are sung in English and for every performance 500 tickets are available for £20 or less.