We use cookies on this website to improve how it works and how it’s used. Read our cookie policy. I understand

History of ENO

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. More recently, ENO’s 2015/16 season saw the ENO Orchestra and Chorus honoured with the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera, and the ENO Chorus also triumphed in the International Opera Awards Chorus Category. Calixto Bieito’s production of The Force of Destiny was the winner of a Southbank Sky Arts Award.

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.

ENO chronology

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.

1931 Sadler’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.

1937 Lilian 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 discounted tickets and buy half-price 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).

2014 ENO wins the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for Opera and Musical Theatre for its “consistently outstanding work” in the operatic field.

2015 Richard Jones’ new production of The Mastersingers of Nuremburg wins the Best New Opera Production Award at the Oliviers along with an Outstanding Achievement in Opera Award for Jones himself.

2016 The Chorus and Orchestra of ENO jointly win the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera along with the International Opera Award for Best Chorus. In the same year Calixto Bieto’s The Force of Destiny wins Best Opera at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards.

2017 Phelim McDermott’s new production of Akhnaten wins Best New Opera Production at the Olivier Awards.

ENO continues to broaden the range of locations in which its talent performs, including at the Hackney Empire with Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD, Southbank Centre with The Dream Of Gerontius and for the first time inviting audiences into its West Hampstead rehearsal studios for ENO Studio Live, a new initiative to showcase emerging artists.

In 2018,  ENO will be continuing to expand its programme of work outside the Coliseum. In May the company will present the subversive music of Weimar Germany in Effigies of Wickedness at the intimate Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, while in June they will venture outdoors for Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. This will be the first appearance of ENO at both venues.