Despite being known as ‘the land without music’, the UK has long enjoyed a vibrant operatic scene, with the capital city of London being especially fortunate. This timeline highlights the most significant events.
London’s first opera
This early line drawing of Rutland House shows how the building used to look. The location of the house, demolished in the 1850s, is marked by today’s Rutland Gate.
Performance of William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes, which is considered the first real opera in London, presented at Rutland-House, Aldersgate Street, in the City of London.
The opening of the Dorset Garden Theatre
The Duke’s Company opened their lavish new Dorset Garden Theatre, off Fleet Street, close to the River Thames. In addition to plays, the company occasionally present semi-operas – the investment in rehearsals and production costs were punitive – culminating in the Dryden–Purcell King Arthur (1691) and Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen (1692).
London welcomes Italian Opera
ENO: ‘The House of Handel’
The London public’s taste for fully sung Italian opera developed during the first decade the 18th century under various impresarios. It culminated with the arrival of Handel in the 1710/11 Season and the major event of the season: the first performance of his Rinaldo.
Find out more about Handel in our beginner’s guide.
Establishment of Opera Seria in London
The establishment of the two Royal Academies, musical companies presenting opera seria sung in Italian under Handel’s musical directorship, satisfy London’s appetite for Italian opera.
Opera in English gains popularity in London
English composer Thomas Arne is best known for writing the patriotic song ‘Rule Britania’. This is a copy of the score from the song.
Handel abandoned Italian opera in 1741, turning instead to oratorio. For the next 40 years, the pasticcio reigned supreme at the King’s Theatre where Handel had enjoyed enormous success, using music by figures such as Pergolesi and Gluck.
Elsewhere in the capital, musical entertainments in English also proved very popular, following on from the success of Carey–Lampe’s The Dragon of Wantley (1737).
Successful new works (largely now forgotten) included Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes (1762); Love in a Village (1762), a pasticcio with music arranged by Arne; and Storace’s The Haunted Tower (1789) and The Siege of Belgrade (1791).
European composers like Verdi and Wagner flourish in the London Opera Scene
ENO’s production of Verdi’s La traviata
London’s wealth, population and theatrical and musical resources continued to attract the most eminent performers even when native composers were making virtually no contribution to the international operatic repertory.
Much of what was new in Europe by composers such as Bellini, Donizetti, Berlioz, Verdi and Wagner was brought to London, a situation that continued at least until the era of Puccini and Richard Strauss.
For figures such as the bel canto composers and Verdi, the greatest prestige lay with the Royal Italian Opera (and its successor, the Royal Opera); German opera in London during the 19th century was largely staged by visiting companies.
Also flourishing during the 19th century was a taste for English light opera such as Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl (1836) and Wallace’s Maritana (1845).
The Carl Rosa Opera Company comes to London
Director Fiona Shaw talks about Mozart‘s Marriage of Figaro
The Carl Rosa Opera Company gives its first London season. Not only does the company promote the work of British composers such as Stanford but also sings its entire repertory (Mozart to Massenet) in English, touring nationwide and presenting regular London seasons.
Gilbert & Sullivan bring comic opera to London
ENO is the Home of Gilbert and Sullivan
Gilbert & Sullivan’s one-act Trial by Jury launches their sequence of comic operas, which includes HMS Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879) and The Mikado (1885), many of which are presented at the Savoy Theatre under impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte.
The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company remained active in London and touring the UK until 1982.
Sadler’s Wells Theatre performs operas in English
Wagner’s Ring Cycle first performed in London
Interior view of the Royal Italian Opera House, Covent Garden, from the stage, drawn in 1847.
Mahler brings the Hamburg Opera to Covent Garden (home of the Royal [Italian] Opera) for Wagner’s Ring cycle.
Covent Garden remained London’s pre-eminent international house, with major star singers appearing such as Caruso, Lilli Lehmann and Melba.
See Wagner’s The Rhinegold at the London Coliseum from 19 Nov – 10 Dec 2021
UK premieres of Strauss’s opera
Thomas Beecham conducts operas at Covent Garden
ENO production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier
While Beecham’s various enterprises at Covent Garden included the British National Opera Company, international artists visiting the theatre included Bruno Walter, Melba and Gigli in the Italian repertoire and Lotte Lehmann, Flagstad and Melchior in the German. Richard
Strauss conducted his Ariadne auf Naxos at Covent Garden in 1936.
Vic-Wells Opera moves to Sadler’s Wells Theatre
Britten’s Peter Grimes in Premiered at Sadler’s Wells
Stuart Skelton sings the Great Bear and Pleiades from Britten’s Peter Grimes
The premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes at Sadler’s Wells launches the composer’s international career and kick-starts the post-war growth in native English opera, with works emerging from Lennox Berkeley, Tippett and Walton.
The fruits of that growth continue through to the end of the century and into the 21st with important new operas written by figures such as Thomas Adès, George Benjamin and Harrison Birtwistle.
The Royal Opera House re-opens
Following its closure during the Second World War, Covent Garden re-opens with the Covent Garden Opera Company (in 1969 renamed the Royal Opera), under the musical direction of Karl Rankl. It flourishes on a mixture of visiting and company artists, with a permanent chorus and orchestra.
The first British-born music director, Colin Davis, was appointed in 1971.
ENO moves to the London Coliseum
Sadler’s Wells Opera relocates to the London Coliseum, the largest theatre in the capital. In 1974 it is renamed English National Opera, with Charles Mackerras as music director and the Earl of Harewood as general manager.
Buoyed by the success of its new theatre, among the company’s many achievements is a memorable Ring cycle under conductor Reginald Goodall, with singers Rita Hunter, Alberto Remedios and Norman Bailey in the leading roles.
Read more about the history of ENO.
Opera Factory moves to London
Director Phelim McDermott on the ENO production of Così Fan Tutte
David Freeman’s Opera Factory moves to London where it is a successful vehicle for Freeman’s intensely physical production style. Its series of challenging and innovative productions include La Calisto and Così fan tutte, as well as contemporary works such as Tippett’s The Knot Garden.
The Royal Opera House undergoes major reconstruction
Royal Opera House auditorium in 2012.
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, undergoes a major reconstruction project. While the auditorium itself is left intact, well over half the complex is new.
Frank Matcham’s century-old theatre undergoes refurbishment
London Coliseum, home of English National Opera
The London Coliseum, home of ENO, re-opens after a major restoration project to Frank Matcham’s century-old theatre.
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