ENO mounted sixteen productions in its 2005-06 season with a paid attendance for the year of 216,236.
In 1898 Lilian Baylis presented a series of opera concerts at the Old Vic theatre. Some ten years later she established a theatre company there, initially performing 'cut-down' versions of Shakespeare's plays. She added a small group of dancers to the company, Sadler's Wells Theatre opened, and the Vic-Wells Opera Company was formed. The dancers later separated from Vic-Wells and became the Royal Ballet.
The company toured while the theatre was closed during the Second World War. It returned as Sadler's Wells Opera Company, and the theatre re-opened with Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, introducing the first English opera composer since Purcell to receive international acclaim (aside from Arthur Sullivan, who wrote the popular Savoy Operas but only one grand opera, Ivanhoe). Boyd Neel conducted the company from 1944 to 1946. In 1968 Sadler's Wells Opera moved from Sadler's Wells Theatre to the Coliseum; six years later the company was renamed English National Opera.
The strongest period of the ENO's history is generally regarded as the period around the 1980s with Peter Jonas as general director, David Pountney as artistic director, and Mark Elder as music director, known as the "Power House" years. In 1984 ENO was the first British opera company to tour the United States since the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, and in 1990 was the first major foreign opera company to tour the former Soviet Union. After acquiring the freehold to the London Coliseum, the company embarked on a four-year restoration programme in 2004. While the Coliseum was undergoing these changes, ENO temporarily made its home in the Barbican Centre. Martin Smith, who became ENO chairman in 2001, was an important financial donor to the restoration costs.
In the early years of the 21st century the ENO has been going through a period of artistic, administrative, and financial difficulties. In July 2002, Nicholas Payne resigned as ENO General Director, reportedly under pressure from Smith. His successor was Sean Doran, whose appointment was controversial because he had no prior experience of running an opera company and his primary artistic administrative experience was in festivals. One of Doran's notable achievements was a performance of Richard Wagner at the Glastonbury Festival. However, low box-office returns and critical reviews of the ENO Ring Cycle during the early part of his tenure contributed to Doran's difficulties in this position.
In December 2003 then music director Paul Daniel announced that he would resign from ENO at the end of his contract in 2005. In addition, towards the later part of Daniel's tenure, there were reports of clashes between him and Doran. In February 2005 Doran announced that Oleg Caetani would succeed Daniel as music director as of January 2006; Caetani, who uses his mother's maiden name, is a son of Igor Markevitch.
On 29 November 2005 Doran resigned as ENO artistic director, with immediate effect, during the first full season that he had programmed as artistic director. In December 2005, Caetani's appointment as the next ENO Music Director was cancelled, the month before he was scheduled to take up the post. To replace Doran, Smith decided to divide the duties between two people, and named Loretta Tomasi as chief executive and John Berry as artistic director. However, these elevations from within the organization were also controversial, because these postings were neither advertised nor cleared at the top level of the Arts Council. Smith received strong press criticism for this action, and in December 2005, Smith announced his resignation. Berry has also received criticism for his decisions regarding singer casting in ENO productions.
In March 2006 ENO announced its next Music Director, Edward Gardner, as of May 2007, with an initial contract of 3 years.
In 2007/8 the English National Opera oversaw a massive growth in its membership scheme for the under-thirties. Its Access All Arias scheme, founded two years ago for younger fans, has risen to 5,600 members making it the largest of its kind in Europe. That is a growth of 72 per cent in the past 12 months. As the new 2008/9 season launches, the ENO is hoping to build on last year's attendance figures which were the best in a decade. The ENO's home, the Coliseum, played to 85 per cent capacity last season up from 68 percent the previous year.
Although ENO performs all operas in English, in June 2005 the decision was made to introduce surtitles at the Coliseum. In the May - December 2007 season, ENO mounted The Magic Flute, The Coronation of Poppea, Carmen, Aida, and The Turn of the Screw.
Over the years the company has developed a distinctive pattern in its repertoire and staging. Major, well-known, operas have frequently been staged with assertively updated costumes and scenery, dividing opinion on the lines shown in correspondence in The Times in July 2002 when general director (Nicholas Payne) resigned in controversial circumstances:
Notable features of ENO’s productions have been two complete stagings of Wagner's Ring cycle; regular introductions of new operas; revivals of light operas and operettas (particularly Gilbert and Sullivan) and musicals; occasional stagings of oratorios in full operatic guise; and the avoidance of bel canto operas where vocal display takes precedence over musical and dramatic content.
The Sadlers Wells/ENO Ring cycle of the 1970s was a major milestone in the company's development. Music director Sir Charles Mackerras, though a sound Wagnerian, had the vision and generosity to cede the baton to Reginald Goodall, who had been a neglected figure on the Covent Garden staff for many years. Goodall's ability as a Wagnerian - albeit a slow one - was belatedly revealed and widely admired. The cycle had a new translation by Andrew Porter, and designs by Ralph Koltai which were generally welcomed as striking, while avoiding what some have seen as the gimmickry of later productions. How the cast of company members rose to the challenge may be judged from the complete live recording made by EMI, and reissued by Chandos Records. The singers included Norman Bailey, Rita Hunter and Alberto Remedios.
For the first time in 30 years Wagner's Ring returned to the stage in English, coinciding with the Company's 30th anniversary as English National Opera. Following staged concerts over the previous three seasons, ENO Music Director Paul Daniel led the company in a new production by Phyllida Lloyd, designed by Richard Hudson with lighting by Simon Mills, performed in the new ENO translation by Jeremy Sams. The Rhinegold, The Valkyrie and Siegfried were all staged in 2004, the Coliseum centenary year, and the production of Twilight of the Gods completed the new cycle in Spring 2005. The production was notable for its use of contemporary minimalist sets and costumes. Some critics described Phyllida Lloyd's Cycle as superior to that at the Royal Opera House in almost every way, although many others thought it was muddled and that its "relentlessly trivialising" approach served only to belittle Wagner's cycle. It was also criticised as being poorly sung and conducted.
The Coliseum Theatre, near Trafalgar Square, is one of London's largest and best equipped theatres. It opened in 1904, the creation of the most powerful theatre manager of the day, Oswald Stoll, and the foremost theatre architect, Frank Matcham. Their ambition was to build the largest and finest 'People's palace of entertainment' of its age. English National Opera moved into the theatre in 1968. In 1992, ENO bought the freehold for £12.8m. The theatre underwent extensive renovations between 2000 and 2004 and has the widest proscenium arch in London as well as being one of the earliest to have electric lighting. It was built with a, rarely used, revolving stage. The mechanics have now been removed and the space understage is used as a staff canteen.
The former Decca Studios in West Hampstead, now known as Lilian Bayliss House, are used for ENO rehearsals. During the tenure of English National Opera this building has suffered from many years of neglect and is now in a poor state of repair. There are reminders of the former occupants everywhere, such as red lights above studio doors and microphone tie lines dotted about the building. In what is now known as Studio 1, the projection screen used when recording orchestral music for feature films is still in place.At last in 2008 things have started to improve in this building with extensive work undertaken on the ancient heating and ventilation systems and rewiring of an electrical system that was unable to cope with a 40 watt bulb without blowing an entire ring main. Superficial redecoration has also begun.
eno baylis is the education department of ENO. They involve around 12,000 people every year in a wide range of projects, events, courses and performances, with a goal of developing creative responses to opera and music theatre; making new work with communities and exploring individual creativity as a means of providing access to ENO's productions; and encouraging learning and development through participation of artists and collaboration of resources.