Particularly in the last few months, I’ve been posting tweet after tweet celebrating English National Opera not only for its fab productions but for its attitude towards young people. So much so, in fact, that I feel compelled to write a little more fully on the subject.
The first time I went to ENO was in 2010, when I was 15 and beginning to get excited about such things. Since then, I have been back time and time again, and I’ve been able to see incredible productions of Britten, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, Berg, Offenbach and Adams, as well as premieres by Muhly and Raskatov. And crucially, I’ve never, ever paid more than £30 for a ticket. ENO’s Access All Arias scheme allows 16-30 year olds and full-time students to sit for £30 in the stalls, £20 in the grand circle (my personal favourite) and £10 in the upper circle.
This is obviously great for reasons of affordability, but to me it means more than that. It means that when I go down to the Coliseum, collect my ticket and await the night’s production in the most beautiful surroundings, I feel like I have a right to be there. There’s no hint of being forced right to the top of the theatre (or even the back of a level) for the experience of squinting down/forward past my wealthier fellow patrons to see the stage. It means that I associate opera not with snobbery but with openness, not with the stench of acquired privilege but with the unique personal privilege of experiencing each production.
Naturally, the first appeal has to be the operas themselves. My first opera at ENO was, quite bizarrely, the premiere of A Dog’s Heart by Alexander Raskatov. Now, four years on I may not remember every nuance of the music, but I can’t forget its overwhelming visceral impact, nor the unimaginably clever puppetry involved. And, of course, as a fledgling composer, to see for the first time what can be achieved collaboratively at this level with new music was very inspiring. Peter Grimes was so good that I saw it twice last month; there the power and quality of every facet of the production was impressive beyond words, and I will not soon forget it. And then there are those individual moments which just take a hold and won’t let go: Nicky Spence singing gorgeously in Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, a giant ‘webcam’ live-stream right behind him; the gigantic mirror in The Tales of Hoffmann; the haunting young boy at the end of Wozzeck; the rose petals in Rigoletto, which I saw just a couple of days ago. Each experience totally confounds any preconception of opera as inaccessible, unintelligible, warbling excess.
It’s not enough for the productions to be great, though. A moment which really lifted an evening are, for instance, that the man selling me my programme (for half-price, by the way) in my first Grimes was keen to tell me, in detail, about the replacement members of the cast for that night. He wasn’t condescending, it didn’t look forced, he just clearly wanted me to enjoy my experience as much as possible. Likewise it’s clear that fellow audience members are excited to be there; at my second Grimes I had come alone and was talking very happily who to a lady who had just discovered the little screens with the conductor on. It’s so nice to be surrounded by a real mix of people, each with every bit as much right as anyone else to be there, and each apparently relishing the experience.
ENO has become a very special place for me, one that has been home to many unique and formative operatic experiences, and I’ll keep coming back at every opportunity. It would be fantastic to think other opera houses could take several leaves from their book (the Royal Opera House’s student scheme, unfortunately, doesn’t come close). Surely, even on a cold, financial level, drawing in people when they’re young makes sense in the long term! I know I will always think of ENO particularly fondly and with an immense amount of gratitude.