Saturday night at the opera with ENO

Opera is having a bit of an identity crisis at the moment. The English National Opera, who performs at the splendid, 111 year old London Coliseum, has been quietly modernising the art form, sexing up its shows with glamorous singers and overhauling its costume department. Word is slowly getting out, but the vast majority of my fellow opera-goers on Saturday night were still much older (and better-dressed) than the crowd you might find at, say, Mamma Mia. (That’s no bad thing, by the way; you’re less likely to be moved to violence by inappropriate muttering or – God forbid – texting throughout the show.)

Bizet’s Carmen, which debuted in 1875, is one of the big daddies of opera. It’s about a beautiful (and, it must be said, batshit mental) gypsy called Carmen, and the trail of destruction she leaves in her wake. It’s dramatic and over-the-top with catchy numbers you’ll have stuck in your head for days. Opera tunes aren’t exactly known for their hummability, but the number of recognisable songs make Carmen more of a classical musical than the stuffy old idea of opera most of us carry around in our heads. When Carmen sings ‘Habanera‘ (don’t worry, you know it), you’ll get the same chills as when Elphaba sings ‘Defying Gravity’ in Wicked, or Christine the title song in Phantom of the Opera. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, it’s a longer show than most, but only the same length as Les Miserables and – dare I say it – much more entertaining.

Carmen: femme fatale
Carmen: femme fatale

(There was a weird moment in the opening scene of the second half where a man came on stage, removed all his clothes and twirled around for a bit. It seemed to add nothing to the story so we presumed some lunatic exhibitionist had wandered in off the street and the stage manager had just decided to roll with it.)

And, of course, it’s worth going simply for the singers, who’ve trained their voices to the point where they can belt out their powerful tunes in vast auditoriums without a microphone (the Coliseum is actually the largest in the West End, with over 2,200 seats). It boggles the mind.

Cost-wise, opera tickets come in around the same mark as any of the big musicals in the West End, or maybe a little more for the very best seats. But, if you’re under 30, you can apply for ENO’s Access All Arias scheme. It’s free to join and allows you to buy significantly reduced opera tickets from just £10. There’s also the Secret Seat programme, which is open to everyone.


The West End is an ever-changing landscape. A few shows stay for years and years, some arrive in a blaze of glory and sell out their fleeting runs in weeks, others flop and fizzle into obscurity. Only opera – like 140 year old Carmen – survives. It’s lasted this long for a reason, so go and see some yourself. Carmen is showing until July 3rd and a fantastic first opera for the uninitiated, especially as ENO only sing in English, and have subtitles above the stage for the especially, er, operatic bits. It’s so easy to understand, even an uncultured swine like me can appreciate it! 🙂 Plus you’ll feel classy as fuck. Dates can be found online.

The London Coliseum, St. Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4ES

Author: Emily Gibson

Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in East London and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.