I was invited by the English National Opera to a behind-the-scenes tour of the London Coliseum, to taste and review the new seasonal menu at the American Bar restaurant, and watch their latest opera production La traviata. All opinions are my own.
Who Goes to the Opera?
Many opera houses are struggling to attract millennials through their doors. But why? Millennials love experiences over things and spend more money on food, travel and theatre tickets than previous generations ever did. So why aren’t there more of them at the opera?
The answer is pretty simple, people go where their friends go. I’m probably more likely to bump into someone I know halfway around the world at Burning Man or Coachella than here in London at the opera. While that may be true, the real question is, are we missing out?
I had only been to the opera once before when I was 20 years old on a week-long summer program dubiously called “Lobbying in Brussels” – in Prague. Although I was very young and completely disinterested in anything not involving strobe lights and tequila shots, I foolishly let this single experience define my views on the opera. Even when all I could remember was getting very dressed up and taking a two-hour nap in the National Theatre, I still drew the conclusion that the opera was not for me.
Ten years later, I decided to give the opera another chance. I wanted to find out if I would still be bored, or possibly fall asleep, while on the lookout for opera’s relevance to my generation. Of course, there is a big difference between a 20-year-old and a 30-year-old’s appreciation of the performing arts. But mostly, I was completely wrong about the opera and who it is for. (Hint: it’s for everyone, especially millennials!)
There are three main myths that many millennials believe to be true about the opera. That it is boring, old-fashioned and expensive. Since there is no smoke without fire, it’s true that the opera can be all of those things. But it can also be thrilling, modern and cheap!
Myth 1: Opera is hard to understand
All operas at the English National Opera (ENO) are in English with subtitles across the top of the stage making it easy for anyone to follow. Watching an opera sung in English compared to the one in Prague that was not was like night and day. Of course it’s boring to watch if you don’t understand what’s being said. The same applies regardless of whether it’s a movie or an opera.
Myth 2: Opera is old-fashioned and for old people
When you think of the opera, you might think of mostly very white, very grey, pointy-nosed and deep-pocketed people. At the London Coliseum, it was nothing like that. London is such a diverse city attracting a mixed crowd and laid-back approach to dressing up. On the ENO website, they explain further what to expect and that dressing up is entirely optional.
Actually what impressed me most, is how modern and beautiful the La traviata production was. Violetta’s costumes were breathtaking, as well as the mirrored Art Deco set in the opening scene. Newly-appointed artistic director David Kramer took a minimalist approach to the rest of the staging, which seemed better understood and appreciated by millennials than the older crowd.
Myth 3: The opera is too expensive
Operas are very expensive productions and this is reflected in the ticket price. However, there are numerous deals with at least 500 tickets at every ENO performance at £20 or under. In fact, ticket prices start at just £12 with several different ways to save. Such as Secret Seat, where you can buy a £20 unallocated seat in advance and be guaranteed a seat worth £30 or more on the night.
Backstage at the London Coliseum
The London Coliseum is the largest theatre in London with a staggering 2,359 seats. The best place to appreciate this fact is of course from the stage itself, with the orchestral stall, golden balconies and red velvet seats before you. To access the stage, I recommend booking a behind-the-scenes tour in advance.
The tour is a fantastic opportunity to learn lots of interesting facts about the century-old theatre, which first opened on Christmas Eve in 1904. It’s also a must for anyone interested in the inner workings of theatre production. Backstage, our guide Tom explained the various challenges of such an old theatre for today’s modern requirements.
In contrast to the Royal Opera House, which underwent a major renovation in 2016 to fully automate the sets, the Coliseum still relies on more traditional methods. Its storage capacity of 3 sets maximum further restricts the number of different shows and stage designs that are possible. It’s fascinating to see what the set designers come up with given these restrictions. For example, this incredible circular art deco set that featured in the opening act of La traviata.
To experience it for yourself and hear the full story, I highly recommend booking a guided tour for your next Coliseum visit.
The American Bar Restaurant
The American Bar Restaurant is set inside a beautiful wood-paneled room, fully catered by Benugo. Researchers of millennial preferences have found that most are looking for a full experience on a night out that includes food, drink and entertainment. One of the key benefits of eating in-house is that the waiters know they have to keep to the performance times. So you can relax knowing you won’t be late for the next act.
The restaurant serves British food with a simple new Spring menu of 4 starters and 5 mains to choose from. The menu has both vegan and vegetarian options, offered at great value: £20 for two courses or £25 for three.
I ordered the smoked salmon & Cornish crab parcel, with créme fraiche, caviar and orange reduction (below-right). It was absolutely delicious, tasting light and fresh, and full of flavour. My husband chose the seared scallops with butternut squash puree, chorizo and parmesan crisp, also well balanced and portioned.
For mains, I chose the seared hake fillet with shrimp & mussels, pickled shallots and purple sprouting broccoli. George chose the fillet of beef with celeriac puree, cavolo nero, king oyster, red wine, and truffle jus. The food tasted as delicious as the photos show. Flawless presentation, especially the English china the hake came served in.
In addition to the gorgeous food, the best thing about the restaurant is how perfectly the food compliments the show. We ate our starters and mains before the first act, returning in the 15-minute interval to eat our desserts. Then we came back again in the second interval for tea and coffee. Meanwhile, they kept our tables for us and our orders were already waiting as we took our seats. I absolutely loved having a place to go with food and drink as we gossiped about the show.
Spoken like a true millennial, combining food and theatre at the American Bar Restaurant is the perfect way to experience a night at the opera. Click here for bookings.
La traviata by Verdi
La traviata is a very famous opera by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. It’s a controversial love story about Violetta, a famous courtesan who lives for the night and doesn’t believe she is worthy of love. Until she meets Alfredo Germont at a party. After he convinces her of his deep love for her, they decide to give a life together in the country a try.
However, upon hearing about his son’s relationship with the disreputable Violetta – and how it will ruin his pure and innocent daughter’s chances of marriage by tainting the family name – Alfredo’s father persuades her to break up with his son.
What happens next, I’ll leave to you to find out!
OK you’ve convinced me, now take me to the opera!
Opera productions at the London Coliseum rotate fast, typically lasting about one month. Although La traviata is no longer showing at the ENO, you may catch it elsewhere. It is one of the most performed operas in the world! To see what else is on, visit the ENO website for a list of upcoming productions.
The London Coliseum is also home to the English National Ballet, where I saw the beautiful Giselle ballet last year. For what’s playing you can visit their website here.
Photos of the production, feature image and external London Coliseum were kindly provided by the ENO.