A Night at the Opera

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NOISY BUT NICE: John Adams dissonant opera Doctor Atomic

When it comes to opera, big is traditionally beautiful. But London's English National Opera (ENO) — the small, scrappy neighbor of the illustrious Royal Opera House — has succeeded by going a different route. While major opera houses bank on grand sets and virtuosos projecting stiffly from center stage, the ENO's nimble productions are as intimate as the form permits. "We want to draw our audience in rather than draw their attention to the artifice of what they are watching," says artistic director John Berry.

The formula is working. Offering tickets from as low as $15, the ENO balances popular appeal with innovation. It is best known for singing foreign operas in English and setting classics in the more recent past — last season saw Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème staged in the fragile interwar period of 1930s Paris. But while other European opera houses experiment with extreme directorial conceits — Germany's Komische Oper recently performed Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio in an S&M torture chamber — the ENO has found a way to make old favorites feel revitalized rather than remade. "We have to remember what made these classics great in the first place," Berry explains. (See pictures of London.)

The ENO has also managed the seemingly impossible by drawing in new audience members with contemporary operatic work. Around 70% of the 15,000 people who attended a recent run of the contemporary American composer John Adams' Doctor Atomic had not been to the ENO before, a startlingly high figure given that the opera borders on atonality for much of the first half. When the ENO promoted Leos Janacek's 20th century masterpiece Jenufa with a money-back guarantee for first-time ticket buyers, it didn't end up refunding a single ticket.

The 2009-10 season will include revivals of some past ENO classics, but there will also be a dozen new productions. London has a long history of competing theatrical companies, going all the way back to Shakespeare's day. But when it comes to opera, Berry says, "the days of the ENO being thought of as London's second opera house are over."

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