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Behind the Scenes at the English National Opera

Photographer: Neil Hall


Backstage the performers stand in the dim-lit gloom. Amongst props, cables and lighting equipment they laugh, engrossed in a conversation about their plans for the next day. Silently, the stage-manager steps forward holding a bundle of script-notes and prompts and points towards a performer. Barely interrupting the conversation, the performer breaks into a giant opera cascade of sound as he steps on stage to the marvel of a full house.


So slick and professional are the team members at the English National Opera, that even during a performance of one of the season’s key operas, The Barber of Seville - the backstage atmosphere feels more like a library or station waiting room; hushed and no-one in any great hurry.


Over a hundred people are involved in putting on a single performance of an opera. Everyone plays their part – actors, musicians, managers, prop-makers, costume, front of house staff – even a man whose job it is to hold a small pistol backstage and fire a single shot to match with the actors.


On a night of the performance, a singer will have rehearsed for months and arrives at the theatre as the set is constructed and dressed, each prop carefully checked. They rehearse and warm up in a small room before dressing and having their make-up and hair done. Front of house staff will clean and prepare the theater, stocking programs and drinks at the bar.


As the doors open and the audience arrive, the musicians enter the orchestra pit and begin to warm up. As people take their seats the backstage fills with actors, technicians and crew and the maestro enters, walking to his orchestra to applause. He raises his baton and the show begins.


Backstage is a quiet hum of activity – with plenty of time for a cheese sandwich and conversation but as soon as people see their cue, sets change, lights come on and actors magically appear in the right place to the right piece of music.


The English National Opera (ENO) is an opera company based in London. It is one of the two principal opera companies in the city. The ENO traces its roots back to 1931 when Lilian Baylis established the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company at the newly re-opened the Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Baylis had been presenting opera concerts and theater in London since 1898 and was passionate about providing audiences with the best productions at affordable prices. The ENO became the first British opera company to tour the United States, and the first major foreign opera company to travel to what was then the Soviet Union.