University College Opera's first performance at University College London was in 1951. UCO was the brainchild of the College's then Director of Music, Anthony Addison. In the difficult circumstances of the early post-war years it was his ambition to put on opera in a college which had no Faculty or Department of Music, and very little in the way of strong musical tradition. The main auditorium in UCL had been destroyed during the wartime bombing and for the first seventeen years of the opera's existence, performances took place under appallingly difficult conditions in the College's old Gymnasium. Anthony Addison conducted all performances, and received early recognition for the quality of his work; as Ralph Vaughan Williams noted in 1952 that he saw: "a sparkling performance by students of UCL."

It was in 1962 under the leadership of George Badacsonyi that significant changes began to take place in UCO's approach to performance and production practice. From the very start the policy had been to choose unusual or rarely performed operas, but in the early days the Opera was almost entirely a college activity and very much amateur based - the orchestra, chorus and nearly all the soloists were either current or very recent UCL students. During the 1960's the decision was taken to introduce aspiring young professional singers into the casts, and this policy was implemented on a very much larger scale with the opening of the Bloomsbury Theatre (originally the Collegiate Theatre). The whole production became much more professional after this, and, combined with the unusual repertoire, began to attract the critics, including members of the national press. UCO has since performed world premieres, new translations, and revivals of underperformed works, including Cesar Franck's Hulda (1994), and recently Rameau's Acante et Cephise (2012), and Rimsky Korsakov's The Snowmaiden (2014).

Today, UCO benefits greatly from its mix of amateur and professional cast and crew, to offer a unique and exciting experience to all involved parties.

Many student soloists have gone on to become professional singers, even returning to UCO as a professional in later years. Young professionals who performed for UCL have since risen to prominence, including Dame Felicity Lott, Jonathan Summers and Robert Lloyd.

University College Opera is currently conducted by the award-winning Charles Peebles.