University College Opera (UCOpera) was established in 1951 by the conductor Anthony Addison, then Director of Music at UCL. Since that time, the semi-professional company has become a leading musical organisation specialising in the production of rare or forgotten operas and a significant addition to London’s thriving opera scene. The society’s 1951 staging of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was an all-student affair that took place in a university gymnasium, the hall having been bombed in the war. UCOpera remained an amateur student company throughout the fifties and early sixties but its commitment to opening up the traditional operatic repertoire was clear and it produced works ranging from Mozart’s early opera Bastien und Bastienne in 1952, to The Devil and Kate by Antonin Dvořák in 1957, and the UK premiere of Halka by the Polish nationalist composer Stanislaw Moniuszko in 1961.
Addison had left UCL in 1953 but was succeeded by string of distinguished conductors including Sir Charles Mackerras and Marcus Dods, both of whom were very active in the musical life of postwar Britain. Nevertheless it was under George Badacsonyi, who led the Music Society from 1963-1976, that UCOpera really became the semi-professional organisation it is known as today. In 1963, a production of Verdi’s I Due Foscari was well received by critics, and in 1964 the company moved out of the university gym and into a larger venue for the first time, producing a rousing version of one of Mussorgsky’s last operas Sorochintsy Fair at the St Pancras Town Hall. By the mid-1960s, UCOpera had evolved into an ambitious, semi-professional organisation that was bringing in professional young singers to take on the most complex roles whilst retaining the enthusiasm that had characterised the amateur performances of the 1950s. The company were able to garner the interest of London’s theatre-going public with UK premieres from well-known composers, amongst them Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot, Haydn’s Die Feuersbrunst, and Beethoven’s Leonore. UCOpera’s productions at the Collegiate Theatre (later renamed the Bloomsbury Theatre) from 1968 onwards were reviewed yearly in prestigious music journals such as Opera and The Musical Times, slowly coming to form an integral part of the British operatic calendar.
From 1976 to 1980, UCOpera was headed first by Guy Woolfenden (at the time also Head of Music at the Royal Shakespeare Company) and then by Howard Williams (a repetiteur at ENO). They continued to tackle difficult and little-known works, giving three operas their UK premieres, most notably perhaps Prokofiev’s The Duenna. Christopher Fifield, a musical scholar and conductor, became director of UCOpera in 1981. He held the post for ten years, during which time a number of very interesting revivals took place including Jules Massenet’s Herodiade and the virtually unknown Die Loreley by Bruch. In the 1990s, the company was directed with great energy by David Drummond, staging in 1994 the world premiere of a restored version of César Franck’s Hulda. The presentation of this obscure work, which had not been staged in its entirety even during the composer’s lifetime, was greeted with great success and led some to reevaluate Franck’s oeuvre. Drummond’s final production at UCOpera in 2001 was a bold staging of Kullervo, opera by the Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen.
In the course of its long history, UCOpera has nurtured young operatic talent, giving many performers an outstanding chance to perform in a semi-professional capacity on the London stage. Well-known singers Felicity Lott, Jonathan Summers, Robert Lloyd, Julian Gavin and many others have performed with UCOpera in the early stages of their career. Perhaps more importantly, for over 60 years the annual production has offered the students of a university with no music department the chance to perform with very experienced music and theatre professionals. A small number of UCL student singers from the fifties and sixties went on to have successful professional careers, including Mary Illing and Terry Jenkins who sang with Sadler’s Wells and English National Opera respectively. More recently, Louise Kemény, a UCL student who performed in the 2009 production of Bloch’s Macbeth, has also gone on to sing professionally. The chorus, orchestra and minor singing roles are always performed by students, who make up production, stage-crew, lighting, and costume design teams as well.
Students and professionals are still coming together today to create beautiful music with lesser-known works that are not part of the traditional operatic canon. Since 2002, the company has been led by award-winning conductor Charles Peebles under whose baton it has produced, amongst a string of successful UK premieres, the only known staging of Rameau’s Acante et Cephise since 1760.