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8:10am Thursday 26th April 2012 in Theatre/Art
‘For the past decade and a half, if you spotted a poster offering a flashy-looking opera or ballet with an eastern European cast, in lavishly traditional costumes, with a real horse or a bare-breasted chorus… it’s probably her show.”
This is The Scotsman’s description of an Ellen Kent production, written in 2009 when she decided to “step back” (her words) from an “endless round of touring”.
But now she’s back, and we meet in the suitably stage-set ambience of the Savoy Hotel in London.
How, I ask, did her interest in big-scale, spectacular opera begin?
“I was born in the 1950s in India: my mother was a great Bollywood movies fan, and my father was British High Commissioner in Bombay. Everything around me was big, and I always liked that.
“Then we moved to Spain, and my mother, who was also a great opera fan, used to drag me off to Malaga to see ghastly travelling opera companies. She used to tempt me by taking me to a restaurant before the show. So it’s all there in my make-up.”
Ellen became an actress, and then, with her ex- husband, began touring national-level children’s theatre companies.
“At the same time I was touring seven French actors and 50 live goldfish in an environmental play from Lille. The fish kept dying off — this was supposed to be an environmental play, and there we were flushing these poor fish down the loo.
“At this point, in 1992, Rochester Council in Kent came trotting up to me and said: ‘Every summer we do this big festival, would you be able to give us some foreign stuff for Castle Gardens? It must be foreign, because we want to link with the Channel Tunnel when it opens’.
“Ideas swirl round my dyslexic brain, and I found myself saying: ‘What about an outdoor opera?’ I didn’t know anything about putting on opera — I was an ex-actress! So I got in touch with a lady called Carrie Middleton, who was ex-Welsh National Opera. She told me about the whole infrastructure, everything. Then I rang an Austrian promoter out of the blue, whose name I’d seen on a poster, and asked him about finding a big opera, but not one that would cost an arm and a leg.”
So a relationship was forged with the Romanian National Opera, and their production of Verdi’s Nabucco was proposed.
“It involved all sorts of shenanigans, and staying in the president’s summer palace,” Ellen gleefully reveals. “Finally, 200 people and all the costumes and scenery rolled up at Manston Airport in Kent. Welsh National Opera lent me their trucks — they were fantastic to me. I thought: ‘What have I done?’ But the thing was a sell-out, and the cast got ten-minute standing ovations.”
Ellen was duly hooked by opera’s “emotional plethora of big feelings to die for”. But after 15 years of touring big-scale opera and ballet, she decided it was time to take stock. “I was 60 years old, it was something of a kneejerk reaction. Now I’ve worked on a new slimmer template to fit these recessionary times, but still come up with a result.”
And, the irrepressible Ellen promises, there will still be horses and Afghan hounds — perhaps even the occasional goldfish.
“I assure you that all the things I love will appear on stage at least one more time. Watch this space.”
Ellen Kent productions of La Traviata and Madama Butterfly are at the New Theatre, Oxford, from May 3-5. For tickets visit www.atg.tickets.com/oxford, or phone 0844 871 3020.