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Interview: Opera star Ellen Kent

GOOD news for opera lovers in the North East – and for those who thought they didn’t like opera but found themselves susceptible to a bit of showmanship: Ellen Kent is back.

Ellen Kent
Ellen Kent

GOOD news for opera lovers in the North East – and for those who thought they didn’t like opera but found themselves susceptible to a bit of showmanship: Ellen Kent is back.

Over several years Ellen’s Eastern European opera companies – moulded to appeal to British audiences – became a popular fixture on the Sunderland Empire stage, the region’s biggest.

People learned to look out for Ellen Kent and her Opera & Ballet International in each new season brochure.

Over time – across the country and particularly in Sunderland – she managed to silence those who regarded her initially with mild disdain. Opera, they seemed to imply, was for the Royal Opera House.

Ellen, with her beautiful girls, her wonderful costumes and her publicity-grabbing horses and eagles, paid little attention.

Seeing no reason why great voices shouldn’t go hand-in-hand with arresting effects – gimmicks, some might say – Ellen kept getting audiences. She was once presented with a crystal bowl by the Manchester Opera House for breaking box office records.

But while Ellen is back – productions of Tosca and Carmen come up at the Empire later this month – did she ever really go away?

“In 2009 I closed everything down,” she tells me on the phone.

“After 20 years I got rather tired of touring. I felt like a hamster in a cage, going round and round. I thought I needed a break.

“I felt there was too much of me, that people would start thinking: here she comes again.”

Rather than put up her feet, she entered into an arrangement with another promoter. She’s choosing her words carefully but you sense that it didn’t really work out. Certainly it didn’t satisfy her creative urges.

She tells me: “A huge number of people said to me, ‘Where are you? We can’t believe you’ve stopped doing this’.

“In the end I thought: I’ve got to start doing this again myself and put my own money on the table like I did in the 1990s. It almost feels like I’ve come full circle.

“Never again will I ever go into business with anybody else. It is the wrong thing for someone like me.”

Volunteering the information that “I’ll be 64 on April 19”, which seems to astonish her even more than it will astonish those who know of her youthful enthusiasm, she confirms that, yes, she is indeed back, though with a scaled down operation – a tiny but trusted team rather than the previous modest but trusted team.

What kind of woman is Ellen Kent? An indomitable mover and shaker with an adventurous spirit and an attractive, mildly self-mocking sense of humour.

I first met her in 1994 when she was preparing to put her dream into reality by bringing the Romanian National Opera to Britain for a week.

I was one of a party of journalists whom she flew to Bucharest, a city still bearing the scars of the Ceausescu regime less than five years after the dictator was deposed and shot in a brief but bloody uprising.

Communist concrete contrasted with the flamboyant beauty of the opera houses dating from a previous era. We checked into our hotel during a power cut and we were mobbed by galloping bands of half-naked Gypsy children.

We were served gallons of vodka in dozens of tiny glasses and watched a performance of Nabucco. Tickets to the opera in Romania were relatively cheap, we were told, so the audience was not arranged according to money or class.

We had a trip to Dracula’s castle – via a ruler-straight Soviet-style road where crazy drivers dodged around horses pulling carts – and met Ellen’s Romanian sponsor whom she now refers to as a Mafia boss.

Certainly he delighted in showing us the many art treasures he had bought, all with the price tags still attached.

It was fun and buccaneering and Ellen seemed to be in her element.

I learned that she had studied classics at Durham University in the early 1970s, making her mark one night when she climbed a church tower with a fellow student and attempted to muffle the bells with sheets.

“We were hauled over the coals and threatened with all sorts for that,” she recalls.

She had been born in Bombay where her Scottish father was posted as a diplomat. Her mother, who was Indian, preferred Switzerland to Britain so Ellen had only visited this country once before being sent to boarding school in Norfolk, aged 11.

She recalls it was “a bit of a culture shock”. But she was resilient. She was a tomboy and climbed things a lot – explanation for that Durham escapade. She had “a little gang”.

If anyone could get a Romanian opera company to Britain, and persuade them to adapt their old, Communist-inspired performance ideals to satisfy western audiences, then it was her.

And she managed it, surmounting many obstacles along the way. She then turned to Ukrainians and Moldovans.

Ellen seems to be particularly fond of the Moldovans and it is their Chisinau National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus who will perform the music of first Puccini and then Bizet in Sunderland, along with a cast of international soloists.

“I like to swap around because if you work with one company for too long, they get a bit complacent,” she explains.

“But I know my way around Moldova. I’ve been going there since 1996 and I know a lot of people. I can get things done there.”

Having extricated herself from the partnership deal last year, Ellen headed back to Moldova and set about knocking things into shape.

“I don’t just stick any old rubbish on stage,” she asserts. “I direct the operas myself, I decide on the costumes – fabulous costumes – and the sets. And I’ve got some brilliant soloists.”

Indicating the poster for Carmen, she points out that the gorgeous girl portrayed is not just some model picked for the purpose but the actual singer in the title role, Nadia Stoianova – “beautiful girl and a very good singer”.

Star of Tosca is the soprano Elena Dee who runs the risk of being upstaged by the golden eagle, Nabucco, supplied by bird of prey expert Derek Tindall.

“He was called Mouse but that didn’t seem a very good name for a golden eagle,” says Ellen.

Carmen, she confesses, isn’t her favourite opera but it is a box office favourite and she did start smoking cigars as a result of it, giving it a special place in her affections.

No-one goes into opera for an easy life and Ellen, true to her maverick instincts, arguably does it the hard way. But it has provided a few creature comforts.

“I bought a small country estate in 2008, 15 acres and 12 miles outside Canterbury,” she volunteers. “It’s a beautiful Art and Craft home and was built by Joseph Conrad’s son.”

The recession then came and clobbered her. But when Ellen says none of this is about the money, you are inclined to agree. Even a fraction of her CV tells you it’s other things that make her adrenalin flow.

See her Tosca at Sunderland Empire on April 24. Carmen follows on April 25. Tickets from the box office on 0844 871 3022 or via www.atgtickets.com/sunderland

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