ELLEN KENT has been on a mission for the past two decades to knock the stuffiness out of opera. And though she is now 64, the impresario/producer/artistic director — or, as she would call it, just “an obsessive kind of person” — shows no signs of letting up.
Her internationally touring productions have been dubbed the “Las Vegas” of opera, and are designed to have mass appeal. Last year the cast of Carmen included a dashing white stallion, and a previous production of Tosca starred a large golden eagle.
So what can we expect to see in this year’s tour of Aida, Nabucco and La Bohème coming to a number of local theatres? Apart from the musical expertise of the Chisinau National Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra, lavish costumes and sets, Aida will feature a real live wall of fire, La Bohème a real dog for Mimi and Nabucco a fresh interpretation of the hanging gardens of Babylon. As she says herself: “I don’t do things by halves.”
“The show Miss Saigon had a helicopter, so why can’t I have a horse?” she says. “My shows are consumer-led. I don’t get any money from the government these days, it’s just bums on seats. I’m throwing it open and taking away that illusion that opera is only for certain terribly intelligent people. I’m trying to make opera attractive and open it up to everybody.”
Opera was far from Ellen Kent’s mind as a young woman — she trained as an actress at the Bristol Old Vic theatre school back in the Seventies and set up her own production company when her daughter came along, so that she could spend more time with her family. Her company, based in Kent, specialised in bringing touring children’s shows over from France and it was in the middle of this phase that she got her first chance to stage an opera — almost by chance.