It’s difficult at the best of times to get art to pay for itself. We’ve come to accept, in this country at least, that creative endeavour and first-class performances often need public funding, and this contributes to a productive society and economy.
Of all the art forms, opera is routinely the most expensive. From Monteverdi to John Adams and from Mozart to Verdi and Puccini, there are no great two-handers. Operas call for large casts of principals as well as large set and wardrobe operations – and that’s before you get to the chorus, the 80 musicians in the pit, and (of no small significance, cost-wise) the conductor.
For 25 years Ellen Kent, as Opera and Ballet International, has been producing shows and touring them around the UK, making a speciality of bringing over Eastern European companies, more recently using them as a base from which to cultivate her own troupe.
When we speak she is in Moldova, with whose Chisinau National Opera she has regularly collaborated. Tonight is the opening night of her La Boheme – one of three shows, along with Nabucco and Aida, she is bringing to tour in the UK this autumn and spring. It’s no doubt down to her long experience that not a hint of pre-show jitters threatens to puncture her suave, lucid and effusive conversation.
“For a long time,” she says, “people looked upon Eastern Europe as if it belonged to the third world, but here I am sitting in a beautiful park near my lovely hotel, having very good food and excellent coffee.”
From a more practical point of view, Moldova is providing an economical base for rehearsals: her shows have dress and technical rehearsals, followed by public performances, at the national theatre before hitting the road.
“It’s a huge stage here, the size of the Royal Opera House. The cast has come over from France, Spain, Romania, Ukraine, California; the orchestra is partly Moldovan and we work with a good company from Lviv in western Ukraine. We cherry-pick people from their orchestra and chorus as well as some from here in Moldova. I’m building up a sort of rep company.”
Among her conductors is the Ukrainian-born Andriy Yurkevych, music director of Polish National Opera, who is about to open Welsh National Opera’s new season with Verdi’s Macbeth (run begins September 10).
Kent’s style leans towards the conservative, and with an eye on the spectacle: this season’s productions feature a small dog for the preening Musetta in Boheme – and a black stallion in Nabucco and Aida, in the larger venues of the spring tour; while Kent’s Tosca employed a stunt double to perform what was advertised as Tosca’s “leap of death” from the Castel Sant’Angelo.
“I tend to direct in a filmic way,” she confirms. “I like beauty, including the sets. I like people to be good-looking. And the singers have to be acting at all times. I say to them: ‘The music will tell you what to do – where to go, how to look and even how to think.’ I spend quite a lot of time on the libretto, going through what the words mean. I use the Stanislavski method, because you become the character, though with an awareness that you’re entertaining, you’re seducing. I’ve got a pretty good idea what works musically and, most importantly, dramatically. We do movement (I’m an ex-dancer), and I do it all naturally; I can demonstrate any part, whether it’s a seven-year-old, a woman or a man.”
What was your first job? Hermia (A Midsummer Night’s Dream); playing 25 roles in Vox Pop Victoria.
What is your next job? To maintain the quality and value of my productions; possibly to venture into orchestral tours.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Nothing. I tend not to take any notice.
Who or what is your biggest influence? My patrons, Judi Dench and Ralph Steadman: they have inspired me in aiming to achieve artistic excellence.
If you hadn’t been an opera and ballet producer/director, what would you have done? There’s nothing else I could do: I would disappear from the Earth
Returning cast members tend to begin at a good starting point, but new recruits can need more work. “In Eastern Europe, it still tends to be that the voice is the key and if you can act, that’s a bonus. Sometimes you have to push the singers and let them know there might be consequences if they’re not up to scratch. You have to be in control and they have to trust you as a director.”
Kent’s shows may be for the mass market – she reckons on having reached audiences totalling around five million people since 1995 – but she aims for high standards: “I’m not saying we’re like the Royal Opera, but that’s the benchmark.” To that end, new sets have been produced for Nabucco and Aida at the cost of around £70,000 to £80,000 each.
Throughout our conversation, Kent maintains an optimistic outlook and a focus on the productions – excepting a brief discussion about rising visa costs (“They have gone up every damn year.”). Despite its possible impact on her company, she even tries to put a positive gloss on the Brexit result. “I was depressed for about a week and then I smoked my cigars and had my Moldovan champagne and cheered up a bit.”
Drama is something Kent was literally born into. Her mother gave birth to her in a Salvation Army hospital in Armednagar, western India (apparently the one in which Spike Milligan was born) amid a Hindu-Muslim riot, which her father, as deputy superintendant, had to attend to; he rushed to the hospital, arriving with revolver still in hand. Her mother ran a large amateur operatic society in Bombay and, inspired by Bollywood, young Ellen had decided by the age of six that she wanted to be a film star.
When she was 12, her father retired, having risen to high commissioner, and moved his family to Andalucia, though Kent was educated at boarding school in Norfolk. At this time, she says, “my mother went quite dotty and ran an animal rescue centre”. To appease her father, she enrolled at university (Durham, reading Classics) and later, though she won a place to study singing at a London music college, she opted to study at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
It was in 1992 that Kent came to produce opera, having worked as an actor and in musicals. “Rochester City Council asked if I could put something on in Rochester Castle during their festival. At the time I was touring Bleue D’Ecailles (or Why the Fish Left the River), a French environmental children’s play. I had seven French actors, tons of water, massive fish tanks and lots of huge puppets. I didn’t think that would entertain 7,000 people, and I just found myself saying, ‘What about opera?’”
A year later, Kent flew over 200 members of the Romanian National Opera, in a plane formerly owned by Ceausescu, to perform Nabucco. The event was a sell-out and sparked further collaborations with Romania and other former Soviet bloc countries. Since then she has mounted more than 60 productions.
Despite relying almost completely on box office sales, Kent manages to keep her operation afloat, and – alarmingly, only half-jokingly – claims a “lack of concern over finances”. She adds: “I spend every penny I’ve got on what I do because it’s my profession and my craft. I’ve had a very rich life. I have used what I do to enjoy the arts, to continue my joy of performance through what I’m doing.”
Now 67, though remarkably dynamic, would she consider scaling back? “I do sometimes wonder: should I keep pouring money into these tours or should I be building up a nest egg? But then, what would I be building up a nest egg for? To sit in my old age in my garden and admire the view? I’d be bored within five minutes. Once I’ve had my cigar and my coffee, I need to move.”
Born: 1949, Armednagar, western India
Training: Durham University, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
Landmark productions: Sell-out performance of Aida at the Royal Albert Hall, London (2002), Turandot at the Beiteddine Festival, Lebanon (2004)
Awards: Medal from the president of Moldova for best contribution to the arts in Moldova, Medal of Honour and Golden Fortune awards from the president of Ukraine, Twice nominated for European Woman of the Year
Executive producer: Ludmila Lungu
Aida, La Boheme and Nabucco are touring the UK from October until May 2017