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Ellen Kent on lifelong mission to bring opera to the masses

PUBLISHED: 13:05 19 March 2018 | UPDATED: 13:05 19 March 2018

La Traviata - Violetta played by Maria Tonina. Photo: Ellen Kent

La Traviata - Violetta played by Maria Tonina. Photo: Ellen Kent

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Opera impresario Ellen Kent is a phenomenon. An energy-packed dynamo she has been producing lavish productions starring international performers for 30 years. As her two 2018 productions arrive at Norwich Theatre Royal we find out more.

Opera impresario Ellen Kent. Photo: SubmittedOpera impresario Ellen Kent. Photo: Submitted

She is the woman who has made it her mission to take some of the world’s best known operas around the UK mixing top international performers, stunning sets and plenty of showmanship.

From her early years in India, through to her days at Norfolk boarding school in Cromer, the joy of being creative has never left Ellen Kent.

She embarked upon a life as an actress, dancer and singer, appearing on television and on stage. Then in 1983, she set up a production company, and was soon bringing opera performers from Eastern Europe in the UK.

“One day Rochester City Council asked if I would consider putting on a foreign play for 7,000 people at Rochester Castle,” recalls the opera and ballet impresario, now approaching turning 70. “I said I didn’t think a French play would go down very well in front of that many people but an opera might. To cut a long story short, I brought the Romanian National Opera over and we did Nabucco.”

La Traviata - Alfredo and Violetta played by Maria Tonina and Ruslan Zinevych. Photo: Tas KyprianouLa Traviata - Alfredo and Violetta played by Maria Tonina and Ruslan Zinevych. Photo: Tas Kyprianou

Since then, and after expanding into ballet, she has become known for her large and lavish productions, which have been enjoyed by millions.

Heartbreak and tragedy play a big part in the 2018 repertoire, with the continental passion of La Traviata and the emotion of Madama Butterfly coming to stages across the region.

La Traviata is known for being Verdi’s intense and outstanding interpretation of one of the most popular love stories of the 19th century, La Dame aux Camelias penned by Alexander Dumas.

The author, who is probably best known for writing The Three Musketeers, made no secret of the fact La Dame aux Camelias was autobiographically based on his own affair with Marie Duplessis, who died in 1847 from tuberculosis at the age of just 23.

Madama Butterfly - Cio Cio San played by Elena Dee. Photo: Tas KyprianouMadama Butterfly - Cio Cio San played by Elena Dee. Photo: Tas Kyprianou

Ellen Kent became fascinated by the book while rehearsing a previous production of La Traviata in the Ukraine back in 2011 and decided to add in an extra scene where Dumas, known in the book as Amand, attends an auction in a Paris apartment not realising it belonged to his ex-mistress who died and her effects are being sold off.

The opera then follows the story of Violetta and her love for the aristocratic Alfredo.

Singing the role of Violetta is Alyona Kistenyova from Odessa National Opera who will be returning to the company after critically acclaimed performances in the likes of Aida, La Boheme, Carmen and Tosca. She stars opposite Vitalii Liskovetskyi, who originally trained as a military pilot before becoming part of Kiev National Opera.

Meanwhile Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is a hugely popular opera which inspired the international musical hit Miss Saigon. It tells the heart-breaking story of a beautiful young Japanese girl who falls in love with an American naval lieutenant with devastating results.

Madama Butterfly - Cio Cio San and Pinkerton played by Elena Dee and Ruslan ZInevych. Photo: Ellen KentMadama Butterfly - Cio Cio San and Pinkerton played by Elena Dee and Ruslan ZInevych. Photo: Ellen Kent

Ellen has persuaded international Korean soprano Maria HeeJung Kim to make her UK debut in the role of the tragic Cio Cio San. She stars opposite Vitalii Liskovetski who plays Pinkerton, and the American mezzo-soprano Zara Vardanean who trained at the Vienna State Opera, who takes on the role of Suzuki.

Both operas will be conducted by Vasyl Vasylenko, artistic director and conductor at the National President’s Orchestra of Ukraine, who will be joined by 30 members of the National Ukrainian Orchestra.

“I have a long relationship with Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Russia and Latvia, and I cherry-pick the performers and orchestra to ensure we have the very best for each opera,” says Ellen.

Ellen’s passion for producing opera has seen her involved in some very imaginative and exciting projects including becoming the first British producer to perform Carmen in the Gulf which was witnessed by 3,000 Royal guests. She later went on to open the Beitteddine Festival in Lebanon with her production of Turandot and also indulged her love of outdoor opera with a production of Carmen at Leeds Castle in Kent which was performed in front of 6,000 people.

She has also won a host of awards and nominations for her work and also received medals from the Presidents of both Moldova and Ukraine.

It is all a far cry from Ellen’s early life producing shows in the front room of her family home in Bombay, where her father had been stationed to help oversee the police in the final years of the Raj, partially inspired by her Indian mother who loved amateur dramatics.

“Aged around eight, I first started producing little shows in the front-room of the house. I invited all the local mothers to come along and we did a proper show with curtains and everything. My mother had no idea and was rather shocked when people started turning up,” she laughs.

Return visits to Norwich Theatre Royal are always poignant as after returning from India she spent her school days in Norfolk. From the age of 12, she studied at Sutherland House near Cromer for six years.

La Traviata - Violetta played by Maria Tonina. Photo: Tas KyprianouLa Traviata - Violetta played by Maria Tonina. Photo: Tas Kyprianou

“I lived in my own world a lot of the time and I loved the Mallory Towers stories. I read them all. I told my mother I wanted to go off to boarding school and that is what happened,” she said.

After leaving school and then drama school, she worked as an actress and performer before the opera bug bit and she became one of the UK’s best known operatic producers.

Despite being at the helm of the company, Ellen maintains a very personal touch with each venue they visit and says it is vital to keep a personal relationship with each venue.

She said: “I know the various different departments and they want to work hard for you. They become friends and they want you to succeed.”

Madama Butterfly - Cio CIo San played by Elena Dee. Photo: Tas KyprianouMadama Butterfly - Cio CIo San played by Elena Dee. Photo: Tas Kyprianou

• La Traviata is at Norwich Theatre Royal, March 19, 7.30pm/Madama Butterfly on March 20, 7.30pm, £21-£5.50, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

• Full details at ellenkent.com/book-tickets

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