Producer and director Ellen Kent’s work in the world of European opera dates back to a gala performance at Kent’s Rochester Castle in 1992.
“Getting into opera was a complete accident,” she says. “In the 1980s and 1990s I had a reputation for bringing European children’s theatre from France and Italy to Britain.
“Rochester Castle used to host the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and rock concerts but they wanted something for 1992 to put Kent on the cultural map of Europe.
“I didn’t think a French actress and 50 goldfish from Lille would cut the mustard, so I said ‘What about opera?’”
Bringing in an opera consultant to help with the technicalities, Kent got in touch with a Romanian opera company and staged Nabucco in the castle, complete with music from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
The success led to the promoter saying goodbye to Arts Council-funded theatre and taking on opera full-time.
The last 20 years have seen 63-year- old Kent take opera companies from Romania, Moldova and The Ukraine around the country, including large-scale shows at the Royal Albert Hall and Brighton Centre, and a specially edited 2004 performance of Carmen in Qatar.
She prides herself on making opera accessible – focusing on performance and cutting long run times.
“The old style of opera, where it isn’t over until the fat lady sings, doesn’t apply to my shows,” she laughs. “I make them fun – if that can be believed when ladies are throwing themselves from castles and killing themselves…”
She’s also not afraid of putting in a few extra touches, such as a live golden eagle with a 6ft wingspan playing a role in the Eastbourne production of Tosca, and Crawley-based rescue donkey Violet appearing onstage in Carmen at Theatre Royal Brighton.
She insists that her actors look like the people they are portraying – so there aren’t any 60-year-old tenors trying to seduce buxom young sopranos.
But she carries on the tradition that her performers don’t use any external amplification. “The opera singers are able to sing and project,” she says. “I hand-pick my orchestra, and my chorus is full of up-and-coming singers.
“I train them to act – something that didn’t exist in opera when I first came to Eastern Europe.
“It’s a matter of awareness of the people they are with, they don’t have to wave their arms about or move too much to convey the emotion – it is in the face and the voice.
“I want people to believe in what they are doing. I do a lot of movement lessons to get them into that mindset.”
When it comes to planning a season she tries to pick operas which complement each other. This season, with the Chisnau National Philharmonic Orchestra And Chorus, features her all-time favourite, Tosca, alongside Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen.
“Tosca is a thriller,” she says. “The music is fabulous and the story is great. The set is from Moldova and is large, dark and gothic, with frescos, tapestries and statues – it looks very dramatic.”
The opera was based on the original drama by Victorien Sardou, which the composer Puccini saw starring legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt. It tells of love, torture, betrayal and suicide in Rome during the Napoleonic occupation.
For Carmen, Bizet’s tale of a fiery girl’s seduction of naive soldier Don Jose and its subsequent fallout, Kent took inspiration from the paintings of Goya to create the gypsy life depicted in the opera.
“I grew up near Malaga so I feel I have got quite an insight into the setting,” she says. “Directing it I have stepped back to see what I haven’t brought out in Carmen before. I have tried to make it focus more on the gypsy girl and the relationship of the women in the story with her.
“Carmen isn’t a love story – it’s all about jealousy, sexual control and murder. I don’t think Carmen ever loved anybody.”
Although when she speaks to The Guide Kent is preparing to travel to Moldova for the final rehearsals of Carmen before the tour starts, she has already planned her company’s next season.
Heading out on the road in the autumn, and continuing through to 2014, will be three Ellen Kent productions: Aida, La Boheme and the opera which started it all – Nabucco.
Ellen Kent Productions will be at:
Theatre Royal Brighton, New Road, with Tosca on Tuesday, February 5; and Carmen on Wednesday, February 6. Both performances start at 7.45pm, tickets from £15, call 0844 8717650.
Congress Theatre, Carlisle Road, Eastbourne, with Tosca on Friday, February 8; and Carmen on Saturday, February 9. Both performances start at 7.30pm, tickets from £20, call 01323 412000.