One of the most important & influential figureheads in world opera is rolling back into Edinburgh with this weekend with three operas on three separate nights. The Mumble managed to catch up with her in the foyer of her Edinburgh hotel for a wee blether
THE MUMBLE : Hello Ellen, so when did your long love affair with opera begin?
ELLEN : About the age of about 6 I would imagine. I lived in India, I was born out there… my father was working for the High Commissioner down in the south of India. When I was born in 1949, my father worked for British India police. After the British had left in ’47, Nehru asked my father to stay on & control the whole of the south of India. So we lived in Bombay – or Mumbai, I remember it as Bombay. My mother was British Raj family, going back hundreds of years – my father actually was from Liverpool. My mother was totally in love with putting on the Operatic Society of Bombay Experience – she did Madame Butterfly, the local Christmas show, & at every opportunity she put me into it. I loved dressing up, I was always dressed up as some Maharashtran prince or something. There were the most wonderful costumes, I still remember them. Also, where mother loved opera, my father was equally as musical – he could play the piano by ear.
THE MUMBLE :For you, what are the key ingredients to a good opera?
ELLEN : A very strong story line. I like drama accompanied by beautiful music – which opera gives you. Yes, a combination of a strong story-line with a lot of melodrama… I love stories to go over the top a bit, I mean Ellen ‘over-the-top’ Kent is what people call me. Then of course there is the grandness, the largeness of it, the large scale-ness of it. The huge, massive epic-ness of opera.
THE MUMBLE : Does every opera have that quality?
ELLEN : No, not every one, but I always see it in rather large scale modes – probably because most of the venues I play at are quite big. My sets are always rather grand, rather beautiful. Opera is perfect for artistic directors with that love of grandness. Even La Boheme, where Puccini is going into the realness of opera, its reality opera which both he & Verdi went into. Verdi with La Traviata & Puccini with La Boheme. La Boheme can be done in an intimate, but also in a big way. La Boheme is a strong story set in Paris in the Latin quarters, but it has all that beautiful French Impressionistic opportunities – so my sets are quite big & I indulge myself. I love art – my great friend is Ralph Steadman – I see opera in pictures – I am very filmic, accompanied by beauty. La Boheme indulges that, each scene reflects a French Impressionist style or painting – my act 1 is more Renoir, for example.
THE MUMBLE : Does this mean you have a hand in almost everything concerning the production?
ELLEN : Yes, I am very OCD. I’ve spent my life in opera 24/7, its become almost like I am an opera It is like who is the real Ellen Kent, am I real or have invented myself. Its hard to tell
THE MUMBLE : Can you tell us about your relationship with the Chisinau National Opera & the Chisinau National Philharmonic?
ELLEN : A very long love affair which began in 1996/97. For a few years I ha been working with the Romanian National Opera, & brought them back to England. A very wonderful conductor who was conducting the Romanian National asked me one day if I had heard of the Maria Biesu festival in Chisinau. I said no, I haven’t heard of it, & where is Chisinau? He said its in Moldova, & I said wheres Moldova? He said why don’t you come with me. So we drove over the mountains on an overnight journey form Bucharest, & there was this wonderful city & this lovely country that was reminiscent of Provence in France, with the vineyards, & the wine, & the heat, & it was very close to Russia, very heavily influenced by Russia. Lots of investment, major big opera house, very civilised & sophisticated people, with a great sense of opera – all their sets were being designed by people who came from Moscow & I thought, ‘o my god, this is a magic, fairy country.’ That is when the love affair began & it is still going on. At the beginning I was getting involved more more & I decided I would direct the shows because I wasn’t happy with the acting. The singing was good but I couldn’t stand their acting. I’ve had a long mission that has turned my singers into performers, I spend every summer in Moldova to do it, but I think the results speak for themselves – there is a lot of drama on my stages. Using Chisinau as the core, I made an opera company by cherrypicking the best across eastern Europe… I now have a french soprano, an Italian tenor…
THE MUMBLE : You have a penchant for using an international cast. There must be difficulties & also advantages, could you elucidate please?
ELLEN : The only disadvantage are some of the language issues – the international people I bring in have to come to Chisinau – I put them up in apartments. They fly in from all over the world – from California, Japan even, from wherever. They are all artists & I find that they are actually on the whole very easy to work with because they are artistic. They are also all top professionals, they like what I do, they like touring Britain & the big venues when we go abroad. You do get the odd difficult one, but there is nobody who looks down their noses at anybody, its a very professional team I’ve got… I can be be quite tough.
THE MUMBLE : You are always coming back to Edinburgh, how do you find the city?
ELLEN : One of my absolute favorite cities, so beautiful, so historical. I’m part Scottish, you know, my father moved down to Liverpool from the Argyle peninsular. There’s something atmospheric about Edinburgh – I love the Playhouse – I always make a point of coming up to Edinburgh for the shows & this year I’ll be staying for all three. I do like Scotland, what is there not to like, I’ve got my shows there, we’ve just played Glasgow Concert Hall – I have to say we get well over a thousand people every night – its just a pleasure, people come in a big way. OK, Edinburgh is a bit of a mission to fill – its a bit big – but I do Glasgow, I do Dundee, I do Edinburgh – I just love Scotland, but particularly Edinburgh, its one of my favorite cities.
THE MUMBLE : What does the rest of 2017 hold in store for Ellen Kent?
ELLEN : We have operas already in preparation for next year. Madame Butterfly with a Japanese cast – I do like Oriental girls. Rigoletto in certain venues, with golden eagles, naked ladies & greyhounds. La Traviata another of my favorite operas. This Autumn I would also hope to be introducing a Russian-style spectacular – bringing in an an orchestral score, a named conductor 2-3 top singers, with the orchestra dressed in Traviata costumes. Should be special.