An Interview with Ellen Kent

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

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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.

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Two Great French Romantic Tragedies

Les Malheurs d’Orfee / Le Vin Herbe

Royal Conservatoire Scotland

March 4-11

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This being my very first live operatic experience, I was thrilled to be there, & all tangled up in an expectant mood. I took my seat to think about the night to come. The half size orchestra were warming up and the stage was set with easy-going props of small buildings purposed for trade, and a town set in the distance. We were to see two classics tonight – Les Malheurs d’Orfee & Le Vin Herbe the converging of the evenings two performances a special occasion for Opera aficionados. Though I discovered there is a question among such folks as to whether these are actually operas at all.

The first of these two stories of love took the form of that operatic phenomena that I was expecting & excited to see. Acting, music and singing saw the characters compliment the story in song, bringing the lovers to life every time; Orphee, played by Alexey Gusev, and Euridice, played by Anne-Marie Loveday. The success of the evening’s first performance came from the glowing confidence, delicate moments & sheer power of the 12 or so cast members who put their voices together creating a unison for the story. This was a stunning start to my burgeoning sense of operatic appreciation, with those concise 40 minutes dreamed up by Milhaud a perfect taster for the art, with the Thracian bard himself singing as if he was on the slopes of Parnassus.

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The stage was recast for the second performance of the evening; a much more opened space compared to the first. The orchestra now sat in a reworked way, and there were boxes across the stage in a semicircle with the addition of a singular pianist. The difference in stage-setting was also a difference in the style of writing between the two operas. As Le Vin Herbe rolled by in its many times bleak delivery, every dialogue seemed to be about death and was prolonged, so if there is a query as to whether this was an opera or not it was certainly inclusive in its makeup to become one. During the performance there were strong emotional responses from myself, and I presume for the other members of the audience. Some of the scenes I felt I could barely even live through, but to my delight there were long periods that I found held me both in gaze and in thought. The French libretto came deep and hard, but had a poetry and flow that was truly beautiful, in their inimitable concise shapes.

As the scenes were swapped about, positioning the boxes to suit the story, here was a great feeling that Frank Martin’s original vision was springing to life.  There was a bleakness to the story that comes from its tragic roots, as the wind blows through sails and dresses. There was a certain dreadfulness that was great as the title of the show indicated. Because of the voyage in forests and at sea, it reminded me of Greek literature of Virgil or Homer. As the story blends such idioms, the many levels of greatness in the work became simultaneously apparent; musical performance and stagecraft which were especially adhering. They offered us  a greatly dramatic vocal prose and softened down, without the comfort of peace or tranquility, to quietly whispering vocals of the pain of love. For me it was at times harder to understand the visual aspect that was inclusive of the singing. I understood the words fine, having read them on the prompter, but there was a sense of mystery to the act of observing the performers at hand. They seemed strange to me, as if they were there and not there at the same time, and when they held my gaze I felt slightly intimidated squirming in my seat. I guess I was feeling the true power of opera.

The only real reprieve during the performance from the tearful content was when they all sang together, blowing one’s mind as the wind assaults the sails; the great verbosity and conclusive acts of valour between  various components coming together for a real spectacle of heart wrenching tragedy. I think that all these details were born of deliberation, and every detail created with purpose. In the highs and lows of this retelling of an ancient theme and this 90-year old story, If you’re interest is piqued by an evening of bright, yet bleak performance, I would recommend that you see this show, as a most splendid & soul-stirring night out.

Reviewer:  Daniel Donnelly

Pelleas & Melisande

Glasgow Theatre Royal

March 1st 2017

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Carolyn Sampson and Andrei Bondarenko in Pelléas and Mélisande. Scottish Opera 2017. Credit Richard Campbell..jpgSome things, the best of things, take time. From inception, through evolution, to the final progression into folk-lore, there are very few classics that were tossed off in an hour or two. Claude Debussy’s Pelleas & Melisande is of the former sort, & the end product is quite simply divine. Debussy had seen the original play by Maurice Meterlinck in Paris, 1893, & had the first draft of the opera composed by 1895. But it would be another decade before he was happy with the piece, & we must all be grateful for his artistic care. Full of bassoons and cello-laden liturgicals, of its soundscapology Gavin Plumley told the Mumble how P&M was, ‘the product of a long and complex gestation, it reflects the many facets of Debussy’s musical apprenticeship, including his love of Wagner, his study of renaissance polyphony and his experiences of the exotic sounds of the east.’

Within a handful of years, P&M was being played out at the King’s Theatre, & 50 years later it would return as one of the two operas of the Scottish Operas inaugural season – Puccini’s Madame Butterfly being the other. Roll on another half century & more, Sir David  McVicar has returned Debussy’s only finished opera to the Scottish hills, & I can still hear the echoes two days on. There is an especial sensuality to the music of  P&M, while Debussy’s flirtation with the Symbolist movement runs rampant at all times, a mix which cast hovering night-birds over one’s imaginative realms.

Making a debut full of sincerity & warmth was BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Song Prize winner,  Andrei Bonarenko, while his beloved Melisande was played by Carolyn Sampson, back with SO after her success  as Anne Trulove in 2012’s Rake’s Progress. Her performance simply dripped liquid mercury as she drifted & glided about the stage as if she were a mermaid in the Aegean, & when she sang I felt more a sonorous siren than human being. Around there was no especial stand out singer, but instead a perfectly crafted combination accompanying voices including the dulcet chimes of wee Cedric Amamoo, making his operatic debut as Ynoid.

As Carmen, William Tell & Faust can all attest, he French language is simply made for opera, & Debussy is an excellent exponent, allowing a less formal roll of words which captures the effervescent vitality in the Gallic tongue. When to this we add Debussy accompanying musical touches, light & lucid brushstrokes of his mind, we are presented with a an audio banquet. What P&M also has incredible tip-toing tension. there is a constant nervous quality to the action, & P&M is indeed one of the most psychological operas I have ever witnessed.

Anne Mason and Carolyn Sampson in Pelléas and Mélisande. Scottish Opera 2017. Credit Richard Campbell..jpg

The stage set was a sensation, very Noseferatu, & when the curtains condensed down in little squares between scenes, I felt as if I was watching an early 20th century film. To give the set character,  Paule Constable waved her magical illuminative wand & one can see how she has won so many awards, such as 4 Olivier Awards, including her the recent ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.’

Although P&M is practically an Edwardian fairy tale, it is also a breathless, nuance-laden masterpiece – Debussy at his most exquisite best –  that one should see in Glasgow this weekend if at all possible.

Reviewer : Damian Beeson Bullen

The Marriage of Figaro

Roxy Assembly
Edinburgh
Feb 28 – Mar 4

Here they talk about nothing but Figaro. Nothing is played sung or whistled but Figaro. Certainly a great honour for me Amadeus Mozart

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Thomas Henderson

Edinburgh is a talented place indeed, & to see last night a student production brimming with such unobjectionable talent maintains the city’s position as chief eyrie of the arts. Edinburgh Studio Opera has just commenced a five night run of Mozart’s delectably silly ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ directed by burgeoningly brilliant Thomas Henderson. The guy’s got style, & a sense of history, & by delving deeper into the roots of ‘Figaro’ eked out the improvisational traditions of the Italian commedia dell’arte, full of brash & funloving archetypes, as found in Pierre Baumarchais’ original play. Henderson studied opera in Florence, & like any British artist with their salt has incorporated the commedia elements in his own way; presenting the supporting performers as mime artists with free license to do dress up & pretty much do what they like; telling the Mumble; ‘This is the very essence of the commedia dell’arte: the opportunity to create enough distance from reality through farce & laughter to be able to critique ourselves & the society we live in.’

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The one thing they did not do is sing, which is of course left to the professionals, for indeed the singers of ESO’s ‘Marriage of Figaro,’ despite their youth were all sublimely top-notch. Beside them the equally young orchestra  played with perfect fluidity & timing, which is absolutely essential for this chatty wee Opera. Apart from the outstanding overture, Mozart kind of tinkers with embellishments throughout most of the ‘Figaro’, leaving a kind of cinematic accompaniment to the libretto which would have astounded the original audiences. The female’s were especially effervescent, from Jessica Conway’s moodily entrancing Countess, through Sarah Gilford’s Susanna – whose singing was like coming across Princess Serendip singing by  a pool – to Jaimee Marshall’s Cherubino, whose superluscious voice literally warbles on the neck-nerves. Then, in the middle of it all stomping about in dramatic operatic fashion was Timothy Edmundson’s Figaro, who just got better & better as the performance went on, especially when he sang to Cherubino;

Here’s an end to your life as a rover
Here’s an end to the young casanova
It was fun for a while but now its over
We shall soon wipe the smile off your face

This one of the better sections of the libretto produced by Jeremy Sams. The English language & Mozart rarely mix. That was what I discovered as an operatic fledgeling when I saw an English adaption of ‘The Magic Flute’ in Richmond, West London in 1998, & my opinion was not altered last night. Saying that, the ESO have done wonderfully, & Mozart would have been proud, & at only £15 a ticket, they are giving the Edinburgh theater-goer a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the rare & luminous meteor strike that was, & still is, ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’

Reviewer : Damo Beeson Bullen

 

Reviewer : Damian Beeson Bullen

Holidays!

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Team are taking their annual Holidays,

& will be back in full force on January 1st 2017

Except, of course, for Mumble Theatre, which we like to keep an eye on

La Traviata

Saint Cuthbert’s Church

25th August

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An Operatic story of true love and its implications for a beautiful young courtesan who is destined to be with a gentleman  deemed too low for the courtesan’s class. A celebration of the power of true love and the tragedy of human mortality. The opera in question, La Traviata, is the source material for the contemporary classic film, Moulin Rouge. Performed by the Opera Bohemia Ensemble, conducted by music director, Alistair Diggs, & sung in Italian the music beautifully brings the story to life…  the stringed instruments especially, taking the lead, a performance that was worthy of center-stage itself.
Saint Cuthbert’s is a choice venue for an Opera as powerful as this one. The church stands at the West End of Princess Street Gardens, ornate and gothic, with perfect acoustics. Our seats were quite aptly in the heavens.With subtitles projected onto a screen above the altar. to the words that were sung it made for a totally inclusive experience. The stage in the altar of Saint Cuthbert’s made everything perfectly audible, from the lush orchestral interpretation to the amazing vocals of each of the cast. The detailed staging by Director Doughlas Nairne, transformed the stage set for each of the chapters of this Opera – by hand, the stage crew of Opera Bohemia meticulously created the different scenes during the short pauses in front of the audience. Unique and entertaining in itself.
Catriona Clark, performing the lead role of Violeta, effortlessly graced us with what would at first seem almost supernatural in her ability to move through the scales. Terminally ill with consumption, even lying down on her death-bed, her song is splendidly sung. Violeta’s true love Alfredo, performed by Thomas Kinch, skillfully demonstrated the affections and emotions of a man devoted and besotted. From the initial kiss and embrace, to the separation and longing. The final reconciliation moving the audience to tears as Violeta finally departed her mortal coil.
Aaron McAuley plays the part of Giorgio Germont, Violeta’s disaproving and controlling Father, doing his best to divert his sick daughters intentions to the suitor he would prefer.  Each of the cast gave a sterling performance in bringing this Italian Love Story to life. A true lesson into the impermanent.reality of love and life itself,  in a challenging and powerful presentation of perfect opera.
Reviewer : Mark Divine Calvert.

Scenes From The End

Greenside @ Nicolson Sq (13:55)
Until the 27th August
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Today’s Mumble mission couldn’t have been more serendipitous, especially as I was escorted by my review companion of the day, the very beautiful Christine. There was even more beauty to come… the venue where we first encountered the one-woman opera, ‘Scenes From the End’ is an intimate affair and perfect for this masterpiece, whose.exploration of its subject matter that couldn’t be any more challenging. A study of the mortality of the Universe and Humanity, sung by the young soprano, Héloïse Werner. Simplicity is the nature of her performance as we were graced with the premier of this one Woman Opera. With a solitary chair and table as her only stage props. With choice quotations about the grieving process projected onto a black back drop.
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Both myself and Christine were transfixed from the word go. As the performance evolves, Ms Werner’s vocal expertese seduces her audience with sadness and passion at the same time. Even without the subject matter being known, her voice is enough to hold one in awe. Grief is a part of life that one really cannae get to grips with or understand until the experience is inevitably lived – and just like this solo show, it is one of the most personal of journeys. The performance triggered emotions in myself & my partner – we have both been grievers recently – and captivated as entirely at the same time. It didn’t take long for my own waterworks to start moving and tears were cascading down my face. (A good job that I wore waterproof mascarra)
The Quotations, voice and subtle acting combined to create a work of genuine, authentic power and moving beauty. This is a fringe show that one should make a day for, because to try and take anything else in for the 24 hours that follow would be impossible. Beautiful voices do make me cry, they always have done. But to see and hear the stages of grief presented in such a way is nothing less than remarkable. Such a sensitive subject embraced and transformed into something as gorgeous beautiful and as celebrated as creation it self.
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After the performance Christine and myself walked up over Salisbury Crags in silence, my own tears had dried, we were both in awe and had recognised a deeper healing of our individual journey through grief. Two Souls moved closer together as we brought our attention to the splendour of the moment. 5 Stars all round. Exceptional and Breathtaking. Dinnae forget to take some tissues.
Reviewer : Mark ‘Divine’ Calvert
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The Quotations
 
The Quotations
 
For nature, heartless, witless nature,
Will neither care nor know
A.E.Housman, from ‘Tell Me Not Here, It Needs Not Saying’ (1922)
*
The universe seems neither benign nor hostile,
merely indifferent to the concerns of such creatures as we.
Carl Sagan, from ‘Cosmos.10’ (2010)
*
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.
T.S.Eliot, from ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925)
*
Everyone can master a grief but he that has it.
William Shakespeare, from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (1599)
*
Time does not bring relief; You all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
Edna St Vincent Millay, from ‘Time Does Not Bring Relief’ (1830)
*
The agonies, the mad midnight moments, must, in the course of nature die away. But what will follow? Just this apathy, this dead flatness?
C.S.Lewis, from ‘A Grief Observed’ (1925)