Opera impresario Ellen Kent adds spectacular to Nabucco and Aida in Norwich
- Credit: Archant
As she approaches 70, Ellen Kent, who has worked tirelessly to bring productions to the masses, shows no sign of slowing down as she brings her latest two spectacular productions to Norwich.
Ellen Kent is a phenomenon. An energy-packed dynamo who has opera running through her veins, she prides herself on criss-crossing the country with a host of popular productions starring international performers and with showbiz touches to bring out the power of some of the world's greatest works.
No stranger to regional audiences, she is set to bring two of Verdi's epics, Nabucco and Aida, to Norwich Theatre Royal on her 2017 visit.
And Nabucco is particularly poignant as the haunting story of the Hebrews being forced from their land will feature some epic sequences and highlight themes which are as relevant today as they were when the opera was first written.
But rewind back to Ellen's early life and her first foray into producing as a child, and you can see how her work ethic and passion for performance was shaped.
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She spent her early life in Bombay where her father had been stationed to help oversee the police in the final years of the Raj and that was where the theatrical bug first bit.
'At the age of around eight, I first started producing little shows in the front-room of the house. I invited all the local mothers of children 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.
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The show-business bug was clearly in her genes as her mother who was from India enjoyed performing and was a key part of one of Bombay's amateur operatic societies.
But the bug had bitten and Ellen knew she wanted to do something in the entertainment world. By the time she reached 12 and with limited reading and writing, her parents decided she needed to get an education and Ellen did not object.
'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.
Following a recommendation from the daughter of a friend, Ellen was despatched to Norfolk to study at Sutherland House near Cromer where she spent six happy years until she was 18.
'There was a very strict headmistress there called Constance Gledhill who took me under her wing. She helped to bring me on and helped me so much academically. She was quite a character and always enjoyed a gin and tonic in the evening,' laughed Ellen.
She has very fond memories of the local area and admits bringing a tour to Norwich always brings back poignant memories of her school days.
From there, she went to Durham University before getting a place at the Bristol Old Vic where she started her professional career as an actress and performer. While the work did come in, she also had a thirst for taking the helm of shows herself.
She formed Dual Control Theatre Company in 1988 and also worked on bringing European companies to this country.
It was 1992 when she made her name working with the Romanian National Opera bringing them to this country when Romania had gone through a difficult time. The gamble paid off with thousands turning up and she became a player in the British opera world.
Partnerships with other Eastern European companies followed which went to the likes of the Royal Albert Hall as well as to venues around the country, and it is a partnership she is keen to continue. She recalled: 'Sometimes things have been a bit unstable in some of these countries. I've had some adventures including death threats but I can be very British when I want to be.'
That stoicism has stood her in good stead and she believes that edge to her career has helped shape her. 'I like the danger and the risk. I think they help to keep me going,' she laughed.
In terms of her return to Norwich, Nabucco on May 9 will mark her career going full circle. Ellen is mounting it on a grand scale with a large cast including dancers and international soloists.
It will also feature some stunning lighting and stage effects including the burning down of Solomon's temple and an exotic dance sequence.
It is an epic tale of revenge, destruction and jealousy set against the background of the Hebrews being forced from their homeland, conquered and sentenced to death by the Babylonian King Nabucco.
Verdi wrote it as a way of highlighting the tyranny in the world and those who seek freedom. It was composed soon after the death of his wife and children and he saw it as the opera which really started his career.
The cast will also include French soprano Olga Perrier, American mezzo-soprano Zara Vardanean, celebrated Moldovan baritone Iurie Gisca and the Ellen Kent Opera debut of the young and talented bass Vadym Chernihovskiy from the Odessa National Opera.
On May 10 Aida takes to the stage which will boast an impressive new set which will depict the grandeur of Rome's Coliseum. It tells the story of the doomed love affair between the Ethiopian slave girl of the title and the Egyptian hero Radames set to Verdi's stirring music which includes the well-known arias Celeste Aida, Ritorna Vincitor and the classic Triumphal March.
It will also feature Ellen's trademark stunning touches including a temple dance, cascades of glittering gold, and some magnificent 7ft tall ebony statues.
It remains one of her favourite operas. Ellen explained: 'I have produced and directed many productions of Aida over the years and it still remains one of the biggest challenges a producer can face. My vision matches Verdi's and I try to give Aida the grandeur which the composer achieved in the very first production in Egypt when he was commissioned to write an opera for the opening of the Suez Canal.
'I want everyone to enjoy this magnificent opera as, in my opinion, it has the best score Verdi ever wrote. It's my ambition to stage it on the banks of the Nile with a cast of thousands.'
Ever hands-on, Ellen will be in Norwich to ensure the production is as good as it could possibly be. 'I like to keep a very personal relationship with everybody,' she says. 'I know the various different departments and they want to work hard for you. They become friends and they want you to succeed.'
And with that, she is off working on other elements of her current tour as well as planning future ones on her life-long mission to ensure operas continue to be seen across the country.
• Nabucco & Aida, Norwich Theatre Royal, May 9 (Nabucco) and May 10 (Aida), both 7.30pm, £36.50-£8, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk