Ellen's joy is to bring opera to the people, and save donkeys
Ella Rhodes speaks to Ellen Kent about her colourful upbringing and how this inspired her lavish operatic productions.
AS a girl in Andalucia, a typical family day out for Ellen Kent involved a long journey to a remote Spanish village, haggling over the cost of a donkey that was destined for sacrifice and a mad dash to get away – often pursued by angry villagers.
The family farm housed 30 to 40 donkeys, all rescued by Ellen's mother, who created the Spanish equivalent of the RSPCA in the 60s.
"It was always about the animals for my mother – they were her priority." says Ellen. "The farm was full of them – donkeys, cats, dogs. She spent all our money on saving the animals. That's why animal welfare is so close to my heart."
Award-winning opera director and producer Ellen is back on tour with a new production of Carmen, which is coming to Derby this month.
Five years ago, Ellen wound up her operatic production company after 17 years of non-stop touring, intending to focus her energies on developing her role as an artistic director in large-scale arena productions. But the lure of the tour and a legion of letters from well-wishers urging her back saw her test the water with a tour under another promoter.
It was enough to convince Ellen and earlier this year she resurrected her company Opera and Ballet International for a 74-date tour of the UK and Ireland this spring.
She said: "It feels so good to be back. Of course, I'm rushed off my feet but people have been so kind about how much they missed me. I did wonder whether the audience would still be there in these difficult economic times but I think people know that my shows are a real spectacle and we've got some treats in store for this tour."
Carmen tells the story of the downfall of soldier Don Jose and his seduction by the fiery, beautiful and passionate gypsy in the title, and this production is influenced by Ellen's memories of growing up amid the orange trees and dusty heat of Spain.
She is drawing inspiration for the sets from paintings by Goya with the backdrop of the bullring. And, in tribute to her mother, Ellen has also incorporated a donkey into every venue possible and there will be a collection in aid of donkey welfare.
"Involving a donkey in the production lends it a real taste of Spain, "says Ellen. "My mother would have been delighted that I use donkeys in the show and the audience always love it."
In the story, Don Jose abandons his childhood sweetheart and his military career to pursue Carmen but loses her to the glamorous bullfighter Escamillo.
Ellen says: "My mother was very anti bullfighting. She used to protest outside the bullring. This was in the 60s during the Franco regime. She'd get arrested and my father would have to go and bail her out. Once, I got arrested too – I was about 13-and-a-half."
The influence of Ellen's mother is evident, but she says her father inspires her most. She said: "My father was from a poor family. He left school at 14 to become a barrow-boy in Liverpool Market. He joined the Army for the First World War, educated himself and ended up as high commissioner of India."
Ellen's musical education began early, brought up in India amid the ragas of Indian classical singing, followed by teenage years in Spain, a Norfolk boarding school and the constant backdrop of tunes from the musicals – My Fair Lady was her mother's favourite.
In 2004, Ellen was named one of the top five opera producers in Britain and, in 2005, won the European Woman of Achievement for the Arts Award for her promotion of Eastern European talent.
She says: "I do opera that people actually want to see – that people can identify with and cry and feel moved.
"I aim to make opera understandable and enjoyable – using the same genre as the best of musicals, such as Phantom of the Opera or Miss Saigon. People don't want to be educated, they want to be entertained and have a great night out."
WHERE: Derby Assembly Rooms.
WHEN: Thursday, March 28, at 7.30pm
ADMISSION: £20 and £32
TICKETS: Call Derby 255800 or visit www.derbylive.co.uk to book