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Ellen Kent has certainly put bums on seats during the course of her tremendously successful career as an opera director – more than 3.5 million of them.
The figures add up to about a quarter of a million people a year who see her operas, yet Ellen fell into this big business quite by accident.
A few seconds in the company of the charismatic whirlwind leaves you in no doubt, however, that Ellen – who bought a 15-acre estate on the outskirts of Canterbury for her home in 2008 – was always destined for the extraordinary.
“I was born in southern India and lived in Bombay until I was 12. My father, who was British, was the high commissioner for the Indian police, and my mother’s family had been there for generations. Then my parents moved to Andalucia, and I came to boarding school in Norfolk.
“I didn’t go to school at all until I was 12; I used to run around with the servants’ children, but when I did I caught up pretty quickly,” breezes Ellen, barely drawing a breath as the stories pour forth.
As a young woman she worked as an actress in TV and theatre until her daughter Julia turned four. Ellen and her then-husband, who worked for Radio Kent, wanted to settle Julia into a Rochester school, but being rooted to one spot was no longer compatible with Ellen’s acting.
She picks up the story: “I fell into opera. I’m an eccentric entrepreneur, a complete lunatic, and I don’t have big master plans and business studies, it happened by pure gut instinct.
“In 1992 Medway Council, who had funded me to do some children’s theatre work, were organising a summer music festival and wanted it to tie in with the Eurotunnel, which was topical then. They asked, ‘Would you be able to do something foreign?’ and I suggested opera.”
What happened next, in true over-the-top Ellen fashion, is that she tracked down a 200-strong Romanian company who were performing Verdi’s Nabucco – ‘I’d never heard of it, but I wanted a big outdoor gig’ – and organised sponsorship from Manston Airport, among others, to fly them over to Kent for one performance.
“The only one with a big enough plane was the president of Romania so I went in to the palace in Bucharest and asked if he would lend me his plane,” says Ellen matter-of-factly.
“He called his aide over and asked what its timetable was – it was a Boeing 74-something – and then he loaned it to us for free.
“It was a wonderful production, a total triumph, and very emotional – as they were singing the Hebrew slaves’ chorus about the rights to freedom, the sun was sinking over Rochester Castle. I’ve never again experienced anything like that. How could I consider doing anything else after a start to my career like that?”
Over the intervening years, Ellen – who lived in Rochester and then in a sought-after cottage on Whitstable seafront before finding her current expansive home in the Elham Valley near Canterbury – has made an international name for herself by delivering lavish visual spectacles, complete with beautiful women, sumptuous costumes and live animals, which have included stallions and Russian Borzoi hounds.
She even promises naked ladies – ‘naked, not just bare breasts’ – in an upcoming production of Rigoletto, which will come to Kent in December.
But here and now she’s offering audiences Puccini’s La Boheme at Dartford, Folkestone and Tunbridge Wells.
It’s a heavy workload, but one that Ellen, who cheerfully admits to being 64 but not looking a day over 50, thrives on, swearing by the occasional cigar and nip of Moldovan brandy to help you along.
“Retiring is just not a word I understand,” declares Ellen. “I’ll retire when I drop down dead, hopefully in a very dramatic fashion on-stage.
Ellen Kent’s touring production of La Boheme appears at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre on Wednesday, April 23. Tickets from £20. Call 01322 220000.
It moves on to Folkestone’s Leas Cliff Hall on Sunday, April 27. Tickets from £15. Call 01303 228600.
Lastly it appears at the Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells, on Thursday, May 1. Tickets cost from £24. Call 01892 530613.
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