Why you should give opera at Ipswich Regent a chance

The closest some people get to opera are the Go Compare adverts; for some that’s close enough. But they’re missing out says opera producer Ellen Kent, who’s bringing Madama Butterfly to Ipswich next week. Entertainment writer WAYNE SAVAGE asks her why.

ELLEN’S taking a puff on her cigar having just checked on the progress of the truck carrying her sets, costumes and equipment to Dover.

“It’s rolling along, getting nearer and nearer,” she says, relieved. With artists being flown and coached in from all over the place it’s one less worry.

Award-winning opera and ballet producer Ellen is the biggest supplier of opera and ballet in the UK and Eire.

Non-opera aficionados may remember her from the news a few years back when her production of Aida at the Royal Albert Hall featuring the Romanian National Opera was disrupted by gay rights activist Peter Tatchell.

Having produced her own shows for more than 27 years, in 2009 Ellen stepped down from her work as a producer with Eastern European opera and ballet companies to develop her role as an artistic director; focusing on large scale productions particularly in arenas. She’s just got back from spending five weeks with the internationally acclaimed Ukrainian National Opera of Kharkiv who will bring not only Madama Butterfly to life at the Ipswich Regent but also La Traviata next year.

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“There was that [belief]; even now if you go some places some of the ticket prices are terribly expensive. That in itself creates an elitism does it not,” she asks.

“I made my name by taking opera to the people. When I stepped down in 2009 I was invited to direct outdoor operas in Verona and places I thought it sounded quite exciting; haven’t had time to do it,” she laughs.

“We did a survey for the stage and between 1994/95-2008 autumn I had played to more than three million people; What I did was I would take my operas from the Royal Albert Hall to, I don’t know, let’s say Derby or Buxton or Blackburn or Blackpool where people could come and see the operas for around from �10 to about �35.”

Operas are now being regularly beamed into cinemas and there have been two series now of popstars trying their hands at being opera stars; does this help shatter pre-conceptions?

“I always predicted if something really positive wasn’t done about opera it would die. The fact people are now turning opera into something that’s modern; pop stars doing opera on TV was quite a good linking in people’s minds. That was very good because it brought it to the masses. Beaming in to the cinemas from the Met and Royal Opera House on the big outdoor screens [makes it accessible].”

Ellen remembers one particular conversation between two ladies in a Stoke-on-Trent cafe.

“I had these shows, I think it was Carmen; I used to have two horses in Carmen; big stallions not little ponies. They were looking through the theatre brochure saying ‘oh that’s good the panto’, ‘oh that musical is good’.

“Then they turned over and one said ‘oh look at this, looks good with a big white horse in it’. Then I heard the other woman say ‘oh hang on a minute, it’s opera’ and she turned the page.”

Clearly no shrinking violet, Ellen remembers leaning over and saying: “Hello don’t turn the page; I promise you why don’t you try it. I’ll arrange tickets for you’.

“They came and at the interval said ‘we have to thank you, we never dreamt for a minute that opera would be like this’.”

Ellen thinks elitism is still a problem.

“There’s a little bit of the, as you say, elitism and the rest and I have tried for 20 odd years to bring them together. I like to feel in some small little way that I’ve narrowed the gap a little.

“To see nowadays people doing opera on television and all of that you know it does help. It’s such a wonderful entertainment that I think everything has got to be done to save it, everything.”

Ellen is delighted to be returning with two of her favourite productions - Verdi’s La Traviata and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

For those not familiar with the latter, at the Regent next Thursday, the heart-breaking story tells of a beautiful Japanese girl who falls in love with an American naval lieutenant with tragic results. It was used as the basis for the popular West End musical Miss Saigon.

Ellen thinks it and Traviata are the genre’s most popular operas, making them the most commercially viable in this times of shrinking disposable income.

“I’ll probably get rubbished by all the opera world but it I think [the reason they’re so popular] is the storyline and the music.” Ellen’s been producing and directing operas for many years; although Derek Block and Blackburn International are the promoters for the current tour.

“It’s a very interesting experience for me because I’ve promoted all my own shows for 27 years so what I’m doing is watching somebody else do it and its not very easy to do that,” she laughs.

She dismisses giving in to the temptation to jump in, “I’m too overworked; I work with a very good team and we’re responsible for putting the entire shebang together and bringing it in. We’ve been involved in everything from visas to trucking it in, flying in cast from around the world.”

They include Korean soprano Elena Dee and American-Korean soprano Rosa Lee Thomas who will be singing the roles of Cio Cio San and Violetta.

“I haven’t rehearsed Rosa Lee because she’s in LA; she’s done it before. Elena was in Butterfly for me three years ago, she’s wonderful and will and she’s doing Traviata for the first time.

Joining them on stage playing Pinkerton and Alfredo will be Andriy Perfilov, called “reminiscent of Orlando Bloom” in one UK paper on a previous visit and Ruslan Zinevych, who among his many accolades has sung with Pavarotti and performed in Ellen’s Operas at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

They will be accompanied by the esteemed Kharkiv theatre orchestra, conducted and led by Vitalii Kutsenko; with stunning new sets and costumes by acclaimed Russian designer Nadia Shvets.

Another thing that puts people off opera is, of course, the language barrier. Butterfly is sung in Italian and not everybody’s sold on surtitles.

“It’s essential, once you’ve seen surtitles you’ll never want anything else because nobody understands Italian not in a big way and opera is a drama in my opinion.

“To appreciate it you have to know what they’re saying dramatically and it lifts the whole opera into an understandable mode that makes it almost a 100 per cent more enjoyable.

“If for any reason the subtitle machine goes down - which sometimes it does because it’s a big computer really, a massive screen which hangs above the front of the stage - oh my god the protests, the outrage.

“Everybody has it now; to me it made opera more user friendly. I direct in Italian but I’m not an Italian expert. You do get a few people who say ‘oh how dreadful’ and you feel like saying ‘how good is your Italian?’,” she laughs.

La Traviata comes to the Ipswich Regent on February 8. They haven’t staged the two back to back because they weren’t sure if the market was strong enough to sustain two performances.

“You’ll definitely get both shows. Better to do one to a reasonably full house and come back because you’ve got to bear in mind Britain is in a recession and you have to take into account people’s disposal income.”

Ellen says if you’re fan of musicals such as Miss Saigon, come along to either opera and you won’t be disappointed.

“I always stage my operas to be as close to a musical as I can. As a presentation I don’t do anything weird; I don’t put them into boiler suits I do it as it is - a traditional opera with a little bit of sexy twist in it. You won’t regret it.”

Madama Butterfly, an Ellen Kent production presented by Derek Block and Blackburn International, is at the Ipswich Regent next Thursday.

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