Ellen Kent Q&A - Madama Butterfly & La Bohème
ELLEN KENT <PRODUCER & DIRECTOR>
What can audiences expect from your 2020 touring productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and La Bohème?
I like to provide shows at a very high level and I like large productions so the feel is very much of a big-show one. I try and put everything into it, from the sets to the artists on the stage, and I like to add things. For example, with La Bohème I have these fabulous visuals. I’m a very visual director and producer so I give audiences the whole package. The overall experience is of something that is very beautiful, with gorgeous and spectacular sets. The curtain goes up and, depending on the opera of course, I want the audience to feel the ‘Wow’ factor. The sets have got to be beautiful and I like to wrap something visually stunning around the plot.
With that in mind, how will you be staging La Bohème?
It is set in the French Impressionist period so my sets reflect that. For instance, I have a beautiful Chagall feel and it is quite stunning. You get this beautiful French Impressionist flavour and everything is done to serve that, so when you look at it it’s a bit like an Impressionist painting. I like to dress my sets so in La Bohème, for instance, Act One is set in an attic and it’s got all these wonderful rooftops as if they’ve been painted by one of the great French artists. Then I like to add something more realistic, so you have this sort of Impressionist painting but you’ve got windows lit up and we have smoke coming out of a few of the chimneys. I’ve got a human skeleton - [laughs] though not a real one of course - which I’ve dressed with a hat and a scarf. We also have a dog on stage, a brass band, snow machines, a carnival effect, the cafe with waiters running around, a market stall… The whole thing is a visual feast and I always like to draw on the period an opera is set in. I do have an Eiffel Tower, which of course was built later but that’s a bit of poetic licence.
Likewise, what can you tell us about the staging of Madama Butterfly?
It’s the same concept, so when the curtain goes up there’s the same ‘Wow’ factor. We’ve got a Japanese garden on the stage with cherry trees, water effects everywhere, an actual Japanese house - the whole works. And by the way, the backcloths I use are hand-painted. That’s the old -fashioned way of doing it, not these photocopied jobs, and the whole thing is like a beautiful Japanese painting. When I do something I base the whole idea on a painting, so if I’m doing Rigoletto it’s the Renaissance style, if I’m doing La Bohème I use the French Impressionists, if it’s Madama Butterfly it’s influenced by Japanese art. I go for the stunning effect.
What do you think makes these particular operas so beloved?
Madama Butterfly is known as the most popular opera in the whole world. It’s the one everybody wants to see. And Puccini is very popular because of his wonderful music. With Miss Saigon drawing on Butterfly and Rent basing itself on La Bohème, people use them as benchmarks to build modern musicals on, which shows how strong the stories and themes are. And they’ve got an essence of great beauty in the music. There’s something about Puccini, where he does these wonderful pieces of music which bring goosebumps up on your arms. They go right into your soul. The music is beloved because it’s so great, then with these particular operas Butterfly is the most loved in the whole world and La Bohème is my personal favourite because you have these poignant stories wrapped around this fabulous music. There’s something rather special about Puccini’s scores and the stories that go with them are very well-constructed. Some of what the characters sing is heart-rending and people love tragedy. You’ve got it all in Butterfly. It’s this very sad little story with this huge music. People are drawn to it because of the ambiance created by this wonderful composer. La Bohème is similar because again it’s a very sad little story and it’s got Puccini’s wonderful music and moments of great poignancy. There’s something about the violins that brings up those goosebumps and goes straight to your soul. And La Bohème, like Butterfly, is beautifully constructed. It also has a lot of comedy, which I like to bring out. Opera should be giving you the whole deal - wonderful music, gripping storylines - and these two really deliver.
How do they fit into the timeline of Puccini’s work?
Like Verdi, he started off with these great Biblical-style operas - such as Turandot, for instance. They’re big storylines, not necessarily personal dramas. Then everything changed around the 1830s, when realism and domestic storylines became fashionable. Puccini jumped onto the bandwagon. Madama Butterfly was based on what was actually happening, with American Naval officers marrying Geisha girls, then coming back with their American wives. And La Bohème is about a domestic tragedy and it is complete realism. It’s about very poor people living in the deprived parts of Paris - these artisans and poets starving in garrets and living in mindless poverty.
Do you think Rent and Miss Saigon have opened these operas up to new audiences?
Yes, especially with Madama Butterfly. We always mention Miss Saigon when we stage it, to tempt audiences in. And I tend to take a musical theatre approach to operas, with lavish visuals. I get a lot of people coming to the shows who haven’t been to an opera before but they’ve seen big musicals like Miss Saigon or Rent. I firmly believe in opening up opera to the masses.
Both shows will be in Italian with surtitles, rather than in English. Does that reflect the purist in you?
I can’t stand operas in English! I am a purist in that regard, yes. You start putting them into English and the whole sound changes. Puccini, for example, wrote with Italian vowels and when you’re singing you need that Italian in the voice instead of clipped British intonations. And of course surtitles open opera up to the masses and they’re much better than just having a synopsis in the programme. We do that too, but the actual words used are poetic and moving. The librettos are extremely good pieces of writing and you get all this emotion coming out of the words, matched by the emotion coming out of the music. You put those two together and the audience gets a much better experience.
What first sparked your love of opera?
I was born in India to a colonial father and my mother was known as the queen of amateur operatics in Bombay. My mother loved producing and putting on shows - and they were really good, actually. She managed to put me into every single opera from about the age of four. I’d be dressed in these wonderful costumes and I loved it. Then we moved to Spain and we’d go see all the - [laughs] rather bad - travelling operas. That said, from the age of six I declared I wanted to be a film star. Eventually, after my father had retired, I enrolled at Durham University to do a degree in Classics to appease him because he insisted “You’ve got to have some academic education”. I don’t regret doing that degree now because it’s given me a wonderful background for all the operas I’m doing. After I finished my degree I went to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, trained as an actress, singer and dancer because although I got a place at the Royal Academy Of Music to go be an opera singer I decided it was too narrow a field.
What happened after you left theatre school?
I went on to acting and musicals and was putting on European children’s theatre when Rochester City Council, who were among the people funding me, asked me to put on a children’s show in Rochester Castle gardens. I don’t know where these notions come from but I found myself saying “I don’t think that’s really suitable but opera might work”. So that’s how it all started, with an outdoor production of Nabucco in 1992 to 7,000 people. I remember the sun sinking over the River Medway with all these people having picnics, we had champagne tents, candelabras, the whole works, and I thought: “This is what I want to do. It’s fantastic. I’m going to do opera.” Since then it’s been a series of wonderful adventures.
What do you see as the importance of taking opera to regional audiences?
I’m quite an instinctive person so, although I never really thought it through, I just knew audiences in the regions would be hungry for opera. And why go to London when you have these wonderful sites - these outdoor arenas and lovely big theatres - all around the country? I felt that half the population didn’t know how wonderful these works were and I’ve never changed my concept of it. The regions are where these shows need to be. I’ve done the Royal Albert Hall a lot and Leeds Castle, a huge outdoor opera there with a whole horse display in the middle of Carmen, but I do smaller venues too. [Laughs] Not too small, though. Richmond Theatre is probably the smallest house I’ve been to and my sets have to be compressed, like zip files that can be zipped in or spread out.
With Madama Butterfly you’ve cast local children in the role of Sorrow. Is it important for you to involve the local community in your operas?
I like making everything I do attractive, user-friendly, bring-everybody-in entertainment. When children are written into operas then obviously I need children in them and I always like to use local youngsters whenever I can. I have been using Stagecoach and involving the communities right across Britain and Ireland since 1994, when I first started touring productions. Even the dog in La Bohème comes from the local community.