Ellen Kent, the long-time specialist in bringing eastern European opera and ballet companies on mammoth tours of UK theatres, is facing, thanks to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, possibly the biggest challenge of her entire career.
Her productions have always been crowd-pleasing, with any number of extra features, from live animals, children and audience participation to topless girls and spectacular effects.
The latest tour began in January, under the auspices of Senbla, the promotion and production company run by Ollie Rosenblatt, but still very much with Ellen Kent’s name on it.
Ellen’s current three opera productions are currently heading for Manchester Opera House: Tosca on April 7, Carmen on April 8 and Madama Butterfly on April 9. The tour continues into May, with visits to Carlisle, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth, Sunderland, Sheffield, Stoke-on-Trent and other venues.
But this is far from being a typical opera tour. Ellen has coped in the past with everything from negotiating with shady businessmen in Transylvania (who once put out a contract on her life, forcing her rapid, undercover, exit from Romania, with the help of the British Council), to becoming a licensed oil importer so she could keep her shows on the road during a fuel shortage.
This year, the impresario had signed up a company based on the National Municipal Opera Theatre company of Kyiv, with guest soloists from Moldova, Romania and elsewhere – including Russia. She rehearsed them for a month in Ukraine before stating a UK and Ireland tour, starting with a good run at Bradford Alhambra, with Blackpool, Sheffield, York, Scarborough and Rhyl to follow, among others.
Then Vladimir Putin took a hand in her plans.
Since the invasion of Ukraine began, Ellen has found herself with almost an entire company of artists and others who don’t know whether they will ever be able – or want – to get back home when it’s all over.
She has had to lay off the two Russian soloists – “I’m supporting them, but I daren’t put them on tour now” – and faced unusual problems, such as finding hotels she had booked for her people in Ireland were suddenly unavailable, because the government wanted them for… Ukrainian refugees.
“I can’t just walk out on this: the tour’s got my name on it,” she says. “I have to keep them on the road – and anyway the tour’s been going really well. We’re selling out in many places, including Blackpool, and Manchester is shaping up well.
“I’m trying to help them all I can, and I’ve told them I’ll do what I can to see they get back where they want to go, if not Ukraine. A lot of them are young, and if they return now they might never get out again.
“They’re happy to be on the tour and they love the support they’re getting from audiences everywhere. At the close of each show they unfurl a Ukrainian flag and sing the Ukrainian national anthem, and the audiences go mad.
“They’ve all been very good and assured me they’re not going anywhere and they’ll stick with this to the end. Vasyl Vasylenko, the conductor and artistic director of the Kiyv theatre, says he won’t leave either.
“Many of the performers are old friends and a lot of the people working for me on this I’ve known for a long time. The main bulk of the Kyiv company is here, and of course I’m responsible for them. I’m determined not to let them down.
“But at the end of it all, it will be down to me what happens. It’s become a huge decision-making exercise: they’ll be safe if they stay here in the UK, but what will they do?
“Some of the opera sets I own are in Moldova still; who knows what might happen next over there?”
She says the sudden exit of Russian companies from UK theatres’ schedules may mean there’s scope for bringing some other countries’ ballets on tour to the UK, from Ukraine or elsewhere. But will it all work financially?
These are hard questions but, she says, not the most important: “I’ve never done this to make money. I do it because I love what I do.”
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