How Ellen Kent gained permission to bring Kyiv opera company to Grand Opera House

Musetta and her dog in Ellen kent’s production of La Bohème for the Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv

INDOMITABLE impresario Ellen Kent had contemplated the unthinkable: calling time on mounting her lavish opera and ballet tours by eastern European companies under her own steam.

Now, however, not even President Putin can stop her as she heads back and forth to Ukraine to bring the Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv to Britain, not least to one of her most regular stamping grounds, the Grand Opera House in York next week.

Senbla, part of the Sony Music Entertainment stable, have taken on the financier’s role for her Opera International tours. “I put the productions on; they pay for them and pay me a fee. We’ve been doing this since 2019, and it’s a good way to end my career because it doesn’t carry any risk,” she says.

This arrangement leaves the tireless Ellen free to concentrate on directing rehearsals for the Kyiv company’s 2023 productions of Puccini’s La Boheme and Madama Butterfly and Verdi’s Aida.

Opera director Ellen Kent

What’s more, she has had to make all the arrangements for securing visas and permissions for the Ukrainian orchestra, chorus, soloists and technical and stage crew – 73 people in total – for their British itinerary that opens tonight (26/1/2023) in Manchester.

“The older I get, the more I seem to do,” says artistic director Ellen. “My first opera with the Romanian National Opera was in 1993, and I know this is crazy, but I don’t look any older.”

She is 73, and her diligent, devoted work in being the first producer to bring big-scale opera tours from Eastern Europe to British theatres has seen her come face to face with three conflicts in Ukraine since starting with the Ukrainian National Opera in Odesa in 2002: the Orange Revolution protests of 2004-2005, Donbas under attack in 2014 and now Putin’s “special military operation”.

“This is the most difficult tour I’ve done in my whole life,” says Ellen, who may no longer face financial risks in her work but nevertheless had to fly to war-ravaged Ukraine in November to oversee all the preparations for the tour.

Natalia Matveeva: Ukrainian mezzo-soprano performing in Madama Butterfly

“Ok, there are bombs and drones, but somehow everyone carries on as normal. For this tour, I’ve had to bring them out of Kyiv three times, first to get their visas done for the British Home Office, taking them from Ukraine to Moldova, then getting them on to overnight coaches for rehearsals in Chişinău, putting them in hotels, and calling on my relationship with the Opera Ballet Theatre of Moldova. Now the tour itself.”

Ellen’s administration for this 2023 itinerary has been double that required for any previous travels. “I’ve almost had a nervous breakdown, not from bombs, but from all the bureaucracy, as all men aged 18 to 60 are not allowed out of Ukraine, should they be enlisted, and so you have to get special permission for arts organisations from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, who have to send the permissions to individual mobile phones.

“They sent them about two days before, and then you have Kyiv being bombed, and all the telecommunications go down, having booked them on the night train from Kyiv to Chisinau.”

Further problems ensued with Ukraine-Moldova border guards, whose computers came up blank for the QR codes for their electronic passes when they were travelling for rehearsals in Chisinau. “The whole lot of them had to stay overnight at a petrol station that happened to have a café. Then I got a call at six in the morning to say the border guards said ‘come again’, as the connections had been fixed.”

Alyona Kistenyova: Ukrainian soprano singing in La Bohème

For the tour dates, Ellen made arrangements for the company to travel by coach from Kyiv to Krakow, still waiting for their electronic pass permissions for their British stay at the time of this interview (January 19), but with time in hand for any hiccoughs ahead of the flight from Poland to Manchester, due to arrive on January 25.

“Putting the war to one side, I’ve always felt very connected to Ukraine because the quality of their operatic work in Odesa, Kharkiv and Kyiv is so high. What I was not prepared to do was just walk away. I love opera, I love working in eastern Europe; it’s exciting.

“I’ve had a ball, I’ve had a good life, and I will not walk away because they must preserve the culture in Ukraine that Putin wants to destroy – and he’s already bombed the Kharkiv company out of functioning,” she says.

“My feeling now is that I want to protect their art and what I’m doing is helping to keep it alive. God help us all if Putin were to take that country over.”

Ellen is already making plans for Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv to tour Britain in 2024: “Carmen, definitely Madama Butterfly again,” she says. “And, the third opera…that’s an interesting question. Wait and see!”

A scene from Ellen Kent’s production of Madama Butterfly

UKRAINIAN Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv perform Puccini’s La Bohème on February 3 and Madama Butterfly on February 4, at the Grand Opera House, York, at 7.30pm.

Ukrainian soprano Alyona Kistenyova, Korean soprano Elena Dee and French soprano Olga Perrier are the tour soloists for La Bohème, Puccini’s romantic but tragic operatic tale of the doomed, consumptive Mimi and her love for a penniless writer, staged with bohemian art, a brass band and snow effects.

Dee, Kistenyova and Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Natalia Matveeva return in Kent’s staging of Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s heart-breaking story of the beautiful young Japanese girl who falls in love with an American naval lieutenant. A Japanese garden and antique wedding kimonos are promised. Box office:

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