A tale of operatic aspirations and behind the scenes donkey work

A scene from Ellen Kent's latest production of Aida
A scene from Ellen Kent’s latest production of Aida

A few days ago we returned to the town of my birth – the careworn but wonderfully characterful channel port of Folkestone. Strolling along the cliff-top I spied the familiar sight of a truck loading equipment and scenery at the local theatre.

A prop from Ellen Kent's Aida
A prop waits outside the theatre

The load-in we witnessed was it transpired for a touring production of Aida being staged my old friend the opera producer Ellen Kent.  The crew, who were having a cup of tea and a sarnie in the back of the truck, seemed decidedly bashful when we took a snap of an exotic prop  being “rested” before making the journey into the theatre. I couldn’t help thinking that their reticent behaviour was completely unlike their  flamboyant boss. A larger than life character, Ellen used to regularly contact me during my days as an Arts and Entertainments editor to regale me with astonishing tales of her latest venture.

In those balmy pre credit-crunch days her touring shows invariably displayed a headline-catching gimmick or three.  She seemed to have a positive menagerie of live animals and birds taking part in her productions and there were also naked women, dancing fountains, walls of flame and various death-defying stunts.

In short Ellen Kent  was a woman who knew how to drum up a little publicity. She probably still does. Last time I saw one of her productions of Aida it had been preceded by a lavish advertisement in the regional press for “slaves” to take part in the show. So I was less than surprised when she turned up one day at the Pavilion Theatre in Bournemouth with a couple of donkeys in tow.

She explained that the look and feel of her latest production – Bizet’s Carmen – was inspired by her own teenage years spent growing up in Andalucia. Many of the scenes were to be based on Malaga rather than Seville, and the inclusion of a donkey in the cast was in memory of her mother’s voluntary work saving the creatures from cruel deaths in rural Spain back in the 1960s.

Ellen, the daughter if an Indian High Commissioner who retired to Spain, vividly recalled her 13-year-old self being recruited to carry out lightning raids on donkey sacrificing rituals in the mountains. “We had a man called Juan and a small van and my mother used drag me off to rescue donkeys from these festivals in which they would be killed.” The locals didn’t take kindly to this intervention “They used to fire at us with air rifles,” said Ellen. “I can remember running like the wind with pellets whistling past my ears. It was terrifying.”

She admitted that  she was indirectly responsible for her mother’s sudden calling as an animal rights activist. “She had gone from being a diplomat’s wife to looking for something to do to fill her time. Then one day I came home with a couple of kittens I’d rescued from a ditch and that was it, I’m afraid. Mummy rather took to it and we ended up with 20 dogs, 15 donkeys and 55 cats. I think she went a bit mad in the end, she bankrupted the family with all the money that went on the animals.”

Eventually when her parents could no longer pay the school fees, Ellen herself had to be rescued. “I ended up being educated by the Masons,” she told me. Now, in a nod to her unusual childhood, each performance of Carmen was to be dedicated to raising money for local donkey sanctuaries.

Despite turning up for the show’s photocall wearing a jacket made of a patchwork of leather and fur, Ellen told me she still had the welfare of her animal friends very much at heart. She had arrived by taxi, she explained, because her chauffeur-driven Jaguar was needed to take her ailing cat to a specialist vet.

While the donkeys she had delivered to the theatre seemed quite content to have their photographs taken, Ellen admitted to me that they hadn’t been 100 per cent successful when it came to getting them on stage.  “Quite a few  go on but unfortunately quite a few donkeys refuse to put so much as a hoof on the stage. I’m afraid they have a mind of their own.” 

You could just tell that she’d rather have a drama queen diva as her lead soprano than have to deal with a reluctant donkey. It rather reminded me of a conversation I once had with the veteran American producer Gary Lashinsky – the theatrical mastermind behind the spectacular international Lipizzaner Stallion Show. Only sort of in reverse. Gary knew a thing or two  about transporting highly unpredictable creatures across the globe. Before he worked with horses he  produced rock shows for Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. “The stallions are a lot easier,” he told me.  “If it came down to having to get one of those horses on an airplane or one of those guys like Keith Richards, I know which I would prefer.” Lucky he didn’t work with donkeys!


Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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