Passion, jealousy, murder... and an eagle – Katy Wheeler talks Tosca

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Katy Wheeler finds out why an opera classic is flying high

It’s hard to talk to Ellen Kent and not be bitten by the opera bug, such is her passion for the art form.

For the past 19 years, she’s been bringing her lavish productions of opera classics to Sunderland.

 This month it’s the turn of Tosca and Carmen. As well as the usual Ellen Kent opera ingredients of world-class singing and sumptuous sets, Tosca will also feature an unusual star: Nabucco the golden eagle.

 The bird of prey and his six-foot wingspan will make only a handful of appearances on the tour – including Sunderland.

 Ellen says: “It’s a lovely bird and is very well behaved. It’s fed lots of titbits to keep it happy and is tethered to his owner, falconer Derek Tindall. In Carmen we don’t have a horse as they are so expensive, so only a big venue justifies it. But we do have a rescue donkey, four-year-old Freddie.

 “Having live animals gives a different lift to the show, it brings the whole thing to life.”

 The award-winning producer/ director is bringing two new productions of Tosca and Carmen to the Empire on April 24 (Tosca) and April 25 (Carmen).

 Bizet’s dramatic and sensuous opera Carmen tells the story of the downfall of soldier Don Jose, who is seduced by the fiery, beautiful and passionate gypsy, Carmen.

 Abandoning both his childhood sweetheart and his military career, Jose pursues Carmen but loses her to the glamorous bullfighter Escamillo. In true tragic operatic fashion, Jose can’t bear to be without Carmen and stabs her in a jealous rage.

 Ellen, who spent her teenage years in Andalucia, said: “My mother used to run the equivalent of the RSPCA in Spain when I was growing up and the farm was full of 30 to 40 donkeys, the same number of dogs and even more cats.

 “We used to travel miles across the countryside to festivals when they were planning to sacrifice a donkey. We’d buy the donkey off them and run – often chased by villagers. There was never a dull moment.”

 As a tribute to Ellen’s mother, a collection will be made at the show to raise money for animal welfare. Speaking about how she chooses which shows to tour, Ellen said: “There are hundreds of reasons why I choose particular shows. The main reasons are which ones I know will sell, what the market place is like and which reps I have done previous to that.

 “Carmen is not the easiest, it’s a big production with lots of people, but there’s an attraction. It’s not so much about love, it’s about passion, sex, jealousy and competition, all to the background of gypsy life. I’ve done many Carmens before and that all goes into the melting pot of why I decide to do a show.

 “After Madame Butterfly it is one of the strongest 
operas.” Tosca, meanwhile, is one of Ellen’s favourite operas which she says she could produce time and time again.

 It’s an epic tale of true love and treachery featuring torture, murder and suicide alongside some of opera’s best-known music.

 Opera diva Floria Tosca fears for the fidelity of her lover Mario, only to discover that it is the Baron Scarpia’s lust for her that endangers that love.

 A complex agreement of bargains and bluffs follow, to the detriment of all, with a truly tragic ending.

 In preparation for the current tour and her new staging of Tosca, Ellen took a trip to composer Puccini’s house in Italy.

 She said: “It was quite magical. I didn’t think it would be quite so inspiring. It was almost eerie – exactly as you would imagine someone with Puccini’s mind to have, with beautiful memorabilia everywhere. There were his shoes and clothes and pipes and all the models of his operas and his actual scores with all his notes on them. The walls were painted with frescos and there was exquisite stained glass everywhere.

 “My productions are always rather beautiful and I suddenly realised that, in my view, I have been doing what Puccini would have liked and wanted. It felt like meeting somebody I knew.”

 These new shows mark the return of Opera and Ballet International as Ellen revives her role as promoter after a four-year break.

 The celebrated Chisinau National Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra perform, alongside international soloists mezzo soprano Nadia Stoianova as Carmen and soprano Maria Tsonina as Tosca.

 The Sunderland leg of the tour is one Ellen is particularly looking forward to.

 “I’ve been coming to the Sunderland Empire since 1994 and I have a huge relationship with the venue,” she said. “I’m very loyal to it and choose to play Sunderland rather than Newcastle. I love the North East and went to university in Durham. Coming to Sunderland reminds me of my youth and canoeing as a student. The Empire also suits opera beautifully.”

•Tosca will be at the Sunderland Empire on April 24 with Carmen running on April 25. Tickets priced £10 – £29.50 are available from Tel. 0844 871 3022 and online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.