By Jeremy Miles
SHE'S the larger than life opera producer who in recent years has staged touring shows featuring a positive menagerie of live animals, birds, naked women, dancing fountains, walls of flame - you name it!
Ellen Kent not only knows how to put on a production but she knows how to drum up a little publicity. Her shows in Bournemouth have included exotic dogs, a life-sized elephant, an eagle, stunt artists falling from the ramparts of an on-stage fortress and, making it all worthwhile, some extremely good opera.
Last time her company was heading for town she advertised for "slaves" to beef up her latest take on Aida.
So when she turned up at the Pavilion Theatre for a photocall for her latest production of Bizet's Carmen with a couple of donkeys in tow, no one batted an eyelid.
However, it seems that while all those other grand gestures were simply business, this time it's personal. For Ellen says that the look and feel of this latest production of Bizet's masterpiece, which plays the Pavilion on Monday, is inspired by her own teenage years spent growing up in Andalucia.
As a result a lot of the scenes will be based more on Malaga than Seville, while the inclusion of a donkey in the cast is 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, still shudders when she remembers 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," recalls Ellen. "I can remember running like the wind with pellets whistling past my ears. It was terrifying."
She admits 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 says.
Now, in a nod to her unusual childhood, each performance of Carmen will raise money for local donkey sanctuaries.
Despite turning up for her photocall wearing a jacket made of a patchwork of leather and fur, Ellen still has the welfare of her various 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 Mimi to a specialist vet.
l Monday's production of Carmen is one of two operas being staged at the Pavilion by Ellen Kent next week.
It will be followed on Thursday by a lavish new version of Verdi's Nabucco - an opera close to Miss Kent's heart as it was the first she ever staged back in 1993.
However she says that producing serious opera is getting more and more difficult as audiences educated in the classics dwindle.
As a result the takings from Carmen - which is also known through popular culture and musical theatre - will probably have to subsidise Nabucco which is likely to be far less well attended.
Carmen also has the added attraction of leading mezzo soprano Helen Shipp in the title role.
Hopefully it will feature a donkey too but as Ellen says: "Quite a few donkeys 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."