OPERA / And now, a word for our sponsors: Ellen Kent is flying an entire East European opera company over for a single night's performance - and almost for free. Mark Pappenheim reports

EIGHT years ago, Ellen Kent was running Dual Control from her front room. It was then just another small- scale regional theatre company, doing mainly two-handers and children's shows. Chances are you won't have heard of it. 'We were quite well received,' she responds defensively, 'and not just in Kent. We played the Young Vic and the Croydon Warehouse, too. But there was absolutely no money in it, no money at all.'

Then a colleague's tales of the richness and variety of theatrical activity in France caused Kent to change tack, and her once struggling theatre company was reborn as Dual Control International, a trans-continental management company specialising in importing large-scale visual theatre from across the Channel. Last year DCI was invited by the Royal National Theatre to manage a national tour of young people's plays from Italy, Portugal, Ireland and Denmark as part of the European Arts Festival. For Kent, the wealth of Continental theatre offers a vivid contrast to the cash-starved artistic climate back home. As she says, 'It's so exciting to bring things over on which so much money has been spent.'

Her latest project, though, is her most expensive to date - and quite a change from children's theatre. In a fortnight's time she is flying the entire Romanian State Opera over for a single open-air performance at Rochester Castle as the opening event of this year's Medway Arts Festival.

Opera also marks a change from the usual festival fare of Viennese evenings, orchestral pops and soft jazz presented in the gardens of Britain's best-preserved Norman keep. But, as Kent explains, the city itself has recently undergone a change, with Labour taking control of the council after a quarter-century of Conservative rule. Labour has not only increased the arts budget, but has proclaimed Rochester a 'City of Europe' in an effort to capitalise on the area's historic links with the Continent. Among the 'Euro' events the city is promoting this year are a Euro Petanque Festival, a Euro Food and Drink Festival, a Euro Painting Exhibition and a Euro Judo Competition. The Medway Arts Festival, too, was given a 'Euro' theme. 'So they came to me,' Kent recalls, 'and asked if I could give them something large, spectacular and European to launch the festival. And I thought: Large? Spectacular? What about opera?'

When, coincidentally, a Salzburg- based impresario offered her the Romanian State Opera, she jumped at the chance to present the company's British debut, little suspecting what she had taken on. For, as she admits, she knew nothing about opera apart from an unhappy childhood experience of The Barber of Seville, which had left her uncertain whether it was meant to be a comedy or not, and a more recent, but equally unhappy, visit to a Kent Opera production of Britten's The Burning Fiery Furnace. 'So when I heard they were offering an opera about Nebuchadnezzar, I thought, 'Oh, no] Not that]' Imagine how relieved I was when it turned out to be Verdi's Nabucco instead.'

She was even more relieved when the Romanians sent over a rough video of their production. 'I thought, My God, this thing's magnificent. It had that real exotic feel of the old Hollywood epics. But then I had a heart attack when I began thinking about all the practicalities.'

Her fears were confirmed when the Romanian production team flew over to inspect the site in February. Rochester's existing facilities were clearly inadequate to host even a scaled-down version of this Babylonian spectacular. Compromise was called for: Hero Lupescu, the director, agreed to rethink some aspects of his production for its open-air debut (as Kent observes, when she asked him if he could make do with less than he wanted, he replied wrily, 'I've been used to doing what I'm told'); Rochester surprisingly agreed to invest in a new sound and lighting rig as well as a larger stage, complete with rake and orchestra pit (although, as Kent hastens to add, 'It's not just for the opera: the RPO Pops will benefit too'). In addition, the council put up pounds 70,000 towards the costs of the venture - 'which is, all said and done, a lot of money'. But not, as Kent soon realised, anywhere near enough.

Not only was there the expense of flying over an entire opera company of 174 people, plus sets, costumes and technical equipment, there were all the associated costs of transport within the UK, hotel accommodation, publicity, marketing and a whole host of hidden extras from airport taxes to work permits, not to mention the company's own fee - 'and I want to dispel any idea that the Romanians are so grateful for the chance to appear in Britain that they're doing it for bread and water. They're not'. With travel costs alone adding up to around pounds 214,000, Kent calculated that she was looking at a total bill in the region of pounds 300,000.

Incredibly, she has raised nearly the whole sum as sponsorship-in- kind. Romavia, Romania's new commercial airline, has offered the use of a Boeing 707 inherited from the late President Ceausescu's private fleet; a local coach operator, who also happens to be an opera fan, has agreed to lay on the three double-decker coaches required to chauffeur the company about, while a friendly British opera company has volunteered its own trucks to transport the heavy stuff. Ralph Steadman has donated a drawing for publicity purposes and a local printer has produced leaflets and posters for free. A handy pounds 10,000 from Eurotunnel, initially earmarked for hotels, was diverted to marketing when a local hotel baron agreed to sponsor the accommodation. 'It's amazing how many decent people appear,' says Kent. 'You don't think they exist, but they do.' Even in the Home Office, which has agreed to waive the cost of the work permits. 'I think that's actually the most amazing sponsorship of all.'

CEAUSESCU AND THE OLD ROPE TRICK

NOW in his mid-sixties, Hero Lupescu has directed over 70 productions for the Romanian State Opera since 1954. Recent stagings include a modern-dress Carmen and a Traviata 'in blue jeans' that was, he says happily, 'a real scandale]' Yet, despite the resounding revolutionary overtones of Verdi's 1842 opera - whose epic tale of the Jewish people's plight beneath the Assyrian yoke was heard from the outset as a cry for Italian liberation from Austrian rule - Lupescu chose to present his 1987 production of Nabucco in traditional biblical style. This was, he says, so as not to limit the work's contemporary resonances, to allow audiences to find their own parallels for the brutal insanity of the blaspheming Babylonian king - 'whether in Cambodia or the Balkans or wherever . . .' More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that when the production was new, Ceausescu was still in power.

Yet, beneath the biblical pomp, Lupescu managed to conceal his own private protest against the former dictator's regime, and those sufficiently familiar with the map of Eastern Europe will note that, during the famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, when the captive people of Israel sit down by the waters of Babylon to weep for their lost homeland, the rope with which they are enchained traces the outline of Romania. Invisible from the stalls, and unnoticed even by the chorus themselves (who never knew the pattern they were making), Lupescu's hidden message remained a secret between himself and his true public in the gods. Only after the Revolution, when a reporter who had failed to get a seat downstairs ended up in the balcony, did the story finally break in the press.

'This shouldn't be seen as a dissident act,' Lupescu insists. 'It was rather a deeper instinct, because that was actually the situation of the Romanian people.' It was an instinct that the people shared: Nabucco has sold out for most of its 150 performances in Bucharest, and the Hebrews' Chorus has invariably been encored. Yet Lupescu still recalls the day that Ceausescu's censorship committee came to approve the preview: 'I must have lost about 3kg that day,' he jokes.

'Nabucco': 8pm Sat 24 July Castle Gardens, Rochester, Kent (40 mins from Victoria BR: trains at 5.05, 5.35, 6.05, 6.35; special late-night train back afterwards; pounds 7.50 rtn)

Ticket offer: 500 full-price tickets at pounds 15 are available at pounds 13 (concs at pounds 8) to the first Independent readers to call the box-office on 0634 811118 (Mon-Fri 9m-5pm) or 0634 408965 (Sat 10am-3pm), quoting this offer. Please present this page on collection

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone