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)

Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
film
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
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.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?