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)

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