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.'


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
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas