They've toured across the globe, played the Albert Hall, and collaborated with some of the biggest names in classical music. The Helikon Opera has a reputation as the most exciting and innovative opera company in Russia. But catch one of their performances in Moscow, and you might be forgiven for thinking you'd walked into a school theatre.
Located between a DVD kiosk and a rental shop on Novy Arbat, the poky 300-seat hall used to be a conference venue for a Soviet ministry and provides incongruous surroundings for a world-class opera troupe. "It's an absurd place to have an opera theatre," says Dmitry Bertman, the founder and artistic director. "The ventilation is appalling, the acoustics are appalling, and we don't have anywhere to rehearse."
For nearly two years, the Helikon's old home in the centre of Moscow has been under scaffolding as the company awaited planning permission for renovations. The old stage, located in a handsome 18th-century building, will be given a makeover and an impressive new stage will be built. Mr Bertman walked through the shell of the old theatre and into the courtyard behind, pointing to where the new stage will be, at the front of a sloping auditorium that will go seven metres into the ground.
Last week, Moscow's Mayor Yury Luzhkov finally signed off the plans, and now building work can begin. The new stage is due to open in 2010, until when the theatre will continue in its miserable temporary home. If previous renovation projects are anything to go by, the theatre will be lucky if the project goes ahead without delays. As it is, they have waited nearly two years without a brick being moved. "There have been a lot of problems," says Mr Bertman wearily.
The Helikon is not the only Russian theatre with renovation problems. The country's two most famous theatres are also embroiled in lengthy refurbishments to bring their historic buildings up to modern standards. In Moscow, the Bolshoi is under wraps since it closed in 2005 for desperately needed reconstruction. Its sumptuous auditorium was due to be opened earlier this year, but the work has taken longer than expected and gone way over budget. It is now expected to reopen no earlier than September next year.
For now, the theatre is confined to its New Stage, a fraction of the size, whose gaudy interior was criticised when it opened in 2002. The reduced capacity has exacerbated the Bolshoi's serious financial problems.
Meanwhile in St Petersburg, the old stage of the Mariinsky is still in use while a protracted crisis over plans for a new theatre rumbles on. The French architect Dominique Perrault presented his design for the theatre several years ago, but a series of disputes between the architects, the theatre and the city authorities mean construction is yet to start. A spokesman for the theatre said that a new Mariinsky is to be expected "not before 2010", and most expect the real date to be much later. Whether the old stage, in dire need of repairs, can last until then, remains to be seen.
Moscow's alternative attractions
The Tretyakov Gallery has the biggest collection of Russian art in the world.
Hit one of the legendary "elitny" nightclubs, such as Rai. Entry will probably cost £60, for which you'll get dancing drag queens, acrobats in giant glass balls, and a clientele of shady minigarchs and leggy models.
A Moscow bargain, where you can see world-class acrobats for just a few pounds. Best avoided if you have ethical qualms about performing animals.
Lenin's embalmed corpse can still be viewed most weekdays. Admission is free.
*A topless haircut
One Moscow salon offers topless haircuts for £60, and hairdressers willing to offer "extra services" for a fee.