A trip to Italy provided the inspiration for one of the most sought-after shows at the Brighton Festival, which opens on Saturday.

As the festival's classical music programme manager, Gill Kay is always looking for new spaces and innovative methods of staging work.

So when she heard that a stripped-down version of Verdi's La Traviata was being staged in three rooms of the 16th century Palazzo Barbarigo-Minotto in Venice, she decided to fly out to watch it.

The intimate setting was a revival of the 19th century fashion for salon operas, when the Italian aristocracy would pay for a private performance in the comfort of their own home.

Gill explained: "La Traviata is a big, grand opera which is normally staged seen on a large stage with a pit, an orchestra and a chorus. I wasn't sure whether it would work in a smaller setting with just three singers, but it was amazing. At one point one of the central characters, Violetta, spoke directly to us in character and said 'thank you for coming to my party'. It is very intimate and you become part of the scene."

Gill returned home enraptured by the idea of bringing the Ensemble Musica a Palazzo over to England to perform in Brighton's own palace - the Royal Pavilion.

To her surprise and delight, the Pavilion's trustees agreed to hire out three rooms of the palace.

The first act - where Violetta throws a party - will take place in the lavishly-decorated banquet hall.

Young actors dressed in white livery have been hired to pose as footmen. Gill gave them all DVDs of period drama Gosford Park and told them to watch the servant characters played Alan Bates and Richard E Grant for guidance on how to behave. Their job will be to guide the 60-strong audience from the banqueting room into the other a further two rooms for the second and third acts.

Gill said: "The Pavilion does have bedrooms but we couldn't use them because the furniture is too precious, so we had to use empty rooms and fill them ourselves. It was a complete headache trying to find furniture and props which looked the part because we only had a limited budget."

She trawled antique shops for bargains, borrowed items from Glyndebourne and enlisted the help of local experts such as Catherine Darcy of The Vintage Shirt Company in Lewes.

For one scene where Violetta stares into a mirror by candlelight, Gill had to source flickering light bulbs because fire restrictions ban the use of naked flames in the Pavilion.

For another scene where a champagne glass is smashed, she had to find special film prop glasses made of sugar.

Tickets for all four performances were snapped up within hours of going on sale.

Gill said she regretted that more people could not see the show, but the cost of hiring the building made it impossible to put on more performances.

Even at £45 a head, the revenue from ticket sales was not nearly enough to cover the costs of the production and it has had to be subsidised with festival funds.

Gill said: "If we'd have increased the size of the audience it would have lost that sense of intimacy."

*Read our critic's review of La Traviata in Monday's paper.