Oscar Hammerstein would have been delighted to hear the sound of opera reverberating around the Hills of the Derbyshire Peak District. The Buxton Festival was started in 1979, and in the last 10 years has achieved the status of one of Britain’s leading musical events. In 2007, the Festival produced 3 operas in house, Offenbach’s Bluebeard, Tobias and the Angel by Jonathan Dove and Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. This was the new Director Andrew Greenwood’s first choice after taking over from Aidan Lang, and was a critical and public success with a fine cast led by Maly Plazaas as Queen Elizabeth. Other companies brought Marriage of Figaro, King Arthur, Benda’s Romeo and Juliet and Boesmann ‘s Julie. These are usually evening performances, with mornings occupied by visiting authors, light recitals at lunchtime, chamber music and song in the afternoon, and post opera cabaret, giving 12 hours of events each day.

The Festival was started by Malcolm Fraser and Antony Hose in 1979. Fraser had discovered the shabby 900 seat Opera House designed by Frank Matcham, and realized it was an ideal site for an opera Festival. Funds were raised to convert the building back to a live theatre from its decades as a cinema. Soon it was returned to its golden glory and the Festival got under way. The original policy, continued to this day, of choosing lesser known operas, suitable for the small auditorium. Therefore no Puccini,, or Wagner and little Verdi,, but lots of Rossini, Donizetti, Handel and many more.

For nearly 2 decades the Festival had its financial ups and downs. It was not only the fickle Arts Council support that nearly made it go under several times. Reading Michael Kennedy’s book Buxton - An English Festival, one gets the impression that the opera luvvies landed in the town with determined exclusivity. The locals were not impressed, and often the Manchester and Cheshire audiences, which were nearest to hand, were not drawn by little known operas, even when names such as Thomas Allen, Rosalind Plowright and Anne Sophie von Otter were on offer. Local restaurants were hardly enticing either. The luvvies did not seem to get on with either the Town, or the Opera House management. And it rained.

Eventually Opera North came to the rescue for a couple of years, but it seemed that they were looking for a second touring house. However, the Town of Buxton was starting to go on the up. 10 years ago it suddenly became possible to eat decent food in the Town, hotels realized the Festival could be a tourist attraction. Derby University, now a force in the district, are active supporters, and the big old Crescent Hotel has been bought by Danubius Hotels, with a large scale project to re-open the Spa, and they actively support the Festival.

Imaginative development by Chairman Sir Philip Howarth and later Roy Hattersley and advice from Lord Harewood built up a solid base, and for the last 10 years the Festival has thrived. There are now 2600 friends of the Festival who have priority booking, and they live all over the country and travel to stay for several days each year. They also fund raise, and sponsor productions. Audiences pour in each night and can be seen dining by candelight well after the midnight hour to discuss the evening’s performance. It is estimated that the Festival attracts 35,000 visitors to the Town.

The Festival has got the local education authority aboard by staging each year a community opera, with scores of school children and some older performers, backing professional lead singers and orchestra in works like the Jonathan Dove in 2007, and by Nicola le Fanu. Members of the opera casts tour schools and education centres around the High Peak.

Several years ago Roy Hattersley created the Literary Festival, and each morning writers like Michael Frayne, P. D. James, and Michael Hoiroyd, and broadcasters like John Humphries, John Simpson and James Naughtie run the gauntlet of keen questioning. Bill Deedes made one of his last public appearances before age caught up with him, and he had to retire to his laptop

Recitalists this year included Felicity Lou, Peter DonOhoe, -Emma Kitkby,Alice Coote and Yevgeny Sudbin, and there are bassoon lunchtimes, Ballet, late night film and palm court orchestras recalling Buxton’s halcyon days of the early 20th century. 59% of income comes from ticket sales, 7% from sponsorship and costs are now covered well before the opening night.

With Andrew Greenwood now in place as artistic director, and Roy Hattersley being succeeded by Dame Janet Smith, an even keel and continuity is maintained by General Manager Glyn Foley, and things look well for the future. Weather can be a problem in Buxton - 52 inches of rain a year they tell me, but the 18 day Festival coincides with Carnival week, and usually Buxton swelters, to such an extent that the Opera House has recently installed air conditioning.

Going to the Opera House has a special quality - champagne before the show and during the interval, a summons, Bayreuth style, into the theatre by a brass group on the balcony and on the square outside there may be Morris Dancers, Clog Dancers or Strolling Players with scenes from Shakespeare. It all makes for an unforgettable experience. But a word of warning - hotel accommodation is at a premium and booking a room for next year’s Festival is advisable.

11th-  27th July 2008. Full details from the Festival Office 01298 70395


Peter Spaull