Guest blog: Whatever Happened to Puccini’s wife?

Writer Chris Hogg talks about an inspirational visit behind Helios Collective’s Il Letto.

I don’t think I have ever felt a colder January wind than that which whips down from the mountains and across Lake Massaciuccoli to the gates of Puccini’s house at Torre De’l Largo.

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I have been following signs to Puccini’s house for half an hour and suddenly I’m arrived.

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I try to work out whether the museum is open or closed, and whether my journey from London has all been for nothing. I am here to write a new play about Puccini’s wife Elvira Bonturi. I have maxed out a credit card so that I get here, and now according to the sign, the museum is closed. I’m shivering. I go home tomorrow. The guide book said it would be open.  Damn.

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I have no choice but to find somewhere to warm up. There is a completely empty restaurant and within a few moments, I am tucking into Parpedella with Boar with a glass of Chianti. Oh well.  Tuscany is that kind of place. I ask my waiter why the museum is closed today.  He tells me the Puccini’s museum is always open, but it always looked closed. I should ring the bell more forcefully.  My spirits return.

As I return to museum I walk past a statue of Puccini. Collar up, cigarette on lip, he looks like a tough private investigator from some film noir.  There is no mistaking his masculinity energy.

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I ring the bell to the museum again, and magically a door open and a curator comes out.

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She tells me I am on the only visitor that day, and I have half an hour to explore as I feel. However, I must stay on the ground floor only and not take one single picture.

Not one single picture I say?

Not one, she replies.

I pay my six Euros and she hands me an audio guide. I put on the headphones and try and follow the gaze of the voice in my ears. However, I am immediately distracted by a cat. A beautiful cat. A handsome cat whose masculine energy you can’t disguise. When I try and stroke it, its fur goes up and it hisses and tries to bite me.

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The first thing I think about, I think is that Puccini isn’t happy that I have come to write a play about his wife. He’s not happy that I am there at all.  You see the story of Puccini’s wife, Elivira Bonturi is so full of scandal that the full tale only emerged in 2008.

My first task I decide is to try and find a picture of the woman herself. I want to get to know her. In all his music, Elvira was Tosca. Proud, possessive, Italian!

The house, itself is of course magnificent. It befits man who had 17 curtain calls at the premiere of Manon Lescaut;  a man whose estimated fortune at the end of his life was, in today’s money around £130m.

The house is kept just as it was when he lived there.

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It is full of Art Deco wonders, and amongst it all we have his Foster Piano.

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There is even an imprint in the cushion.  I suspect that it belongs to the wild cat at the entrance.

My search for Elvira continues. The house is full of hundreds of picture of incredible women. These are just a fraction of them. Many of them are inscribed with thanks; thanks for the music. I begin to wonder how it was with Elvira being married to a man with such a formidable fan club.

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Letto ladies 2

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Search as I might. I still can’t find a picture of Elvira. The play I am writing is called the Il Letto. In Italian means The Bed.  The story I am telling concerns, the events that happened in the house in 1909.  The set of circumstances that led to the death of a girl, the near ruin of the Puccini family, and a five day prison sentence for Elvira on the charge of defamation. I keep looking.

I take a selfie.

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I decide that my only option is to find the curator. I go to the gift shop.  I love a gift shop.  She is behind the counter, trying to keep warm. I ask her, where is Elvira Bonturi? She looks confused, and then gets up and says, that there are only two pictures of her in the whole museum.

This seems odd to me. I would not be half the writer I am without my wife. She gives me incredible notes, she proofs my terrible typos. Her name should go somewhere on every script. If I had a museum after my death, there would have to be many pictures of her.

We wonder back into the museum. And there on a shelf, devoted to weird objects collected from around the world is Elvira. It is about the size of passport photo, and the frame is well, nothing special.  Despite that there is a strength to her features. She has a nobility. The kind of countenance that would inspire the Visi D’arte.

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It is as if, in the story of Puccini, Elvira has been expunged. She has been placed on a shelf, far away from the art. Maybe she is still being punished for what she did over a hundred years ago.

In the end, that is what this opera play is about. It is about listening to Puccini’s incredible music, but with a new perspective, like dusting off an old photograph of someone long dead, and wondering who that person really was. To find out for yourself book yourself a ticket.

Il Letto is being performed at Buxton Festival on 20 July at 12.00-1.00

PS.

If you ever wondered what the Puccini marital bed looked like, here it is. I snuck upstairs when the curator wasn’t looking.

Bed

 

 

 

 

Climbing the Tower

Music Theatre Wales’ Artistic Director Michael McCarthy talks to Robbie Carnegie about Y Tŵr

RC: How did this project come about?

MM: We knew composer Guto Puw for some time, especially in connection with his work as Resident Composer for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Having won a Creative Wales Award to allow him to explore the idea of writing an opera, Guto approached us to find out how to go about it. We were very interested in him, and suggested the best way forward was for him to come up with an idea and we would take it from there, one step at a time. In fact, Guto already had the play Y Tŵr (The Tower) in mind – he’d seen it as a youngster (the play, by Gwenlyn Parry was written in 1978 for the National Eisteddfod) and it had made a great impact on him, thanks to its powerful linguistic sense of location and the sincerity of its story. The next stage was to put him together with a writer, so we suggested Gwyneth Glyn, an accomplished playwright and screenwriter but also singer-songwriter, who had previously worked with MTW on a Welsh-language version of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale, and they found an overlap of interest that would combine to create this piece. We suggested that Guto and Gwyneth should come up with a first act, which we then workshopped. Realising that Y Tŵr had enormous potential, we invited Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru (the Welsh language National Theatre of Wales) to attend the conclusion of the workshop and on the basis of their feedback asked them to team up with us on the commission and creation of this production.

RC: What are the themes of the opera?

MM: Y Tŵr is Parry’s most straightforward and lyrical work, which moves away from the more absurdist themes that are a feature of his other plays. ‘The Tower’ of the title is a symbolic idea, encapsulating a couple’s journey through life together, going up by floors representing the different stages of their lives. That makes it a good vehicle for looking at how people behave, both individually and as a couple, with a core emotional content that is completely timeless.

RC: How is Y Tŵr going to be staged?

MM: It has a simple, but symbolic staging – a platform with a ladder running through it representing the upward journey through life. As a starting-point for the design of the show, we looked to the Dutch ‘vanitas’ paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, where a single still life encapsulates an individual’s life. The challenge was how to portray two people aging 60 years on stage. We’ve decided to have two dressing tables where the singers can be seen aging in front of our eyes, thus bringing the audience into the inner world of the characters as they age by encouraging them to accept the theatrical device that demonstrates it.

RC: I believe Buxton’s the only place Y Tŵr can be seen outside Wales?

MM: It is really important to us to show a non-Welsh-speaking audience how Welsh is a dynamic, living language which lends itself brilliantly to a musical setting, and we’re thrilled to be bringing Y Tŵr to Buxton where we’ve shared such successes as The Golden Dragon, The Killing Flower and Greek. And it’s opera, which audiences are used to hearing in all sorts of languages, so why not Welsh? As Gwyneth Glyn says, the drama is both personal and universal, just like the language which is both highly specific in location and yet carries a message for us all – about how to live and how to love.

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Y Tŵr will be performed at Buxton Festival on Monday 17 July at 7.15pm

16 – Lucio Silla director Harry Silverstein on the youthful flowering of Mozart’s genius

 

Harry Silverstein

I cannot remember exactly what I was doing at age 16, but I am quite certain it was not writing brilliant Italian opera. In thinking about Lucio Silla we must keep in mind the fact that Mozart was just a teenager when he penned this opera. His genius is evident; his ability to craft stunning musical figures and capture detailed characters shines already. Lacking the experience that comes with age, has not quite achieved the stunning depth of characterisation and human understanding he does in his maturity, the operas with Da Ponte for example. Yet he shows a wonderful ability to find the truth and humanity of these charterers in his storytelling. It is the discovery of the humanity of Silla that is the core of this story, his transformation from unenlightened despot to the generous leader and gentle man that interests Mozart and captivates us.

Mozart continues to be interested in redemption and enlightenment throughout his career. Although he is not yet a member of the Freemasons, you may feel the sensibilities that ultimately bring him to their brotherhood. Lucio Silla, much like La clemenza di Tito, Die Zauberflöte, and Idomeneo investigate the actions and relationships between powerful people that ultimately lead to selflessness, generosity, and humility. In the case of Silla, a leader has waged a brutal civil war, and is using repression to control his people, all the while engaging his power to pursue his personal lust. He accepts bad advice and flattery, employs deception of individuals as well as the public to solidify his position and ensure his wishes are followed. (Oh, how nothing is new under the sun.) Here, however, our protagonist experiences enlightenment. Not only does Silla have this journey, each of the principal characters has an equivalent one and a revelation experience at the end of the opera.

Every good story offers us the opportunity to share experiences with characters that we recognise, characters that we can accept, and characters that have thoughts and perform actions that could be our own. They on the stage, we in the audience, take this journey together; it is how storytelling does its work. As artists of interpretation the challenge is to create Silla and the story around him in a way that explains his original actions, allows the possibility for change and then follows his journey to redemption and understanding. Much more than we could have done at 16; we can, however, aspire to achieve it now at a certain age.

Lucio Silla cast

The cast of Buxton International Festival’s Lucio Silla: Joshua Ellicott (Lucio Silla); Fflur Wyn (Celia); Rebecca Bottone (Giunia); Madeleine Pierard (Cecilio); Karolina Plicková (Lucio Cinna); Ben Thapa (Aufidio)

Liberation Day – Director Francis Matthews on Albert Herring

 

 

Albert Herring is based – very loosely – on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, Le rosier de Madame Husson. It is a portrait of provincial French life. An absurdly patriotic local doctor tells his friend the story of Isidore – a timid youth – who is crowned May King in the absence of any girl virtuous enough to be crowned May Queen, but who then disgraces himself by getting obscenely drunk on his 500 franc prize money. In Britten’s opera, the town of Gisors becomes the Suffolk village of Loxford, the myopic self-regard of the Norman middle class translates into the small-minded snobbery of a rural East Anglian community, and Isidore – passive, non-speaking cipher – becomes Albert Herring – much nagged and inhibited, but who finally and spectacularly discovers his voice. Britten and his librettist Eric Crozier are more involved with the character and fate of Albert than Maupassant is with Isidore. Isidore becomes a useless alcoholic and dies – ‘dans une crise de delirium tremens, naturellement’. But Albert is strengthened by his post-coronation experiences, speaks up for himself, at last defies his oppressive mother and stands up to the angry condemnation of Lady Billows, Loxford’s local moral guardian.

Albert Herring was composed in the late 1940s, during Clement Atlee’s reformist Labour administration. As Paul Kildea observes in his biography of the composer ‘Labour was promising a lot … the successful demobilisation of servicemen and women; jobs for all; world peace; education and welfare reform; a tax-funded national health system; town planning; nuclear defence; the nationalisation of major industries …’ Albert knows very little about any of this, but it is tempting to see his emancipation in the context of a national impatience with the status quo. There was a fear that under a Conservative government, change and progress would be resisted, and the freedoms and opportunities suggested by wartime endeavour, by the sense that the country was ‘all in it together’ – would be lost.

Albert Herring is not in any overt way a political piece, but it is alive to the sense of possibility. A comic collision between an inflexible authority and the irrepressibly Dionysian appetites of the people of Loxford reminds us of Malvolio’s clash with Sir Toby and ‘the lighter people’ in Twelfth Night. Britten’s opera is very much on the side of the lighter people. Albert has had to put up with too much and needs a break. The village boys and girls have been having their fun, but now it’s Albert’s turn. We never quite find out what he got up to after the coronation, but whatever it was, he comes back a stronger, more confident, curiously liberated man. The war is over! As the children sing at the end of the opera ‘Albert’s come back to stay, Better for his holiday’.

 

Los Nacimientos – Composer Tom Randle on his exciting new project for Buxton International Festival

d4cc46_41a7e5f0829a48a9bff3afc9c01dba28-mv2_d_5220_3484_s_4_2Los Nacimientos is a new, interdisciplinary dance/ theatre piece created in collaboration with dotdotdot dance. The piece itself began life as a song cycle – a setting of texts by the Nobel prize-winning Chilean revolutionary poet Pablo Neruda. The original cycle consisted of five settings of some of his most beautiful and sensuous texts, and has been performed on numerous occasions both in the UK and abroad by the excellent Canadian-British soprano Gillian Keith and superb pianist John Reid.

When I first encountered the poems of Neruda, I was struck not only by the sheer beauty of the words, but also by their immense strength and vitality. While it is clear that Neruda’s more politicised verses were capable of uniting a nation, his more intimate, romantic poems are every bit as powerful. Another aspect of his poetry is the fact that they are, in themselves, so very musical. The lightness and lyricism of his words made it a joy to set to music.

Although the song cycle in its original form had been received very successfully, it was after seeing a performance by dotdotdot dance at in the Buxton Fringe festival that the idea was hatched to work with them and put these two elements – 21st century Art Song and flamenco infused choreography – together. The ensuing result is the piece entitled Los Nacimientos (The Births). The title is taken from another of Neruda’s poems.

Since meeting with dotdotdot dance, the work has been expanded. Two new songs were added to the original set of five, and four piano interludes, called ‘Capitulos’ (‘Chapters’) were written to be interspersed among the sung poems. As Nerudas poems are so full of fantastic imagery, many of which focus on the elemental, we can expect to see choreography of immense strength and power to compliment an equally dynamic musical performance.

The goal of Los Nacimientos is to a forge a new type of theatre combining music, dance, sound and vision into a cohesive whole and bring to life the incredible verses of Pablo Neruda in a way never before seen. We hope that those already familiar with Neruda will welcome the chance to revisit his work in a brand new way, and for those encountering his poems for the first time, I can promise an extraordinary and unforgettable evening.

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Los Nacimientos will be performed at the Pavilion Arts Centre on Saturday 15 and Saturday 22 July at 7.30pm.

The 1847 Macbeth

ElijahDirector Elijah Moshinsky on the ‘propulsive vitality and rough originality’ of Verdi’s first Macbeth

The early operas of Verdi are a unique genre. Often derided for their naivety or crude directness, they are neglected in relation to his more expansive and complex works which have found a permanent place in the repertoire of every opera house.

I aim to explore these neglected works. Macbeth is a particularly interesting example of an early opera composed in1847 which was then revised by Verdi in 1865. The first performances were written for the Teatro Pergola in Florence, a small theatre – about the same size as Buxton Opera House – and the later Macbeth was commissioned for the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris which was a large House boasting a chorus of over a hundred and a large orchestra. Much of the opera was rewritten to accommodate this larger scale and an extended ballet sequence was added. There is no doubt that the later version has many improved developments in style, sweep and colour. The new numbers show the progression of Verdi’s ability to express more sophisticated emotional range but the first one shows us Verdi’s direct attempt to write a Shakespearean opera. It is the earlier version that has propulsive vitality and rough originality. This is Verdi’s anti-bel canto opera, the one that he wants to be sung at times almost as speech: ‘The plot is taken from one of the greatest tragedies the theatre boasts, and I have tried to have it well verified, and to give it a new texture, and to compose music tied as far as possible to the text and to the situations’.

Verdi had a close friend in Guilin Carcano who was translating Shakespeare into Italian, and in 1846 he read to Verdi the play of Macbeth. This clearly gripped the composer’s mind and he immediately recommended it as a subject for his commission in Florence and in 1847 Verdi actually saw a performance of Macready’s production in London.

But what we see in the opera is Shakespeare as performed through the traditions of nineteenth century theatre. One particular part of that tradition survives in this early version in the final death aria of Macbeth which is derived from David Garrick’s idea to write himself a stirring climactic death speech, because he believed Shakespeare did not provide Macbeth with a good ending. The librettist, Francesco Mario Piave, simply followed current performance practice. By the time Verdi rewrote it for Paris the taste had changed and Verdi was asked for a heroic chorus of one hundred bards to hail Malcolm’s victory.

So what is remarkable about this first version?

  • It captures in operatic form much of the essence of Shakespeare’s drama.
  • It has the dramatic compression of Verdi’s early works.Constant contrasts used to create drama.
  • A use of music and text which seems to us unsophisticated but cumulatively building to a complex piece of theatre.
  • Directness in presenting the drama.

Verdi laid great emphasis on simplicity: the characters should stand out clearly; the changes in their fortunes or situations should be readily grasped. With this subject he attempted to dramatise the horror and darkness of regicide. But this play had a supernatural element in the witches which connected the action. Verdi wrote to Piave: ‘The subject is neither political or religious; it is fantastical’.

The opera is not about the rise of a modern fascist nor is it about political tyranny. It is a study in character, about ambition for power, a toxic marriage which leads to the inner destruction of the protagonists and the descent of the world into chaos.

Artistic Director Stephen Barlow looks forward to Mozart’s Lucio Silla

Mozart was only 16 when he wrote Lucio Silla, but in his exceptional case ‘only’ is hardly the right word. It appears that he also conducted the first performances and this would not have been anything of a surprise to anyone involved or the audiences. Mozart’s early mastery simply dazzles and bemuses us these days, and seems precocious. But his completely magisterial command of all aspects of technique allied with an uncanny perceptive understanding of human psychology and music’s power to suggest frames of mind beyond simple fury, despair or love, defies everyday assumptions of the callowness of any kind of youth. Lucio Silla is a thrillingly virtuosic work, full of brilliance and affecting beauty, rarely performed and even more rarely staged. Glimpses of his later works are here, the flashes of inspiration that place him as primus inter pares in the pantheon of composers who made opera not only into paeans of humanism but also the ultimate theatrical experience. Directing Lucio Silla will be the widely experienced American director Harry Silverstein, and Laurence Cummings will return to conduct following his beautifully realised Tamerlano for us this last summer.

Artistic Director Stephen Barlow looks ahead to our first opera for 2017, Verdi’s Macbeth

The Five Sisters - Scotland

Verdi’s career clearly shows three periods of development and inspiration, described as early, middle and late. As with Beethoven, when Verdi was a younger composer, he composed tightly within forms that were prevalent where he was brought up, studied and was inspired by, forms that Rossini took to their apogee, the famous Bel Canto era. Macbeth belongs to Verdi’s early period. But whilst keeping to the structures and aesthetics of bel canto the composer was beginning to develop innovations in colour through his inspired orchestration and in psychological insight, and breaking down formal aria and cabaletta for greater dramatic effect. Drama was Verdi’s primary interest, exciting visceral theatre his aim. Macbeth follows the well known doom-laden story and elicits from the composer some of his most electric music within a frequently frightening soundscape. For the Festival I have chosen the very first original version of this opera, premiered in Florence in a smallish theatre not unlike the Buxton Opera House. When the opera was performed in Paris, as usual the opera house management and their audiences demanded ballets and much more flamboyance. But the concise original version is more powerfully taut, and less often performed now which is a great shame. Elijah Moshinsky who made his worldwide reputation with his productions of Verdi, especially the earlier works, will direct for us. In their pomp at the ROH Elijah and his revered colleague Edward Downes especially wished to produce this version there, but it never happened. I’m delighted that we can to some extent put the record straight by producing this lesser known version in Buxton, with a wonderful cast and with all the drama writ large in the intimacy of our special opera house. I am looking forward personally to conducting this production enormously, having conducted often many of Verdi’s operas but not Macbeth.

Stephen Barlow, Artistic Director

Festival Internships 2017

Want to work in the arts? Gain some experience? Work with world class international artists and writers? AND have fun? Look no further – applications for our festival internships for 2017 are open!

Every year, Buxton Festival offers a number of festival internships for people who would like to work in the arts and events industries. The internships are a fantastic opportunity to experience working for a prestigious festival in a variety of different arts roles. Past interns have secured jobs with a variety of prestigious institutions, including Wembley Arena, the Lowry Theatre, and even here at Buxton Festival! During your internship, you will have the chance to see as many Festival events as you can get to, from world-class opera to celebrated chamber groups and the famous faces of our book series. Being a festival intern is rewarding but also very hard work. We are therefore looking for enthusiastic and hardworking people who thrive on long days and can withstand the pressure of the festival. This year, placements will run from the 3rd to the 26th July in Buxton.  The placements are unpaid, but we do provide accommodation in Buxton, and £500 towards your food and travel expenses.

For our 2017 festival, we are offering the following internships:

Music/opera intern x 3, your duties will include:

  • operating the Festival opera surtitles (some additional rehearsals w/c 24th June)
  • working with the Concerts Manager
  • stewarding events
  • page-turning
  • front-of-house duties
  • venue set-up
  • general ‘running’
  • admin in the Festival office

Book series intern x 1, your duties will include:

  • liaising with authors
  • author meet and greet
  • venue set-up
  • stewarding events
  • front of house duties
  • general ‘running’
  • admin in the Festival office

Concerts Assistant x1, your duties will include:

  • working with Concerts Manager, Technical assistant and artists
  • co-ordinating stage builds and venue set-up
  • page-turning
  • stewarding events
  • front of house duties
  • general ‘running’
  • admin in the Festival office

Artistic Admin and Marketing Assistant x 1, your duties will include:

  • managing social media accounts during festival and festival events
  • updating and writing blogs
  • supporting the Executive Assistant
  • admin in the Festival office
  • front-of-house duties
  • venue set-up
  • general ‘running

Competition for these exciting roles is strong and places are limited. If you would like to apply please send a CV and covering letter detailing which role you are applying for, and any relevant skills and experience you think you could bring to the role to Graihagh@buxtonfestival.co.uk.

Closing date – 24th February 2017

Buxton Poetry Competition winners announced

 

A highlight of the Buxton Festival Book Weekend was our poetry competition prize giving. Competition judges Matt Black, Philip Holland and Rob Stephens were joined on stage by winning poets from all three categories of the competition.

The event was opened by competition patron Lady Jasmine Cavendish who talked about the hard work that poets from across the country and the world (including USA, Canada, Brazil and Slovenia) had put into their poems. The winners of the Children’s and Youth Categories were then announced with the winning poets reading their poems to rapturous applause from the audience.

Following a speech by Professor Peter Dewhurst from competition sponsor The University of Derby the winners in the Open Category were announced in reserve order. Fifth place went to Ruth Quinn with her charming poem The Hidden Dragon. Fourth Place was awarded to Josh Ekroy for Entrepreneurs. Third Place was the wonderful A Winter Interlude by Philip Burton. Margaret Morey’s delightful poem Sixties Secret was in Second Place. And the First Prize in the Open Category of the 2016 Buxton Poetry Competition went to Roger Elkin with his moving piece called Songs Without Words.

Songs Without Words by Roger Elkin

What really stuck in Mum’s craw that next Summer
was surrendering her Bechstein baby grand,
that alter of arrival at which she’d taken daily stock
of her upbringing, and her mother’s sacrifice
putting her to the upright. Oh, how she’d ladedahed
at family and friends as graduating to this black-lacquered anvil
straddling the corner of her front room.

So would tackle it, side-saddling the piano-stool’s chintz,
hands lifting and flashing, trafficking the ruffles of notes
as if the caressing of ivories, the spread-fingered rending
were her sole hope of regaining self.

The she’s put all her stumbling discord
back together again with the sweet-saccharine
middle-class fanciness of those Songs Without Words,
the genius of Mendelssohn – uncircumcised Jewboy
become good Lutheran – in sister Fanny’s filigree piano-pieces:
musical antimacassars covering the vulnerabilities
of nothingness, the notes clustering
like sticky flies sucking at ripe blackberries
while Dad smiled wryly with his put-on face,
his fingers itching to switch his TV back to life.

So, from the moment the piano left–
legs rag-swagged for protection,
then jacked into the back
of Cheetham’s van ­–
she felt abandoned.

But never let on what she inwardly termed
My mortification,
till decades later after Dad had gone.

All that time, she kept schtum,
silently rehearsing
her version of words without songs.

Competition organiser Claire Barlow comments: it was a delight to meet all our shortlisted poems at the prize giving event. And to hear them read their poems to a warm audience of judges, patron, friends, family and supporters was a joy. I was particularly impressed by the stage-craft of our young winners who read their poems with great style and confidence.

Information on the 2017 Buxton Poetry Competition will be announced in the new year via www.buxtonfestival.co.uk. Thank you to all who entered this year, and congratulations to our winners and runners up.