Guest blog: Ella Marchment on her Buxton Festival experience

After five years, five different jobs, five birthdays during London rehearsals, and sixteen productions, Buxton Festival has become so integral to shaping the artist I am today that I might well have been the privileged inhabitant of a fairy tale land for the past five years. At 24 years old, even though I am still one of the youngest company members I am only out-Buxtoned (in terms of years at the Festival) by head of music Annette Saunders (whom legend suggests has been at Buxton since the dawn of time), costume supervisor Mark Jones (who I got off to a great start with by blowing the fuse box of the house we lived in in Buxton year 1), production manager Sam Fraser, and I am also pipped to the post by Stephen Barlow by a year (he conducted a production in 2010). I’ve lived through the reign of two executive directors, and through the operas I’ve travelled between domestic confrontations in Austria to opium induced hallucinations in France, via the Italian mafia, Beethoven’s quest to find his eternal love in Vienna, and most recently ended up with William Shakespeare’s dead body and widow in Stratford.

I love opera because I love telling stories, and Buxton has provided me with invaluable opportunities over the years to indulge wholeheartedly in a fabulous variety of exotic and exciting tales, executed to incredibly high and exacting standards. Not only have I expanded my knowledge and comprehension of operatic repertoire through Buxton, but through the various jobs I have had in the Festival I have acquired the tools needed in order to run my own companies, to direct my own shows, to be a spokesperson for my genre, and to be independent minded. But most importantly of all, Buxton has taught me to value teamwork and collaboration.

My Buxton journey started aged 19 (yes actually in the Buddhist Arts Centre at Bethnal Green) in a production introduction for Intermezzo. I had written to over fifty companies asking for internships or to work as an assistant director and Buxton – via Randall Shannon’s predecessor Glyn Foley – was one of the only places that responded saying that they would take me on as a stage management intern. I leapt at the opportunity as I know that I am never happier than when I am in rehearsals, and immediately threw myself into supporting the stage management team on the three opera productions that year for Buxton. I spent most of the four weeks of London rehearsals making paper props for the various productions, and famously went on a wild goose chase around London for chocolate coins that Stephen Lawless insisted on having, only managing to find them after half a day of hunting in…

Harrods…in the form of chocolate Olympic medals. (I did mention that Buxton has a commitment to quality right?)

However, I already knew that I wanted to be a director, and within a few days most of the Buxton company did too as I would sneak into the back of rehearsals whenever I could with my score and sit in the corner whilst making props trying to grab glimpses of the rehearsal process. I. Was. In. Heaven. Not only that year did I learn how to make all sorts of period letters, but I gained an overview of the operatic production process.

I actually did a little dance for joy when Stephen Barlow asked me back the following year as the Young Artist assistant director. This time I was actually allowed to be in the rehearsal room all the time and doing what I dreamed of doing in the Festival. Also, the nature of the Young Artists Programme meant that as well as the two main productions, I was also introduced to two relatively contemporary pieces of music theatre (Stephen Oliver’s Exposition of a Picture and Stravinsky’s Renard) and felt like I really belonged to the team of other Young Artists.

After two years of incubation Stephen Barlow and Unwin agreed that it was time to unleash me as an assistant on the main productions – a role that I have now fulfilled on Stephen Unwin’s The Jacobin (2014) and Lucia di Lammermoor (2015), and Stephen Medcalf’s Leonore (2016). I was simultaneously allowed to sink my teeth into the concert operas from that year too (I looked after Rossini’s Otello in 2014 and Louise in 2015), and pre-performance talks.

I have now been at Buxton longer than I was ever at any school, and in many ways the Festival has given me far more practical skills and knowledge of my chosen industry than any other institution, college or school. I’ve looked forward to Buxton every year like a small child excitedly waiting to rush down to see whether Santa has visited on Christmas morning. Every year as soon as I’ve known I’ve been returning I’ve counted down the months in eager anticipation of another year, another opera, another opportunity to help another director bring their ideas to fruition, and another opportunity to spend time with a company that has become like a second family to me.

But what I am most grateful to Buxton for is for the fact that they have trusted in my competence as an artist and have taken risks in me at every turn. In the first year bringing me into a production department that I had virtually no prior knowledge of, in the second year giving me a real role in a company whilst most of my peers were still safe within the bounds of University life, for giving me my first real assistant jobs, for letting me look after the design of the concerts, for letting my imagination run wild in the cover shows, for giving me the opportunity to practice public speaking, and – most recently – for being co-producers in Helios Collective’s (the company I founded in December 2012) Hathaway in the 2016 Festival and providing me with an invaluable opportunity as a young director. Buxton has had faith where very few others have, and for that I will never be able to thank the family enough. Buxton isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life.

Ella Marchment Assistant Director Leonore

Young Artists Programme 2016

Every year, Buxton Festival runs a Young Artists Programme which offers young opera singers a professional platform to train, rehearse and perform alongside principals in our productions. This year, seven young singers from the Royal Northern College of Music performed in Beethoven’s Leonore. Here, they reflect on their time at the Festival.

Matt Mears Tenor

The Young Artist Programme at Buxton Opera Festival has been an amazing experience this summer. The opportunity to be involved in a professional production, working with such talented performers, production team and staff, is invaluable to us as young performers. I have particularly enjoyed working with the rest of the Young Artists this year, it’s great to work with so many friends on a project over a couple of months. Once we were in and around Buxton itself we could relax and enjoy performing in Leonore, as well as watching the other amazing productions. 

Matthew Palfreyman Tenor

It was an incredible privilege to be able to perform as one of the young artists in the Buxton Festival Opera this year. Working on a full opera from the start of the rehearsal process to the final performance was an enlightening experience and gave me an insight into many aspects of rehearsal, organisation and performance that I had not previously been aware of. As a postgraduate student the opportunity to work with a professional chorus was invaluable at this stage of my education. The experience helped me to develop a deeper understanding of professional opera and allowed me to make further connections within the industry. Working as part of Buxton Festival Opera gave me the confidence and skills to successfully audition for roles in other Opera productions. Leonore was an inspired choice of opera and to work in Buxton was a real delight. I would love to return to work with the Festival Opera.

Ranald McCusker Tenor

The Young Artist Programme offers a real insight into the professional world of opera. For a young singer, the programme is an opportunity to work professionally with experienced singers and accustomed musicians. I had a rewarding time with the company with some great colleagues. The performances will always be a highlight, and I feel I have left with more stagecraft experience and I am grateful to have worked with some great singers. I had some memorable times with great friends, and I hope to work with Buxton again at some point in the future. 

Henry Ngan Tenor

I graduated from the Royal Northern College of Music with a Masters. The Young Artists Programme is a great opportunity for us to participate in such a large opera and music festival, singing alongside world-class artists. This provided an essential platform for us to gain stage experience, responding to conductor and director’s command and our sense of space on stage. As a Young Artist, I also received some coaching sessions with different Festival music staff to assist with my learning and practice, and I became much more aware of my singing and musicality. Buxton is a very beautiful place and it was great to sing in the historical opera house, which is very elegant and detailed, like the music we produced. All the colleagues were nice and energetic, and together we created a warm and friendly atmosphere. I thoroughly enjoyed every part of the programme.

Ed Gaffney Baritone

My name is Ed and I have loved being part of Buxton Festival this summer as a young artist. I am currently a student at the Royal Northern College of Music and first experienced the Festival as an intern two years ago. I quickly fell for the charm of Buxton and was inspired by the talented artists and staff. Therefore, I was thrilled to gain a place on the Young Artist Programme (YAP) this year. The programme has offered me the opportunity to join a professional cast and crew and experience the creative construction of one of the Festival’s operas from score to performance. The YAP provides an insight into rehearsal etiquette and allowed us to fully integrate into the Festival Chorus. We also received coaching as part of the programme which was led by the hugely experienced and renowned music staff that work as part of the Festival. Being a Buxton Young Artist has been such an important step along my opera training path, providing me with a clearer outlook on the journey ahead. 

Matthew Nuttall Baritone

I auditioned for Buxton’s Young Artists Programme to gain professional experience in the opera world. The programme has been great, rehearsing and being on stage with such talented singers and musicians has been amazing. I have had an incredible time with colleagues old and new and I can only smile looking back on my experience as a chorus member in Beethoven’s Leonore. Being a Young Artist has had many rewards for me; the whole process has been fantastic and I have gained so much experience in the last month, watching, listening to and being involved with the production. My time at Buxton has been one I’ll never forget and I hope I can return again in the future.

David Cane Baritone

It has been a real pleasure participating in the Buxton Festival on the Young Artists Programme this year, performing in the chorus of Leonore. From the first rehearsal in London we were all made to feel very welcome by the production team and all the other members of the company. I loved the overall concept for the production and it was great fun working alongside the Festival Chorus, even if my knees didn’t enjoy it quite as much – what with all the crawling! During the Festival itself, it was fantastic to get to know Buxton as a town – and there was so much going on all over the place! What an amazing way to spend the summer – working with such talented and inspiring musicians and for such a friendly team!


Chatting with Festival supporter Mark Sutherland

During the Festival, I sat down with Mark Sutherland who is a great supporter of the Festival.

So Mark, could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I live in Sheffield where by day I am a career civil servant working in project management in the Department for Work and Pensions. Outside of work I enjoy travel, reading, drinking too much beer and wine, visiting museums and galleries, and attending opera and concerts. I regularly attend performances at the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, BBC Proms and Wigmore Hall. Occasionally I also write reviews of these performances for the website I am also a member of the BBC Trust’s Yorkshire Audience Council.

How did you first find out about Buxton Festival?

I was introduced to the Festival by a friend of mine Norma Hird who also happens to be a member of the Festival Board. Knowing my passion for opera and the fact I attend operas in the UK and abroad it was Norma who suggested I come to Buxton. I was ashamed to say that I hadn’t been to the Festival despite it being on my own doorstep.

What attracted you to the Festival, and what was the first event that you attended?

It was the variety of events and Norma’s steer that attracted me to the Festival back in 2012. The first event I attended was Intermezzo – an opera by Richard Strauss. As a lover of Strauss operas I thought this was a fantastic production with Janis Kelly terrific in the lead role. It was also the first time I had heard the fabulous Northern Chamber Orchestra who play such a critical role at the Festival each year.

Is there a particular part of the Festival that you like?

For me the unique selling point of the Buxton Festival is that it’s really three festivals in one; a fantastic marriage of opera, music and books. I love the fact the festival showcases rarely performed operas. Each day is varied from the talks and concerts in the morning and afternoon to the opera in the evening and then the late night jazz which makes the Festival very special.

Do you book your tickets fairly early? 

As a benefactor of the Festival I make good use of the priority booking period. So this year I booked my tickets in February which was just as well as several of the events I booked including the 9am talk with Nick Robinson and Peter Hennessy, and the Oldie Literary Lunch with Joan Bakewell and David Aaronovitch sold out quickly. The great innovation this year was that priority booking could now be done online which in my view was about time too.

Have you attended every year since you first visited the town and Festival?

Yes, since my first Festival in 2012 I have attended every year. I now try and spend around 10 days at the Festival going to as many events as I can. In addition I have attended the Autumn Literary Weekend since it was launched in 2014 and also various Friends of Buxton Festival events both in Buxton and London.

During the last five Festivals I have had some great experiences watching the operas and attending some fine concerts. It has also been great to meet in person some of the literary speakers. Personal favourites have included Alan Johnson, Gyles Brandreth, Peter Hennessy and Jean Seaton, the official historian of the BBC, who I met many times at the BBC Archives so it was great to hear her talking about her research. Each year I am an enthusiastic user of Twitter giving my feedback on events I have enjoyed.

What attracted you to the Festival this year?

It was the usual mixture of rarely performed operas, established and talented young musicians, alongside a range of interesting speakers.

What was your favourite event and why?

That’s a difficult question as there is always so much great stuff at the Festival. In the opera series I really enjoyed Beethoven’s Leonore. As someone who has seen Fidelio, the opera that Leonore eventually became, a number of times it was fascinating to see the genesis of this masterpiece. In the music series a standout was the concert from celebrated pianist Stephen Kovacevich. The late night jazz concerts in the Pavilion Cafe just get better and I loved the gigs from Jazz At The Movies and Digby Fairweather’s Half Dozen. In the literary series Alexei Sayle was hilarious, Peter Hennessy entertaining in all three of his talks, and it was great to hear D J Taylor, a writer and critic I greatly admire. 

What would you say to someone who is new to opera?

Give it a go, don’t be scared. Opera is an art form for everyone not just the few. Many of the plots may be bonkers but the music and the singing will surely bowl you over. The glorious Frank Matcham designed Buxton Opera House is a terrific venue to enjoy a night of opera. Next year the Buxton Festival will be producing Benjamin Britten’s opera Albert Herring. This a great introduction for those new to opera. It’s a funny story, has some great music and is sung in English. Definitely give it a go!

What would you say to someone who is new to the Festival?

Enjoy all the Festival has to offer. Buxton is buzzing during July with the Fringe running alongside the main festival. Try and sample as much as you can whether it’s the opera, concerts or literary events. Buxton is definitely the “friendly” festival supported by a great Board of Directors and Executive Team, fantastic interns (some of whom end up working for the Festival full time!) and volunteers who all make sure you have a great time. I guarantee that if you come to the Buxton Festival, just like me, you will come back year after year!

Thanks, Mark!

Lucy Durack Development Director

Artistic Director Stephen Barlow reflects on the 2016 Buxton Festival

‘The first Festival weekend is without doubt a visceral and hugely rewarding explosion, exuding an excitement, summing up as it does much more than the year-long planning trajectory.’

It’s a pleasure to write in the afterglow of the 2016 Buxton Festival, when memory is filled to overflowing not only with the enormous number of events, operas, concerts and talks, but also with such enthusiasm for the artists who were with us, and the audiences who were so fulsome in their praise and interest. There is so much to talk about but forgive a slightly random selection of topics.

The year long preparation for each Festival has several phases across many disciplines including fund raising, marketing, logistical planning and company management which means drawing together all the strands of accommodation, contact sheets, rehearsal schedules and rehearsal venue booking to name a few. The Festival Company is large as you’d imagine; principal artists, directors, designers, conductors, stage, production and technical managers, choristers and young artists, repetiteurs, assistant directors, props supervisor, costume and wigs supervisors, dressers, lighting designers, concert managers, volunteer ushers and not least, the members of the Northern Chamber Orchestra. The extended company of course includes every concert artist and every speaker, each one of which has travel, accommodation and rehearsal requirements. I know of no other Festival on our scale that brings such a huge number of visiting artists who form our Festival’s offerings each year. Three new opera productions alone make enormous demands upon any planning exercise. Grange Park for example produces three operas each summer, but Buxton Festival offers much more than that. It’s salutary to look at the size of back-up staff involved elsewhere. In comparison, we have a small office staff working year round, so you can imagine the extraordinary motivation required amongst those who provide the foundation upon which the Company of artists arrive to deliver the Festival. It has to be exceptional.

But lest one might fall into the trap of thinking that it is only year long preparation that is pertinent, the artistic planning that falls to me looks further and further ahead. We now work to a rolling three year planning cycle, which is necessary of course to build a vision of strategic planning not only in terms of repertoire and programming in general but also in terms of interesting and drawing artists to us, artists, directors and conductors who have engagements in their diaries stretching two, three or four years ahead. Forward strategic planning is also important to our private and corporate donors alike; they need to see development, aspiration and purpose in our vision of what the Festival is and will be. So our repertoire for the next three years is accordingly already planned, and I shall write about this very soon.

I said in one of the many speeches required of me this summer at Buxton that I was one of the luckiest people alive, only to be countered by Alan Davey the controller of Radio 3 who was present at that performance of Leonore, whose claim he felt as controller of such an enormous output including the Proms probably trumped mine! But the pleasure I have in carefully choosing operas amongst so much else, and then directors and conductors and finally casting wonderful artists very thoughtfully, is intense. This is only exceeded by the most gratifying of all feelings, the joy of performing and seeing opening nights, when the quality of the artists and all involved goes well beyond what one in a balanced way dreamed of. So the truly wonderful international cast of Leonore, the exquisitely subtle and refined cast of Tamerlano, and the enormously skilled and brave cast of Capuleti stole my heart and those of the audiences and critics too. It’s enormously enjoyable also to see the directors and conductors, friends all, delving deeply into the core of these three operas and creating new insights that made me not the only one to go back time and time again to see more performances.

One of our greatest sadnesses in this profession is knowing that most likely all our new productions will be put to sleep, or rather cast aside after the Festival closes, because storage for us is far too expensive an option, and try as we might to provide for one, an after-life for any production anywhere is rare. Having said that, we do aim to, and we are discussing at this time the possibility of some of our productions being seen elsewhere in the near future – this is the holy grail of aspiration and good business of course.

People so often in this world of short sound bytes perhaps but also more widely from habit, want to talk about their ‘picks’ or ‘hits’ or ‘favourites’ from this Festival or that, or Proms season, or Opera season; I find this quite difficult. Interviewers often want a précis of ‘highlights’ on which to focus their article, or to pin their subjects down to bite-sized elements. Most often I’ve been asked for a favourite opera, easy but not as easy as you’d think, or a favourite opera house, or favourite composer, or more close to home favourite artist in the Festival or special concert in the making. I’m afraid I don’t do this lightly. My wife might be allowed to press me into answering a question such as which composer actually has contributed most to a love and appreciation of music and musicality in the broadest sense. But I’d give you five of the most important composers if asked, with the caveat that the entire issue is personal to me, not polemical in the slightest. Well, perhaps just a little bit polemical, but not too much! So what would I say about the Festival just past bearing in mind the complexity of the question?

When I was at Cambridge as an organ scholar, full of the joys of professionalism beckoning, I went home for a weekend and heard the Chelmsford Cathedral Choir in concert performing Tallis’ ‘If ye love me’, a sublimely simple deeply affecting short motet. Professional choirs of course sing this wonderfully, but the performance of the amateur cathedral choir had a simplicity and commitment that brought tears to my eyes. I’ve never forgotten it. There’s a moral in this. Of course Angela Hewitt’s and Stephen Kovacevich’s recitals were quite fabulous, as they should have been, unerring musicians of such quality and dedication as they are. And Sarah Jane Brandon’s Strauss and James Gilchrist’s Vaughan-Williams were deeply affecting. Then there was the Manchester Chamber Choir’s fervent Bach and McMillan. And then quite a few of our Opera principals performing major roles for the very first time and without exception proving masters and mistresses of them, and a glittering future awaits them. Then very specially, the Schubert Ensemble playing a programme specifically tailored for our Festival audiences who above all are so intelligently curious, including the Schumann Piano Quartet which is so often overshadowed by the Piano Quintet. Playing of their quality and insight only comes with maturity and experience. This was very special for me. Equally exceptional and rare are talks such as Peter Hennessey’s with Nick Robinson, freed from broadcasting as they both were, discussing political interviewing with pin point lucidity and easy charm.

The greatest joy though is to plan a Festival with an inner structure of mini-festivals, as so many of our audience come to Buxton for several or many days, to see all three operas and take in as much of the concerts and talks as they can. They share my own curiosity which is so essential and such a natural part of a love for the arts and artists.

Nothing can be more thrilling though than the opening weekend of the Festival. First nights are the apogee of all we do, and for all the artists too. Everything in our planning and preparation aims for this stunning weekend, the opening of three new opera productions in strict succession, a technical achievement alone of some proportion to say the least. Of course performances of a work grow and mutate when repeated – that’s why I particularly love doing as much opera as I do, because we rehearse much more than for concerts and we then can live within the piece longer, and naturally, no performance is ever identical. But opening nights are what we aim for, and what we structure every element of careful preparation and rehearsal specifically for.  It’s easy to forget that nearly every symphony concert, in this country at least, is an opening night, and probably the only night! In the world of opera we take the same pains and view, to produce the best at opening night. The first Festival weekend is without doubt a visceral and hugely rewarding explosion, exuding an excitement, summing up as it does much more than the year-long planning trajectory. All those who dedicate their lives to an eclectic but closely focused arts Festival such as Buxton have the required single mindedness; the reward is our intelligent audience’s appreciation. I look forward to the whole process coming to happy fruition once more next summer with eagerness and confidence.

Stephen Barlow Artistic Director

Festival opera series highly praised in the press

“Serious psychological drama and seriously good singing”. Just one of the many reviews of praise for the three operas here at Buxton Festival. This one in particular from Planet Hugill on Francis Matthews’ interpretation of Handel’s Tamerlano. The conductor of Tamerlano also received high praises for his interpretation of the music, with Dominic Lowe of Bachtrack expressing that “Laurence Cummings’ English Concert produced a supple, golden sound that managed to combine constant drama with delicacy.” Buxton Festival’s other two operas have received particularly high praise for the quality of their opera casts and chorus’. The Times newspaper has given the Festival a particularly good review of the chorus in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, conducted by Justin Doyle, “Deftly choreographed, Buxton’s chorus of 16 suggests a far greater number of soldiers and rebel forces, their movements quick, decisive and violent, their singing clean”. Similar praises for the festivals chorus were reverberated by Mark Ronan of Theatre reviews, with him writing of the “Fine singing by the chorus, with the Northern Chamber Orchestra under the superb baton of Justin Doyle fully bringing out the lyrical passion of Bellini’s music.”

Buxton Festival’s opening night opera Leonore has received some excellent praise too, with critics being thrilled by the Festival’s bold choice of opera repertoire in choosing to perform this opera as supposed to Beethoven’s Fidelio. The Telegraph were especially pleased with this choice, asserting praises for the Festivals Artistic Director. “All praise to Stephen Barlow whose conducting of the Northern Chamber Orchestra combines ferocity with warmth and grandeur.” The Guardian newspaper has given a resounding review, expressing praise at the cast’s commitment, “There’s a commitment here on the part of the Buxton singers, orchestra and chorus that is frequently impressive”. With audiences receiving committed and resounding performances, the Guardian also had high praise for soprano Kirstin Sharpin, stating that it was an “impassioned performance”.

With tickets still available, it would be a shame to miss such dedicated and passionate performances. All the operas in this year’s series have fascinating and captivating plots. There is drama, tragedy and comedy, something for everyone. Tickets are still available, but going fast. There are also tickets available for £5 for anyone under 30. As Dominic Lowe of Bachtrack expressed when writing about I Capuleti e i Montecchi, “The overall impression from this performance was that it is a well-cast, well-rehearsed and well-played production. Worth catching if at all possible.” Don’t miss out!

Oliver Gildea Festival Intern

Leonore v Fidelio

Director Stephen Medcalf talks about the colourful history of Beethoven’s opera

I would love to have been there: a scene worthy of a comic opera in itself – that night in December 1805, under the chandeliers in the music room of Prince Lichnowsky, one of Beethoven’s most generous patrons, a vast gathering of opera practitioners, cognoscenti and friends of the composer, the huge manuscript score of Leonore uneasily propped up on the piano, the Princess playing through all the numbers one by one and everyone having their opinion as to what should be cut in order to salvage the opera for posterity. Beethoven apoplectic with rage screaming ‘Not a single note must be missing’ grabs the score and runs off with it but is only prevented by the frail princess who throws herself at his feet begging ‘ Beethoven! No, your greatest work, you yourself shall not eradicate in this way! Give in! Do it for the memory of your mother! Do it for me, who am only your best friend.’ Then after a dramatic pause, Beethoven looking upwards to the heavens, bursting into sobs, replies: ‘I will – yes all! I will do all for you – for your – for my mother’s sake!’ Curtain.

The premiere of Leonore did not go well. Only a week before the French had marched triumphantly into Vienna and the aristocracy had packed up and left. The first night was played to an almost empty theatre, populated only by supporters and admirers of Beethoven, a number of bored French soldiers and a few tourists brave enough to venture out. It was not well received, in spite of some inspiring music it was regarded as too slow, too long and lacking originality. Beethoven supervised immediate draconian cuts and continued tinkering with his only opera for the next 10 years until in 1814 he arrived with a final version: now renamed Fidelio. By and large posterity has embraced these revisions and Fidelio has been trumpeted while Leonore has been unjustly neglected – there is no doubt that the opening two acts move at a steady pace as they establish the characters and situation, but I don’t believe the cuts proposed by others and then reluctantly adopted by Beethoven are an improvement. Indeed I would say they render the opera fundamentally less theatrical.

Two themes lie at the heart of the opera, in whichever version: the right of humanity to individual liberty and freedom of thought and the moral force of pure, conjugal love. These are not complex ideas, but what gives them potency is the sincerity, depth and beauty of the music in which Beethoven gives them expression. The later versions of the opera bring these ideas even more into focus but at the expense of richness of characterisation, of humour, of ambiguity – these values which Mozart understood so well are the true stuff of theatre.

What Leonore gives us is more discursive but more dramatic. The supporting characters are better established. Pizarro gives greater expression to his cowardly bullying, Rocco’s good heartedness is tempered by his comic greed and snobbery, Jaquino has more music and more substance; Marzelline’s love for Fidelio is explored in a charming duet, both touching and humorous in the Shakespearean way that Leonore (in male disguise) is forced to play along with Marzelline’s fantasy. Subtle adjustments to the text and the score make Leonore herself and Florestan her imprisoned husband more heroic and less human in the final version. Leonore leads us towards the same spiritual climax as Fidelio, but the journey is more interesting and less predictable and we are a little more surprised when we arrive at our destination.

What all versions of the opera contain to a greater or lesser degree is a huge empathy with the two central characters whose ideals and sufferings Beethoven so strongly identified with. Set in the Napoleonic period, this Buxton Festival production will explore Beethoven’s very personal relationship to the opera and the workings of his creative imagination. His favourite quote from Schiller was: ‘Precepts. To do good whenever one can, to love liberty above all else, never to deny the truth even though it be before the throne.’ He had written the ground-breaking Eroica symphony in praise of Bonaparte the great liberator, then torn up the dedication in fury when he realised that he was in fact a tyrant. His deafness had begun to affect him several years before he wrote Leonore and he found himself periodically in despair at the feelings of loneliness and isolation it engendered. ‘I must live almost alone like an exile’. He suffered such dark nights of the soul – one can only imagine the resonance of Florestan’s first lines in the dungeon: ‘O God how dark it is! How terrible this silence. Here in the void no living thing comes near. O cruel ordeal! But God’s will is just. I’ll not complain; for he has decreed the measure of my suffering.’

Beethoven sought solace not only in his music, but in love. During the composition of Leonore he fell fervently in love with the Countess Josephine Deym. She was almost certainly the inspiration for his central character. It seems to have been requited but only in the platonic sense. Beethoven had dedicated a song called ‘An die Hoffnung’ (Ode to hope) to her and made delirious declarations of love: ‘Oh, you, you make me hope that your heart will long – beat for me – mine can only cease to beat for you – when – it no longer beats’. Josephine of course rejected him as she must – her aristocratic station made it inevitable whatever her personal feelings. Beethoven’s hope was crushed. Leonore, however sings in her aria: ‘Come Hope, let not your last star be eclipsed in despair’ and her hope is rewarded. Florestan endures torments but he is rescued by pure love: ‘Never can we over-praise a wife that saves her husband’ sing the chorus. I find Beethoven’s exultant ending deeply poignant in the knowledge that he was ultimately rejected by all women. He was doomed to suffer an endless series of hopeless affairs and never did find the ideal love of a spouse to save him.

Stephen Medcalf Leonore Director

Guest blog: The Northern Chamber Orchestra – Mind Music

In early April 2016, the Northern Chamber Orchestra enjoyed another collaboration with the Artistic Director of the Buxton Festival, Stephen Barlow, but this time there were no operas involved. The orchestra performed a concert in the Martin Harris Centre of the University of Manchester to raise funds for Parkinson’s U.K. and then spent two days recording a C.D., all proceeds from which will go to Parkinson’s. The C.D. will be released by Divine Arts in the autumn.

Like so many good ideas ‘MIND MUSIC’ came about from a conversation in a pub. Lynsey Marsh and myself were enjoying a post-concert drink after a performance with the Hallé Orchestra. We were talking about our recent shared experience of losing a parent to complications with Parkinson’s. After seeing our loved ones struggle so bravely with this debilitating illness we felt the need to take positive action, and it seemed the most logical path to use our talents to raise funds by making music.

At that time I was preparing for a performance of a work for solo clarinet and ensemble by John Adams called ‘Gnarly Buttons’. The inspiration behind this piece was the composer’s experience of dealing with his own father’s decline from Alzheimer’s disease. Further research uncovered other compositions which had a connection to healthcare issues, particularly related to neurodegenerative disease and ‘MIND MUSIC’ was born. We had a charming and varied programme including; Richard Strauss – Sonatina for wind ‘From an Invalid’s Workshop’, Mendelssohn’s Konzertstuck No. 1 for Clarinet, Basset-Horn and orchestra, John Adams – ‘Gnarly Buttons’ and Kevin Malone’s ‘Last Memory’ for clarinet and digital delay.

We all had a very enjoyable 5 days, rehearsing and performing at the university and then recording at St Thomas’ in Stockport. The church’s proximity to the flightpath to Manchester airport and some enthusiastic street cleaning slowed us down somewhat, but good humour was maintained throughout!

The Northern Chamber Orchestra first worked with Stephen Barlow at the Buxton Festival of 2010 then, in his first year as Artistic Director he really threw down the musical gauntlet to the orchestra, programming Richard Strauss’ opera Intermezzo as well as the ’Sonatina for wind’. Challenging repertoire.

Our collaborations with Stephen, over the years have always been rewarding, combining good humour and patience with demanding music-making in a wide range of styles and we are looking forward very much this year to tackling Beethoven for the first time.

With very best wishes,

Liz Jordan Clarinet

Jackie Campbell goes through to semi-final of BBC Young Musician 2016

Buxton Festival were delighted to hear that Jackie Campbell – who will be appearing at this year’s Festival – won the Keyboard category of BBC Young Musician 2016 last week and will be going to the semi-final! Viewers of the BBC Young Musician currently running on BBC4 will have been amazed by the versatility of the young pianist. We’re excited to be welcoming Jackie to Buxton on Sunday 10 July, when Festival audiences will be able to hear this amazing young pianist for themselves in a programme containing works by Bach, Beethoven, Scriabin, Chopin, Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninov. To book tickets now click here, or to see the video of Jackie in action, click here.

Artistic Director Stephen Barlow on Beethoven and Leonore

This year’s opera programme features Beethoven’s Leonore – an early version of what would become known as Fidelio. Artistic Director and conductor of Leonore, Stephen Barlow, talks about why he finds the earlier version much more powerful.

Leonore was written when Beethoven was 34 and premiered in 1805. The very fact that Beethoven subjected his only foray into Opera to extensive revision after it had first performed is extraordinary. Beethoven was singular in strength of mind and nature and his sketch books tell us much about his method of composition, pitting idea against idea as he searched for the perfect solutions and form he required.

But he caved in to criticism from friends and the judgement of those who were bold enough to venture their opinions before he finally presented the work as Fidelio many years later. He later referred to the whole project as a shipwreck, his confidence severely shaken where dramatic stage work is concerned. Much later Fidelio became a reverentially important work for many, especially after the 2nd world war, when Furtwängler wrote ‘The conjugal love of Leonore appears, to the modern individual armed with realism and psychology, irremediably abstract and theoretical… Now that political events in Germany have restored to the concepts of human dignity and liberty their original significance, this is the opera which, thanks to the music of Beethoven, gives us comfort and courage… Certainly, Fidelio is not an opera in the sense we are used to, nor is Beethoven a musician for the theater, or a dramaturgist. He is quite a bit more, a whole musician, and beyond that, a saint and a visionary.

That which disturbs us is not a material effect, nor the fact of the ‘imprisonment’; any film could create the same effect. No, it is the music, it is Beethoven himself. It is this ‘nostalgia of liberty’ he feels, or better, makes us feel; this is what moves us to tears. His Fidelio has more of of the Mass than of the Opera to it; the sentiments it expresses come from the sphere of the sacred, and preach a ‘religion of humanity’.

All this is perceptive and deeply felt, but my own view is that Beethoven’s first version, Leonore, is much more of a dramatic entity, ablaze with inspiration, conviction, sensitivity and emotional sympathy, as much as it is a paean to true love and a morality tale with deeper political strains. It is full too of influences. Leonore would have been impossible without Mozart’s huge variety of operatic focus, including women, hope, deeper moral purpose and a strong link to theatrical drama. Take for example Leonore’s well known ‘Abscheulicher’ aria; like Fiordiligi’s ‘Per Pieta’, her discovery that hope and strength of purpose is still available to her, Leonore’s aria is likewise in E major, and uses obbligato horns, only Beethoven increases the number of horns from 2 in Mozart’s work to 3 in his own.

My belief is that if Beethoven had not given way to his critics and revised it all, Leonore would still be as widely performed now as Fidelio is. Suffice perhaps to say that when I conducted Leonore many years ago in Graham Vick’s production at Battignano, the music Beethoven subsequently cut out remains with me to this day, focusing as it does on the more human aspects of the domestic family, Rocco and Marzelline, Leonore and Jacquino, and the impending catastrophe brutal and violent Pizarro visits upon them. Beethoven was more than capable of writing music that touches us on all levels, particularly our most human sensitivities.

Stephen Barlow Artistic Director