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

Guest blog: singer Owen Willetts on why it’s a pleasure to be back in Buxton

It has been such a pleasure to come back to Buxton. My childhood memories of this beautiful town mainly consist of twice weekly band practice, marching through the rain to the beat of a drum, and trying to wriggle some warmth back into my fingers whilst we played on Remembrance Sunday. I grew up in the small village of Bamford in the Hope Valley, and from ages 11 to 16 I played with the Burbage Brass Band (Buxton’s finest.) Every Tuesday and Friday night, come rain or snow, my father and I would drive over the moors  to rehearsals. Then I turned 16 and, my hormones getting the better of me, I decided that my Friday nights were much better spent elsewhere. 

But I’ve always had a place in my heart for brass bands, and for Buxton. Which was why I was so excited when I was asked to come and sing in this year’s Festival. Not only did it mean working with the brilliant Laurence Cummings and the English Concert orchestra, and having the chance to perform Handel’s Tamerlano in Frank Matcham’s beautiful opera housebut it also meant I would be coming home to work. Since arriving I have had the chance to explore and rediscover Buxton: the beautiful 18th and 19th century architecture; the glorious views from Solomon Mycock’s temple; the warren-like five storey bookshop Scrivener’s and it’s working harmonium, and some really fine fish and chips. 

We had our opening night on 10 July, and after all of the weeks of hard work and fun, I think we were definitely ready to share what we had created. We’re so lucky to be working with such a wonderful cast and creative team. Francis, our incredible director comes from a theatre background and has helped us to explore these complicated characters and their emotions. I sang with Paul Nilon (Bajazet) about ten years ago having just left music college, and I remember then being amazed by the incredible commitment and artistry he brought to his role; he really is an inspiration. 

Of course I popped my head in on band practice the first opportunity I had, and 20 years later there are still some familiar faces, including the conductor and his wife the principle horn (my old job!), who have also swelled the band’s numbers with their two young daughters. It was wonderful to hear them again, and playing so well! 

Owen Willetts Andronico Tamerlano

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

Guest blog: a Buxton connection

Growing up in Buxton I never really considered that a career in Opera would ever be an option. In my head it was posh people in suits singing Nessun Dorma at football matches and that was about all I knew of it. How wrong I was! It wasn’t until the age of eleven when I developed an interest in singing and started having lessons with local teacher Clare O’Neill that the ball really got rolling. The beginnings of my singing training coupled with education projects at both the Buxton Festival and the G&S Festival sparked a love for all things opera and a career that I adore.

One of the earliest projects I was involved in at the Buxton Festival was a production called Burning Waters in 2000. This was a massive open-air promenade opera that moved all around the Pavilion Gardens and involved children from schools across the town to help perform, make costume, props and even write some of the libretto. I was chosen by my school to work with the librettist and help come up with some of the lyrics for the part of the opera that our class would be performing in. This alone was exhilarating but then getting to hear hundreds of people singing the words that I helped write was mind-blowing at that age. Little did I know that the director of this production, Caroline Clegg, and also some of the professional singers would become close friends and colleagues in the years to come as I moved into opera as a profession.

Move forward sixteen years and then having gone off to train at the RNCM before deciding to take the plunge and move into directing I was delighted when Stephen Barlow asked if I would like to be Assistant Director on this year’s production of Tamerlano. For me this opera is one of Handel’s greatest. The level to which people go to play with other’s emotions makes it truly heart wrenching stuff.

Getting to work with Francis Matthews on this production has been a fantastic experience as a young director. The level of insight into the character’s minds that Francis has and the different layers within them has been fascinating to pick apart. Being a part of this discovery process has been wonderful and I think we all feel like we’ve really got to know these characters and what makes them tick. I’m thoroughly looking forward to getting to pick it apart again still for the Scenes performance in a few weeks’ time with our covers. We’re still finalising a few details but let’s just say we’re planning to rock it out!

Mark Burns Tamerlano Assistant Director

The Tamerlano cover show is on 19 July at the Palace Hotel.

A tyrant straining every sinew to be a graceful lover

Director Francis Matthews talks about Handel’s Tamerlano

Handel’s Tamerlano isn’t much like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Tamburlaine eats fire, administers scourge and terror, sees himself as a force of nature – and Marlowe imagines him in a language of extremes. ‘He now is seated on my horsemens’ spearers’… ‘We used to march upon the slaughtered foe: trampling their bowels with our horses’ hooves’… ‘swelling clouds drawn from wide gasping wounds – resolved in bloody purple showers’… this is old-fashioned shock and awe. The playwright was determined to frighten his audience, to intoxicate by their proximity to the power of this elemental demi-God. The play has a massive cast and certainly requires an army of extras – soldiers, citizens, concubines. When I was invited to direct Tamerlano, I thought that Buxton must have won the lottery – but looking at the Handel opera – I found a very different world.

Of course, Tamerlano himself is still the Scythian shepherd (a fact that appals his captive Bajazet, who might be more relaxed had his defeat been brought about by someone of higher social status) and a great warlord (it’s estimated that the campaigns of the historical Timur killed 17 million people in the 14th century). But we don’t meet him on the battlefield, or negotiating to take control of an empire, or accomplishing any of the remarkable feats which Marlowe celebrates. In Tamerlano the opera, we meet the oppressor (tyrant, military genius, whatever) in his palace, in his private apartments, in the company only of his captive Bajazet; Bajazet’s daughter Asteria; his vassal and brave general Andronico; and later – the woman he is supposed to marry –Irene – with her attendant and confidant Leone.

Timur is said to have been a great patron of art and architecture (when he wasn’t massacring 5% of the world’s population), and Tamerlano comes across as a man craving refinement. He does his best to behave like a courtly knight. He speaks of faith and courtesy and honour and duty and exults in the splendour of the court he has created; he speaks of having rivals in love (inevitably a pretence for so cruel and powerful a man); the music which tells us so much about him is sinuous and graceful. Without Marlowe’s army on stage, without the explicit expression of his brute strength – Tamerlano wants to be seen as a refined and noble prince. However low his birth, he aspires to beauty; however rough his upbringing, he craves a kind of sophistication.

So we are reminded of powerful men who surround themselves with great art (often looted from the civilizations they have tried to destroy) and who try to create a Petit Trianon amidst the devastation they have wrought, a place where they can practice urbanity and grace. Herman Göring surrounded himself with more than 600 works of art looted by the Nazis during World War 2, and Hitler had plans for a Fuhrermuseum where Nazi plunder would do – what? Confer some benediction on a monstrous life? We remember Diaghilev and many another impresario, wielding power behind the façade of art, controlling and manipulating the artists at their disposal. We think of the great collectors who – finally – are left cold and lonely in their cluttered galleries. Tamerlano plays mind games with those sequestered at the heart of his empire, jealous of the passions they truly feel, baffled by an instinctive honour which directs their lives. He tries to compromise their relationships, he exploits their vulnerability, and when he has achieved victory of a sort, he suddenly seems bored with his scheming and allows the lovers he has so abused to be together again.

Tamerlano is an opera in which true feeling proves to be more powerful – even though it leads to death – than the machinations of a tyrant. Even a tyrant straining every sinew to be a graceful lover.

Francis Matthews Tamerlano Director

A day in the life of a Deputy Stage Manager

Ever wondered what it’s like to be a DSM? Well, I caught up with the lovely Anni who is currently very busy with Tamerlano rehearsals down in London!

My name is Anni and I am the Deputy Stage Manager for Tamerlano. A normal day involves setting up the rehearsal room ready for when everyone arrives with the relevant props and costume in place. Once rehearsals begin it is my responsibility to keep note of the movements of the company in each scene and any technical requirements we will have once we are on stage. All this information is kept in an annotated score which we call a ‘prompt copy’ or ‘prompt book’. The notes I make I also distribute to the production team daily to ensure that they know how the creative process is progressing. When we arrive at the theatre I will add information like changes in lighting or elements of flying set to the prompt copy, and then I will cue every performance from this book.

The role of DSM is a really exciting one, to be able to observe and help facilitate the creative process is a privilege. I have been lucky enough to work with some incredibly talented singers and creative teams in my career so far. Every day brings a new challenge, no two rehearsal processes are ever the same. I am very proud to be part of what the Tamerlano team are creating at the moment and will look forward very much to sharing it with audiences at Buxton Festival.

Anni Butler DSM Tamerlano 

Tamerlano is on at Buxton Opera House on 10, 14, 17 (matinee) and 21 July.

An interview with mezzo soprano, Imogen Garner

The end of May marks the beginning of opera rehearsals in London. Before things get under way, I managed to catch up with Imogen Garner who will be joining the opera chorus this year. Imogen studied at the Royal Northern College of Music and has been a member of the Buxton Festival Chorus for the last few years. To read more about Imogen, click here.

Have you always known you wanted to be a singer, or did it develop over time?

I’ve always loved singing and as a child I was drawn to singing based films and programmes. I didn’t realise quite how important it was to me until I reached my twenties, I then applied for a postgrad at the RNCM and was very fortunate to be offered a place.

How did you land your first opera role?

My first operatic role was Annina in La Traviata for Wilmslow Opera.

What made you apply to audition for the Buxton Festival Chorus?

I’ve worked with lots of singers who’ve relished their experience of working in the Festival and so I went along to watch and really enjoyed the atmosphere and feel of it.

You are all covering a role in one of the Festival’s operas this year. Could you tell us a little more about the role?

I’m covering Irene in Handel’s Tamerlano. I’m really enjoying her; she enters the opera expecting to marry Tamerlano but after discovering he has chosen another, she disguises herself and vows to win him back.

How do you start learning a role? Do you approach a role differently each time?

I always intend to approach a role in a systematic way starting with the notes and the music and building layer upon layer but often it becomes less structured and more organic.

Is there a particular opera in this year’s Festival programme that you are looking forward to performing in?

I know most about Tamerlano so the production of that is most intriguing to me at the moment.

For people who are less familiar with opera, is there a particular album or show that you’d recommend?

My first experiences of opera in my late teens were La Traviata and La Boheme at Opera North which I loved.

What has been the most memorable opera production or concert that you have performed in?

I think the most memorable experience to date must have been The Mastersingers at ENO, the audience’s response at the end of the first night was overwhelming.

What would be your dream operatic role and why?

I’d love to have another opportunity to perform Mrs Grose in The Turn of the Screw.

Is there a particular opera singer you really admire?

Kathleen Ferrier. I admire her as she seemed to be someone who remained completely true to herself with very natural and effortless sounding singing and performing

The Tamerlano cover show is on Tuesday 19 July 2-3pm at the Palace Hotel.

Lily Bracegirdle Executive Assistant

An interview with mezzo soprano, Jennifer Parker

This week, I caught up with mezzo soprano, Jennifer Parker who will be singing in the Buxton Festival Chorus this year. She has recently completed her Masters degree at the Royal Northern College of Music.

Have you always known you wanted to be a singer, or did it develop over time?

When I was a little girl I was desperate to be a writer, and was always reading and scribbling. Comparatively I came to singing very late in life and didn’t start having proper lessons until I was 24 years old, and I had an amazing teacher who was a real inspiration. It wasn’t until I was accepted at the RNCM in my late twenties that I began to imagine I could be lucky enough to make singing my career!

How did you land your first opera role?

My first opera role was that of Valencienne in Lehar’s The Merry Widow at the RNCM, and Stefan Janski once told me that he had cast me for my naughty personality – which I suppose is open to many interpretations!

What made you apply to audition for the Buxton Festival Chorus?

I was really eager to audition for the Buxton Festival because of its fantastic commitment to young singers like myself as it offers a host of opportunities to cover roles and perform a variety of repertoire in a range of settings, whilst always maintaining the highest standards of singing.

You are covering a role in one of the Festival’s operas this year. Could you tell us a little more about the role?

I am really excited to be covering the role of Tamerlano, the Emperor of the Tartars at this year’s festival. For those who don’t know the opera, Tamerlano is a mighty leader who is very accustomed to getting his own way no matter what; so when he decides he wants to marry the daughter of his most illustrious prisoner, the Sultan of the Turks, and things don’t go according to plan, he behaves very badly indeed – until he finally sees the error of his ways and his true love talks some sense into him.

Is there a particular opera in this year’s Festival programme that you are looking forward to performing in?

I am particularly excited about the performances of I Capuleti e i Montecchi because the music is so wonderful and it appeals to my former life as an English Literature student – especially given it is 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

How do you start learning a role? Do you approach a role differently each time?

My approach to learning a role varies based on the different demands it places, though for me the most important thing is having a very clear plan. I like to work very methodically through the role and have specific milestones in the process so I am never tempted to leave anything to the last minute or rush anything. As a general rule I always start with the recit as I like to learn it as a script without music first to get the speech-like qualities and language just right; and then anything with coloratura as the quicker I can get that into my muscle memory the better as I will then use these parts of the role to warm up before starting work.

For people who are less familiar with opera, is there a particular album or show that you’d recommend?

For those who are less familiar with opera I would always recommend something funny and English – something like Albert Herring or The Old Maid and the Thief. These pieces are just brilliant, and hopefully would serve to dispel the illusion that opera is stuffy and boring!

What has been the most memorable opera production or concert that you have performed in?

I was fortunate enough to work at Opera Holland Park last year and was part of their wonderful production of Aida. Their re-imagining of the story reset the action to the 1980’s and a decadent party in an antiquities museum. As the party went on we all got wilder and wilder until during the triumphal march scene when all hell breaks loose and, following a strip tease, I ended up upside down and crowd surfing! It was memorable to say the least!

What would be your dream operatic role and why?

I would love the chance to sing the role of Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther one day. Not only is the music breathtakingly beautiful and fascinating to perform as the composer is so specific in his notation, but she is also a very nuanced and intriguing character – someone who has always tried to do the right thing but ends up completely heart broken because of it.

Is there a particular opera singer you really admire?

I am an ardent fan of Sarah Connolly and am a great admirer of her dramatic talents as well as her outstanding musical ones – and I had the incredible opportunity to perform in a masterclass with her whilst at college. Needless to say I was very star struck!

The Tamerlano cover show is on Tuesday 19 July 2-3pm at the Palace Hotel.

Lily Bracegirdle Executive Assistant