Memories of Buxton Festival’s 40-year musical story

David Denton (right) with Buxton Festival Friends member and Sheffield resident Mark Sutherland.
David Denton (right) with Buxton Festival Friends member and Sheffield resident Mark Sutherland.

Buxton International Festival prides itself on drama, but its 40 years of existence have seen almost as many plot twists off stage as on…

Police escorts to get singers to the theatre in time, pirate recordings and an orchestra going on strike are just some of the highlights the organisers would rather forget.

But they are among the memories treasured by veteran opera critic David Denton who has attended every Buxton Festival since it began in 1979.

Looking back as the Festival prepares for its 40th anniversary, Sheffield-based David – who has travelled the world to watch opera for magazines and a wide range of newspapers – has spoken about Buxton’s very special place in Britain’s musical story.

At first that story was more about saving the disused Buxton Opera House, designed by Frank Matcham, who was also responsible for the London Palladium and Blackpool Tower Ballroom, than the music itself.

“It wasn’t about the Festival - it was all about the renovation of the Opera House,” he said. “All the media around here were interested in seeing how they could save what had become a dilapidated building from doing bingo and films – and it hadn’t even been doing that for ages. The Festival really was just a side issue, something which could launch the theatre.”

But the critics discovered that beneath the peeling paint and faded grandeur was the wonderful acoustic which Matcham had designed to allow singers to fill his space with beauty.

Festival founder Malcolm Fraser, then a young lecturer in drama and opera, started as he meant to go on by staging the first complete UK performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor – only to have his leading lady struck down by flu on the day of the first performance.

The American singer Deborah Cook, in Germany at the time, agreed to stand in: “They flew her over from Germany on the opening night and had a police escort form Manchester Airport to get her here two hours before the show,” said David. “There was no chance of rehearsing.”

Heart-stopping, but great publicity, and a festival was born.

Since then Buxton’s gift to the world of opera has been an exploration of its hidden treasures.

“For the next few years it became evident that it was putting on the map operas that had never been performed in this country before,” said David, who is looking forward this year to seeing an opera which is being performed for the first time in 300 years and a world premiere written just for Buxton.

David, who worked for many years in Sheffield’s heavy industry, had trained as a violinist but soon realised music as his first love.

He began reviewing for a series of music magazine financed by the publisher of successful motorbike speedway programmes, but has worked for The Strad, Fanfare, the Yorkshire Post and Sheffield’s Telegraph and Star newspapers.

He worked in senior management for Dyson Refractories, and was once chairman of the international organisation which standardised the shape and size of bricks.

David’s wife Rona was a timpanist, who during her career performed in Buxton festival.

Buxton International Festival runs from July 5-21. For details on the 40th anniversary programme, go to www.buxtonfestival.co.uk