For a man as in love with Buxton Festival as its Executive Director, Randall Shannon, it has been clearly painful to discover that there are people in the town who simply haven’t heard of it.
“I can understand that lots of people are confused about Buxton Festival and the Fringe festival and the carnival, and that’s OK, but how can you not know that it is happening and what the hell do we have to do to bring it to people’s attention?”
To some extent the Festival has answered its own question with some cunning strategies including a year-round series of community events featuring a ukulele club, Kaleidoscope choir and new for the end of October, a mini literary series. In a surprise move it has also decided to publicise three of its theatre events in the Fringe programme: “There are some events that we know might appeal to that wider Fringe audience.”
However Randall is anxious not to imply that the opera, for which the Festival is known, is inaccessible. Of The Jacobin by Dvorak he says: “He’s such a major and popular composer… We’ve selected this because it deserves to be better known and we can be pretty confident people will like it.”
Gluck’s Orfeo Ed Euridice “contains some of the best known music in the opera repertoire” and the concert performance of Rossini’s Otello offers the fascinating prospect of a version so different from Shakespeare’s that the action is set in Venice, not Cyprus, the focus is on Desdemona, Iago is a far lesser character and Otello may not even have been black! “Shakespeare got it wrong,” says Randall. “It doesn’t mean Moor.. it’s a Venetian name, Moro.”
Aside from all this, there is also HK Gruber’s spectacularly weird cabaret opera Gloria – A Pigtale, subtitled “the opposite of Love is Sausage”. Satirical but with “a serious aspect as well”, it tells the story of Gloria a lonely pig who falls for the wrong man – namely a butcher. “All theatre is about love and death and usually both,” says Randall comfortably.
The whole festival is actually slightly bigger this year: “We’ve packed the schedule more heavily”. So there are some 9am literary events and concerts in the opera house plus more late-night jazz. “The opera is something anyone will enjoy but beyond that, from the jazz to James Naughtie to chamber music, there is a whole breadth of entertainment for anybody.”
But can the Festival be sure that it has not priced itself out of the reach of ordinary people? Randall mentions the Festival for a Fiver scheme for under-25s but also the range of prices available for the main operas, from £15 to £59. He believes that not only are there no bad seats in the opera house but “in many ways the cheaper seats at the top have the best sound.”
Never mind the audience, for the Festival, money is a big worry. “Our turnover is 1.4 million, the total support we get from various sources of public funding is £140,000 which is ten per cent, so 90 per cent has to be found. The most important element is ticket sales, which is about 50 per cent but that still leaves 40 per cent, so about half a million every year that we have to find from sponsorships, trusts and foundations and from individual supporters.”
He has no fears that opera audiences are dying out but says: “When Buxton started the only other festival was Glyndebourne. Now there are another half a dozen opera festivals.”
The question to locals might be “Why go anywhere else?” For Irishman Randall, a newcomer to the town, there is no place he would rather be. “On a normal day the most modern building I see is the 1903 opera house…. What’s not to love?”