Saturday 8 June 2019

Something for everyone: I chat to Michael Williams', Buxton Festival's CEO, about ideas and plans for the festival

Michael Williams (Photo Anton De Beer)
Michael Williams (Photo Anton De Beer)
The Buxton Festival has cause for celebration this year, it is 40 years since Anthony Hose and Malcolm Fraser put on the first complete performance of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (in the original keys) at the newly restored Buxton Opera House. Since then the festival has developed enormously, expanding in scope to include a significant musical programme as well as a whole literary side. This year a new team is in charge, Michael Williams, the festival's CEO, took over in 2018, and conductor Adrian Kelly is the new artistic director. I recently met up with Michael to talk about the 2019 festival and learn more of the new team's plans, but also to find out how a South African director and artistic administrator (Michael ran Cape Town Opera for 20 years) has ended up in Buxton.

One of the things that Michael enjoys about the festival is its Friends, there are over 2000 of them and they are highly engaged as well as being critical of the festival. Michael loves the way that the Friends connect with the festival with a sense of passion, something that he finds quite rare.  But whilst he values the Friends and is keen for the festival to serve them, he also wants the festival to respond to the wider area around Buxton and to work with communities and draw them in. He points out that everyone loves stories and loves song, and opera is just telling a story in song.

So Michael wants to make the festival a bit more open. One of the reasons for doing Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin this year is that it is an opera about young love, something with which everyone can connect. But the festival has developed a reputation for exploring rarities, and this year is no exception. They are collaborating with La Serenissima to stage Caldara's Lucia Papiro Dittatore, an opera which has not been performed for 300 years (Caldara worked for the Imperial court in Vienna, which is where the opera was premiered).

Buxton Opera House (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Buxton Opera House (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

In complete contrast Opera della Luna is returning to the festival with what Michael calls a very camp version of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld.

Michael is very interested in what he calls opera of place, creating new works which are linked thematically to the area where they are performed; he has created such pieces on Buddha in Nepal, Tiger Bay in Cardiff and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. So it seemed logical to do something similar in Buxton, and the figure of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the 18th century beauty with a rather eventful and somewhat tragic life, has become the focus for a pasticcio in which music of the period is used to tell her story.

One of the pieces he created in South Africa was The Orphans of Koombu, and the festival is performing this with choruses from seven different schools. In each school, the children have spent eight weeks learning the music with professionals and then done performances around Derbyshire. All seven groups are coming together at the festival to perform the opera at the opera house.

Georgiana - Buxton Festival
This diverse mix of works is very much what Michael is aiming at, he feels a festival should provide something for everyone, and he wants to bring a sense of fun to the festival, saying it cannot take itself too seriously. He and Adrian Kelly want to create a season where people want to buy it all. Michael describes Adrian as being full of ideas, they already have 2020 planned and signed off, and Michael hopes that they will have 2021 approved by the Autumn. This sort of advanced planning is helpful with fundraising, and helps to keep the company moving forward.

Like a number of other young men of his generation Michael left South Africa (during the Apartheid era) to avoid conscription in the army and decided to go to Kathmandu, travelling along the silk route in a truck. He ended up in Nepal, working at the American school, and was commissioned to create a musical based on the life of Buddha!  The director Michael Rennison happened to be in Nepal trekking and attended one of the rehearsal. It was Rennison who encouraged Michael (in fact telling him to stop wasting his time and come to the UK), and as a result Michael ended up in London working as an assistant director, learning his trade.

When Nelson Mandela was released, Michael felt that it was time to return to South Africa and took a job at the State Theatre. But this was still very much part of the old South Africa, and was rather hard to take after working in the UK. But there developed opportunities to create opera for and with young black Africans. Working with what became Cape Town Opera, Michael wrote the librettos for a number of operas in order to create a range of works for the emerging South African singers.

But ultimately the ruling ANC party would cut funding, regarding opera as too Eurocentric, and though he felt rather under qualified, Michael ended up as general manager and then managing director of Cape Town Opera. If the company wanted to survive, it had to be ambitious. So it took the young South African voices touring around the world, getting people excited about the talent coming out of South Africa, including such singers as Pretty Yende and Pumeza Matshikiza, providing a structure for them to develop their talent.

This would involve world tours of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, Jerome Kern's Showboat, Scott Joplin's Treemonisha and the Mandela Trilogy. It was the income from these tours which helped keep the company in South Africa afloat.

But after 20 years, Michael was thinking what next? He was commissioned to write a musical about Tiger Bay in Cardiff, and whilst working there heard about the opening at Buxton. Michael's daughters are at university and he has a British passport, so the opportunity seemed ideal. It was during his talks with the board of the festival that Michael mentioned his idea of an opera based on the life of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire which has become one of the centrepieces of the 2019 festival.

In person, Michael is enthusiastic and ebulliant, yet he is thoughtful too. He and Adrian Kelly have long discussions about the festival, the programme content and what or who it serves. Michael's essential question is 'who are we doing it for?' and for him the answer has to be the audience, that is the core. In any festival, or similar enterprise, there is a balance between Entertainment, 'something people know and like' and Art, 'something you would like them to know, a challenge'. And Buxton has its feet in both camps, the trick is in the mix and Michael admits that you cannot always get it right.

For this year's festival, the Caldara opera comes into the Art category (definitely something they would like people to know) whilst the Offenbach is in the Entertainment category, whilst Eugene Onegin straddles both camps.

Buxton International Festival opens on 5 July 2019
Full details from the festival website

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Grange Park Opera: Verdi's Don Carlo returns in Jo Davies & Leslie Travers stylish & imaginative production (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Opera Holland Park opens its 2019 season with a striking new Manon Lescaut directed by award-winning Karolina Sofulak (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Splendid: Gounod's Faust at Opera de Nice on the Côte d’Azur (★★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Deep Light: Weber, Finzi, RVW, Schumann, Francaix (★★★★) -  CD review
  • Music of Today: Philharmonia's 2018/19 Composers Academy- concert review
  • Musicianship & sheer engagement: Brixton Chamber Orchestra's Live Lounge at the Department Store (★★★★) - concert review
  • Texture, bite and tang: Thierry Fischer and the OAE in Sibelius (★★★★) - concert review
  • Whatever the tradition, people are people and music is music: cellist Matthew Barley on Sir John Tavener, Indian music, collaboration & more - interview
  • Musical delights: Gluck's Bauci e Filemone and Orfeo from the Mozartists (★★★★) - opera review
  • Sheherazade: a work which spans both Persian and Western classical music (★★★) - Cd review
  • Thrilling pianism: Igor Levit in Ronald Stevenson's Passacaglia on DSCH - concert review
  • Guitar & strings; Morgan Szymanski & Benyounes Quartet at Conway Hall  - concert review
  • A Victorian 'Love Island' - Handel's Partenope from Hampstead Garden Opera - opera review 
  • An eclectic mix: I chat to Clare Stewart of the vocal group Apollo5 about their latest release, O Radiant Dawn  - interview
  • Home

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