If you don’t live in Buxton, what’s the one thing you know about it? It’s probably the water. It might be the gorgeous Georgian crescent or the venerable hotel nearby, still (reputedly) haunted by Mary, Queen of Scots. She stayed there under house arrest, on the orders of her wary cousin, Elizabeth I. Or perhaps it’s Buxton International Festival (BIF), an annual smorgasbord of opera and wider culture that was this year included in the Sunday Times’ list of the world’s top 50 music festivals.
The focal point of BIF is Buxton Opera House, the Frank Matcham-designed Edwardian gem that, like the best jewels, is small and exquisitely formed. In the 1970s, the theatre was languishing in the doldrums, only to be saved by Malcolm Fraser. Fraser, then a lecturer at the Royal Northern College of Music, was inspired by the beauty of both the Opera House and the town generally. He conceived the idea of a festival to revive its fortunes and, in 1979, the festival was born. Today, its USP is the performance of unusual or rarely performed operas. This year’s showpiece is the world premiere of The Land of Might-Have-Been, a new musical built around the songs of Ivor Novello and loosely based on the early life of Buxton’s Vera Brittain.
The festival has broadened its remit over the years to embrace literature, art, a wide range of music and even walking tours of the town. These days, BIF extends well beyond the summer. Work takes place all year round to provide opportunities for young musicians and to give a platform to rising stars in the North of England.
Buxton Festival Fringe
Cavorting around the international festival – indeed, barging straight through it in places – is Buxton Festival Fringe (BFF), BIF’s cheeky and more raucous twin. Falstaff to BIF’s Prince Hal, if you will.
Like other Fringes, BFF is open access – there’s no selection process. If you can pay the entrance fee and sort out a venue, you’re in! Not only is this hugely important for the development of work that no-one would otherwise commission (think Fleabag) but it also makes for an addictively-insane mix of offerings. At lunch time, you might attend a lecture on neolithic lifeways in Derbyshire. With your five o’clock G&T in the park, you can watch the local belly dancing troupe jostling Burbage Brass Band for space in the bandstand. Later that evening, you find yourself throwing ping pong balls at a comedian with self-confessed ADHD and a papier maché space helmet, who tries to catch them in a butterfly net, as he re-enacts The War of the Worlds in less than an hour (seriously, it was very funny).
Buxton changes during festival season. You don’t have to buy a single ticket. It’s obvious from the gentleman in the linen suit and panama hat, spark out on a bench at half past ten in the morning with a screw top bottle of Picpoul beside him. It’s obvious from the influx of Boden-clad, mop-headed families, stocking up on olives and Kettle Chips in Waitrose. It’s particularly clear on Carnival day when the spirit of Dionysus rips through the town and all the police in High Peak suddenly materialise in the marketplace. It’s obvious from the bunting and balloons pinned to every corner and the flowerpot figures peeping out from front gardens. And it’s obvious from the 150 rival Morris dancers who maraud around the town on the annual Day of Dance.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year and I bloody love it.
Buxton International Festival and Buxton Festival Fringe run from 6 July to 23 July, 2023.