Requiem for a music pioneer

Malcolm Fraser, former director of Buxton Opera Festival. Photo contributed.
Malcolm Fraser, former director of Buxton Opera Festival. Photo contributed.
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With the sudden death of Malcolm Fraser, Buxton has lost one its most distinguished residents.

The funeral for Malcolm Fraser, founder of Buxton Opera Festival, will be at 11. 30am on Tuesday at St John the Baptist Church, Tideswell - not Monday, as incorrectly stated in this week’s paper.

Malcolm had visited the town one freezing November day in 1976 and having discovered the then sadly neglected Opera House it occurred to him that this might be the place for a summer Opera festival. He managed to find someone with a key to the building and was astonished to find beneath the accumulated grime of many years the charming design of Frank Matcham and a stage as big as that of Saddlers Wells in London. It required considerable courage to embark on such an improbable venture involving not just setting up a Festival but the restoration of the Opera House as well.

But three years later, and after immense effort, his dream was realised, The Opera House was restored and the first Buxton Festival took place with a performance of Donnizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor with the staging designed by his wife Fay Conway forming the centrepiece of a theme based on the influence of the work of Walter Scott.

So began what has become one of the most successful Opera Festivals in the country. Malcolm’s overall policy, still continued today, was to revive forgotten nineteenth century opera. He quite rightly concluded that people would not make a special journey to Buxton for an opera in the standard repertoire which they could catch in London, Birmingham or Manchester.

But of course the policy had serious dangers. Some critics said that these operas were forgotten “with good reason, because they were not worth going to in the first place!”. It has taken some time to overcome that prejudice. As a result the great Thomas Allen’s fine performance of the unknown Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas was sung to an almost empty Opera House.

And many will remember that the Festival rather quickly got into deep financial trouble so that its very existence in the early years was always touch and go. That meant also that instead of reviving grand Nineteenth Century operas with large forces in the pit and a big chorus, Malcolm often had to opt for less expensive productions.

But it didn’t stop him from bringing the young, then little known, Leslie Garrett to Buxton in 1981 to sing in the Secret Marriage by Cimarosa, nor deter his wonderfully inventive productions like Opportunity makes the Thief by Rossini (so completely forgotten that it is not even listed in Kobbé’s Complete Opera book) which Malcolm set in a railway station.

And many adults will remember in 1982 being involved as children emerging from the clock in his sparkling production of Kodaly’s unusually-titled “Hȧry Jȧnos” for which Malcolm received the Kodaly medal from the Hungarian Government.

This was not the only honour he received. He was loaded with awards for his work in Buxton and subsequently when he was invited to become Distinguished Professor of Opera at the University of Cincinnati he was given the University’s Award for Excellence and another Award from the City of Cincinnati.

Alas ill-health forced him to retire but he returned from America as professor emeritus to live in King Sterndale in time to see the Festival that he had founded now secure with a programme of eight operas attracting ever increasing audiences and the Opera House, whose first restoration he prompted, booming and highly successful.

For a man of such significant achievements Malcolm was wonderfully modest. But above all he was tremendous fun to be with, charming and witty even when the future of the Festival was highly uncertain. When we now look at the imposing list of operas performed at the Buxton Festival and as we approach the 34th Buxton Festival, let us salute the memory of Malcolm Fraser whose vision and brave confidence made it all possible.

He was, as Disraeli would have said, an “English worthy”.

Peter Low

* A recording of an interview with Malcolm Fraser by High Peak Radio can be found in the archive of the Buxton Festival Fringe website