MEMORY LANE: Matcham’s masterpiece still a jewel in Buxton’s crown - picture gallery

Poet Sir John Betjemen meets campaigners for the restoration of the Opera House in the 1970s
Poet Sir John Betjemen meets campaigners for the restoration of the Opera House in the 1970s

One of the most artistic and beautiful theatres in the county,” was how the great theatrical journal The Era described Frank Matcham’s beautiful Buxton Opera House, which officially opened its doors in 1903.

The report, which featured in the Buxton Herald, highlighted the many delightful features of the new building, designed by the renowned theatre architect.

“A philosopher has remarked that he who causes a blade of grass to grow where none grew before is a public benefactor, and such a spirited body as the Buxton Gardens Company deserved the same meed of praise, for through their enterprise and liberality Buxton now possesses one of the most artistic and beautiful theatres in the county,” it read.

The building was constructed of stone and designed in Italian Renaissance, with the auditorium decorated in the style of Louis XVI.

The report concluded by adding: “We fully anticipate that the efforts of the Buxton Gardens Company to provide both inhabitants and visitors with a delightful place of entertainment will be fully appreciated and that the success of the theatre is already fully assured.”

From the performance of the first play on Monday June 1, 1903, of Frank Stayton’s domestic drama Mrs Willoughby’s Kiss - hailed in the press as a “brilliant spectacle and a great triumph” - the Opera House enjoyed three decades as a successful and vibrant theatre. This was in part to its ability to attract household names from the world of drama, music and ballet, including the great Anna Pavlova who performed the Dance of the Dying Swan in 1925.

The stage soon gave way to the onset of film in 1927 when the Edwardian theatre was turned into a cinema, showing firstly silent films and then, in 1932, so-called ‘talkies’ after the installation of sound equipment.

Yet the demand for live theatre continued and an annual drama festival began in 1936 in conjunction with the London-based Old Vic Theatre Company, running for six years.

The cinema years rolled on successfully throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but when audiences began to decline, so did the Opera House and the building gradually fell into disrepair.

Rumours of its demise, however, were premature, and the theatre was painstakingly restored in 1979 at a cost of £506,000, following a public appeal for funds championed by the Opera House Trust. An orchestra pit was added to the theatre’s original Matcham design.

The Advertiser of the day proclaimed: “Anyone who remembers the Opera House as a dingy, draughty second-rate cinema will be stunned at the transformation.”

It was perhaps fitting that the venue’s re-opening in July of that year would also herald the first-ever International Arts Festival in Buxton - solid foundations for both event and theatre, which have since gone from strength to strength. For the Opera House, further restoration to the interior and exterior were necessary in the late 1990s, and again in 2007, as the theatre edged ever closer to its centenary. One thing’s for sure, Matcham’s masterpiece today is as much at the heart of Buxton’s vibrant arts scene as it was 100 years ago.