New Buxton Festival chief Michael Williams looks ahead to 2018 event

Michael Williams, chief executive officer of the Buxton International Festival.
Michael Williams, chief executive officer of the Buxton International Festival.

Buxton International Festival’s ebullient new CEO, Michael Williams, has a fascinating back story.

Born in South Africa, he went to drama school, realised he was not a great actor and “left the country seeking adventure” rather than going into mandatory military service.

Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment is among the festival's eagerly anticipated operas.

Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment is among the festival's eagerly anticipated operas.

An early commission to write a musical on the life of Buddha (“I was 23, I said: ‘sure!’) set him off on a globe-trotting career that included three years as a director at Sadler’s Wells and ended up with him returning home following Mandela’s release. He joined Cape Town Opera in 1990 and became managing director in 2005 until leaving for Buxton.

A prolific writer, he says: “I see myself as running two careers simultaneously. I wrote my first novel when I was 24. I try to publish a novel one year and then write an opera the next. I’ve done 14 novels and about 16 different operas and works over the last 20 years.”

Michael enjoys the contrast between the “introspective, quiet universe of the writer’s life and then the complete extrovert community of the other life which is filled with people and you are constantly on the go”.

His worldwide contacts, fundraising and budgeting experience, musical and literary interests, make him a natural choice for Buxton.

The National Youth Jazz Orchestra.

The National Youth Jazz Orchestra.

He is eagerly anticipating the festival’s operas, Verdi’s Alzira, Mozart’s Idomeneo and Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment - the latter featuring a famously challenging aria: “The tenor has to really throw out nine Cs in a row - ping, ping, ping!”

The sometimes overlooked festival Masses float his boat as does La Serenissima with Brescianello’s “subtle, seductive” Tisbe.

You will also find him interviewing broadcaster John Tusa and enjoying jazz in the splendid new, mirrored Spiegeltent.

Next year marks the festival’s 40th anniversary. He promises “exciting plans” with echoes of Africa, but will say no more. The Buxton Fringe, which started a year later in 1980, celebrates its 40th event in 2019.

Michael says: “How wonderful to have a festival in Buxton that has such a long legacy and is so successful! It all adds to bringing more and more people to Buxton... I love the Fringe!”

And he is enjoying his new home.

“I am so impressed with the hospitality and generosity of Buxtonians, particularly their sense of humour,” he says.

“Everybody complains about the weather but nobody tells me how nice the people are!”

Now he says the festival is “rolling out the red carpet for Buxton” with its new opening night opera gala on July 6.

With the Northern Chamber Orchestra, Opera North plus Lesley Garrett and some of the most memorable music from opera and musical, he says: “It is going to be a very light, lovely musical evening of fantastic singing… make it your own!”

If there is a serious side to any of this - or to him - it lies in his passion for audience development. Softly he describes a night in the theatre: “You are in among the breathing animal of the audience... and you are having the shared experience, a relationship with what’s happening on stage and your own internal life in the dark.

“It is a form of a coma. It is a form of a second sleep. It is a dream-waking experience... completely immersive.

“We are searching for that kind of escape in our lives and the answer is quite simple, come to the opera and you will find it.”