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Celebrity Interview – Neil Smith

Celebrity Interview – Neil Smith

Co-Founder of the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival

Thirty years after the festival was first staged at Buxton Opera House it’s back at the Derbyshire town in its entirety, with professional productions, a competition for amateurs and performances by mature performers as well as youth groups.

The International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival was founded in 1994 by Ian Smith and his son Neil who were both fans of the dramatist W S Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan.

“My father was the Drummer Boy in The Gondoliers when he was about 15 for the local church society,” says Neil. “It was a huge part of his life and then of course I got involved as well.”

They became members of a West Yorkshire arts appreciation society which toured to the United States and went to the Waterford International Festival, a competition for amateurs in Ireland.

“I remember having a conversation and saying to dad ‘wouldn’t it be interesting to do Gilbert and Sullivan on its own?’ and thought no more of it.

“Dad obviously thought a lot more about it and said we should look at doing it somewhere in the UK. And we ended up in Buxton.

“As we were driving there, I said ‘where’s Buxton?’ I’d never heard of it. We dropped down into this magical little place and right in the centre was this amazing Opera House.”

The theatre director at that time thought the G&S Festival was a good idea. “He wouldn’t let us leave until we’d signed a contract,” Neil states.

The first festival was staged in 1994 by Neil and Ian who died in 2019 at the age of 80. It is now produced by Ian’s wife Janet and 56-year-old Neil “to preserve and enhance the knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan”.

It’s still a family affair: Neil’s brothers Oliver and Charles work in the office while Neil’s daughter Phoebe performs in the Opera Company.

From the beginning the festival was able to attract the finest exponents of G&S. 

The family were good friends with John Reed who was with the legendary D’Oyly Carte Opera Company which staged G&S operas until it closed in 1982. “He agreed to be the festival president in year one and because of his contacts he was able to bring in all these other big names from D’Oyly Carte.

“For keen fans who only ever go to see these people at the stage door, suddenly they were walking around the town and you can’t really hide in Buxton. They were having breakfast with them or whatever. It was terrific,” says Neil.

During the first year the Smiths brought in three groups from America who gave the festival credibility. 

“At that point it was an amateur-only competition. You did your performance and as the curtain came down an adjudicator came out, stood on the stage and gave a 20-minute crit of what he’d seen. A lot of people in the UK were used to this – the Americans were horrified!”

Ticket sales were low at the start of the first year but increased to such an extent that the Smiths decided to continue with the festival.

Now the professional National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company performs three productions each year.

The main part of the festival relocated to Harrogate in 2014, with a week of mostly professional shows in Buxton preceding it. But last year the Harrogate venue was losing money and put its prices up by so much that the festival couldn’t afford to stay there. Fortunately Buxton Opera House was able to accommodate its return.

The 2023 festival will feature new productions of three ever-popular G&S operas, The Yeomen Of The Guard, The Mikado and The Pirates Of Penzance.

Last year Utopia Limited, one of the least performed G&S operas, didn’t sell as well as the organisers would have liked, especially as there was still reluctance on some people’s part to return to live shows after Covid.

The festival doesn’t get any money from the Arts Council although in 2020 it received £120,000 from the government’s culture recovery fund – a “godsend”, according to Neil. 

Staging the festival is a massive operation because during the summer the producers employ two orchestras with more than 40 musicians, an opera company with another 40 people along with creative and administrative teams.

“We have to be really careful – everything we do is costed to the last penny. If we don’t cover the costs we foot the bill. My parents poured thousands of pounds into what was effectively a labour of love.”

Ticket sales for this year are going well despite Neil’s being nervous about returning to Buxton.

“People in north Yorkshire and Leeds were saying ‘I’m not going all the way to Buxton- I can’t get there and back in a night’ but we clearly have attracted audiences. 

“It seems to have been received very well and people are coming back to what many believe is the spiritual home of G&S.”

So what is the enduring appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan?

“The fact that there are still so many societies scattered around the world performing G&S suggests they did something right when they wrote these operas, didn’t they?”

Neil continues: “Gilbert was an absolute master wordsmith. You read a libretto and there’s hardly a wasted word. His language is so rich and interesting. If you’re in a production you’ll come across words that you wouldn’t normally use in everyday language. They’re absolutely perfect for the rhyme and meaning of a song or a passage of dialogue.

“Coupled with that you’ve got Sullivan. My goodness me, he knew how to bang out a tune, didn’t he? They complemented each other perfectly. Put it together and you’ve got this wonderful package of humour and a little bit of pathos with this wonderful music running alongside it. Never think G&S is easy because it isn’t. 

“What we find is if we can get youngsters involved early they generally keep hold of their love for G&S for the rest of their lives.”

That’s one of the reasons why the festival presents a youth production for performers aged from nine to 19. This year The Pirates Of Penzance will be staged in the Pavilion Arts Centre.

“I bet I was the last generation to do G&S at school,” Neil points out.

“Where I grew up in Bradford there were three or four G&S societies in a four-mile radius. It was very popular in the north of England.

“What we’re trying to do is give people an opportunity to do G&S at any age.”

As well as the youth production there’s a section for “retired” thespians known as Bus Pass Opera. This year the group will be performing HMS Pinafore in the annual competition for amateurs. The winners pick up the Festival Champions Trophy and for the first time this year there will also be a prize of £1,000.

“A lot of what Gilbert was writing 100 years ago is as relevant today as when he wrote it. He pokes fun at the establishment. Gilbert and Sullivan is something to be celebrated. It’s part of our national heritage.”

The 29th Gilbert and Sullivan Festival takes place at venues including Buxton Opera House and the Pavilion Arts Centre from Saturday 29 July until Saturday 12 August


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