Dame Janet Smith - Chairman of Buxton Festival

Mike Smith meets the new Chairman of Buxton Festival, Dame Janet Smith who will be presiding over this year's 30th anniversary events

Over the years, the Buxton Festival has attracted an ever increasing band of loyal supporters. One of its most devoted followers is Dame Janet Smith, who has attended every festival since its inception in 1979. She has even got a full set of 29 programmes to prove it!

After almost three decades as an aficionado of the festival, Dame Janet, a High Court Judge who is best known for her chairmanship of the Shipman Inquiry, has now become its chief official. She was appointed Chairman of the Festival Board in July 2007, when Roy Hattersley stepped down after eight successful years at the helm, and will be presiding over this year's 30th anniversary events.

When I asked Dame Janet about her new role, she said: 'When I left Buxton in 1980, after living in the town for 13 years, the first festival had just been staged at the Opera House. I was delighted that the beautiful old building had been renovated and put to such good use, because it had decayed so badly over the years. Following its use as a cinema and a bingo hall, it had fallen into disrepair, becoming like a missing tooth in the middle of the town.'

Having been a devotee of the festival for the past 29 years, Dame Janet is very pleased to have been appointed as its chairman, even though she knows that Roy will be a hard act to follow. As she readily acknowledges, Roy broadened the appeal of the festival and gave it a much needed financial boost by adding the Literary Series to its programme of events. Thanks to his extensive contacts, he has always ensured that the author events feature an A-list of biographers and writers of literary fiction, as well as television and radio reporters who bring news from dangerous places.

The role of 'speaker-getter', which Roy carried out so brilliantly, has now been handed over to a professional, because the new chairman made it clear from the outset that she would not be able to take on that particular role. However, Dame Janet does have an enthusiast's knowledge of opera, which Roy freely admits he does not possess. When I spoke to the retiring chairman last year, he told me that he had once sent a congratulatory note to Stephen Sondheim after watching a production of Candide, only to receive a reply in which Sondheim said that he was pleased Roy had enjoyed the performance, but felt he ought to point out that he was not the composer of that particular opera.

Although Dame Janet is unlikely to be caught out in this way, she admits that she is not familiar with the work of Albert Lortzig, whose comic opera The Poacher will be performed on the second day of the festival. The inclusion of a work by this little-known German composer reflects a Buxton tradition of staging rarely performed operas - a policy that has given the festival a very special niche. As Dame Janet points out, opera-lovers have plenty of opportunities to see well-known works at venues in a number of major cities, but they are unlikely to get the chance of watching some of the little-known works unless they come to Buxton.

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When I suggested that some opera-lovers might be deterred from attending a festival that stages so many unfamiliar works, Dame Janet replied: 'I think the artistic director, Andrew Greenwood, has achieved a very good balance between works that are popular and those that are new to most people. This year, we're also issuing a free CD which gives a taster of all the operas featured in the programme. Once people listen to this, I'm sure they'll be just as keen to buy tickets for The Poacher as for the other events.'

In any case, Dame Janet is confident that the regulars will already be in town for the performance of The Poacher, because they will have been pulled in by a celebrity recital on the opening day by Sir Thomas Allen, a long-time favourite with Buxton audiences. Another special feature of this year's festival is the staging of several in-house productions, including a triple bill of chamber operas, but these home-grown productions are being supplemented with works performed by the usual galaxy of visiting stars, including the New London Consort, who will be presenting Purcell's Dido and Aeneas 1700, directed by Dr Jonathan Miller.

When I asked Dame Janet if she would be suggesting changes to Buxton's traditional mix, she said: 'I'm an evolutionist rather than a revolutionary, so it will be "steady as she goes" for the time being. The festival has developed a very good formula and the performers for the 2009 festival have already been booked, but we will be carrying out an in-depth review this autumn.'

Given Dame Janet's skill in conducting the Shipman Inquiry and her analytical assessment of the lessons to be learned from that case, there is every reason to suppose that the review will be conducted with great rigour and will lead to beneficial results. The Board will be considering all aspects of the festival, including the range of venues available and the outreach work carried out by the performers.

Dame Janet is pleased that the refurbished old theatre in the Octagon can now be added to the list of good venues and she sees outreach work in old people's homes and schools as an activity that always goes down well with the performers and with those people that it reaches. At this year's festival, local schoolchildren will be performing More Glass than Wall, which marks the 400th anniversary of Bess of Hardwick's death and includes material created during workshops.

The Festival Fringe is another major component of the annual festival. Although its organisation is outside her remit as chairman, she will be keeping a "motherly eye" on its activities and offering help where necessary. Furthermore, there is every reason to expect that she will be well briefed about its progress, because her husband is getting involved in the Fringe this year.

Apart from a couple of trips to confer degrees at Manchester Metropolitan University, where she is Chancellor, Dame Janet will be present throughout the festival this summer. She has also been handing out programmes to her fellow judges and has been convincing them that a journey from the capital to the hills of the Peak District is well worth the effort, not only for the musical and literary treats on offer, but also for the delights of spending time in an attractive spa town in beautiful surroundings.

Given her powers of persuasion, there is almost certain to be an increased presence of the judiciary in Buxton this year. Since she was called to the bar in 1972, Dame Janet has risen to become one of the judiciary's most respected members, but she qualified for the legal profession the hard way, by taking a correspondence course after spending ten years as a housewife and mother. A 20-year stint as a barrister in Manchester ended with her appointment as a High Court Judge in 1992. Ten years later, she became only the fourth woman to be appointed to the Court of Appeal.

It takes tremendous personal determination to achieve as much as this, so when Dame Janet says that she is determined to maintain the success of Buxton's much loved festival, it can be taken for granted that she will spare no effort in doing so.For more information about the festival visit www.buxtonfestival.co.uk

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