Damian Thantrey on his role as Lichfield Festival Artistic Director

The popular Festival Market will take place on Saturday 7th July with stalls and entertainment from local performers in...

The popular Festival Market will take place on Saturday 7th July with stalls and entertainment from local performers in front of the Cathedral - Credit: Archant

Local opera singer Damian Thantrey has added another string to his bow as he takes over as Artistic Director of this year’s Lichfield Festival. Nigel Powlson reports.

Damian Thantrey

Damian Thantrey - Credit: Archant

Burton-born opera singer Damian Thantrey is likely to be the busiest man in Lichfield in July as he juggles the logistics and artistic demands of staging the city’s annual festival. The former Repton School pupil has been working with the festival for the last three years but has stepped up to be artistic director for 2018.

This summer’s festival takes place from 4th-14th July and offers the usual mix of artistic events including classical concerts in the atmospheric cathedral, comedy gigs in the Garrick Theatre, literary events and much more. It’s a winning formula that draws thousands of visitors to Lichfield and Damian is looking forward to ensuring the 2018 festival proves to be another success.

He says: ‘I have produced for the last three years for the festival – two operas and then last year a big Richard Rodgers spectacular but this year the hat sitting on my head is artistic director.’

Artistic Director Sonia Stephenson first approached Damian when she was looking to bring an opera to the festival for her first year in 2015. ‘I suggested that she perhaps put on her own production and before the phone call had finished I was the one producing it,’ says Damian. ‘So we did The Magic Flute together and then the following year Cosi Fan Tutte, another Mozart opera. Then last year we went for something different, a co-production with Cheltenham Festival, working with Chetham’s School of Music – a big celebration of the work of Richard Rodgers. In the run up to that Sonia was going on maternity leave for a year and they needed someone to be artistic director for the 2018 festival. I applied, went through the process and was offered the job.’

Trench Brothers commemorates the contributions of ethnic minority soldiers during the First World War - 4th July

Trench Brothers commemorates the contributions of ethnic minority soldiers during the First World War - 4th July - Credit: Archant

Damian came into the post in January 2017 giving him an 18-month run in to the festival. He will also be staying on as co-director, as although Sonia is coming back for 2019, that will be part-time. ‘We are already looking at plans for 2019, which is quite scary when this year’s hasn’t even taken place,’ he says.

‘When you have the big orchestras coming in, and we have the CBSO and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales this year, their diaries are planned well in advance so if you want them to come you have to give them a date early in the process.’

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Damian also performed in the Richard Rodgers show in Lichfield Cathedral last year, and he knows how important it is to have the cathedral as the festival’s major venue.

‘It’s wonderful and it works for such a wide variety of events. This year we were looking for something that would be a bit different for the cathedral and we have an amazing commissioned event with Neil and Katya Jones from Strictly Come Dancing. It’s a show you can’t see anywhere else. Neil came to the Richard Rodgers show last year and as soon as he saw the cathedral he wanted to do a show in there. He fell in love with the space and we were able to get him to come and do a bespoke show for us that will bring a different crowd to the festival. We are turning things around and putting a stage in the middle of the cathedral, so the audience is close to the show.

Jay Rayner Jazz Quartet - 13th July

Jay Rayner Jazz Quartet - 13th July - Credit: Archant

‘You need a massive space to house a symphony orchestra, so the cathedral is an important part of the festival. We are doing a children’s opera this year, Noye’s Fludde, and there will be 140 people on the stage with all the children and the band, but we also have a very intimate string quartet concert happening at the other end of the cathedral on another evening.’

Getting the mix of events across all the venues is a key part of the artistic director’s role.

Damian says: ‘There are events that might work somewhere else that aren’t quite right for us. The starting point budgetarily and in terms of the general scheme of things is to get a good fit for the cathedral as they tend to be the bigger events we put on. We have two big orchestral concerts this year, a baroque concert, a choral concert, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, a Bernstein celebration and a folk night. Once that loose jigsaw is in place it’s about looking at the other events you can bring in.

‘I didn’t set out with a theme when I was planning this year’s festival but with the centenary of women’s suffrage I thought we could weave together a theme of extraordinary women – whether that’s authors, artists, composers or works specifically written for a woman’s voice.

‘There are some bespoke productions I have commissioned for the festival. A new production of a couple of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, some talks and a cabaret that are specific to that theme. We are also bringing in other shows that sit with that theme. It’s a very eclectic festival. It grew from a seed of being a classical music festival, but it has developed beyond that. Classical music is still at its core, but we have comedy, theatre, dance, chamber music, jazz, folk – it’s not an elitist festival specialising in one area. It’s amazingly well backed by a hardcore of very committed festival supporters. There are people who were founder members, and we are in the 37th year, and the work they do behind the scenes, raising funds, volunteering is largely unseen but without it none of it would work.

‘What makes the festival a success is a combination of massive commitment from the people who believe in it and the wide variety of events we put on that make it special. We are also hugely grateful to our major partners this year, London North Western Railway and West Midland Railway.

‘Our core audience is very supportive of what the festival is trying to do. They always go to events they usually enjoy but are also willing to try different things. It’s a real joy for a festival director when people go along to something they are not even sure they are going to like and come out really buzzing about it. And it’s not always the big events that provoke that kind of reaction, it can be something quite small and that gives you just as much pleasure.’

Damian’s job is also as much about the logistics as the artistic endeavour and he will have a few anxieties come the start of July.

‘I will be nervous that everybody who is supposed to arrive does and in good time,’ he laughs. ‘Last year there was a cancellation on the day and I was fortunate to know someone who could jump in at the last minute. One of the things I have learnt as a producer when you are standing on the side while everybody else is doing what you have put together, is that you experience very different emotions to when you are performing.

“There will be nerves and lots of running around but we have amazing people working in the office and the whole core team will be very busy come July. Hopefully we will fall over the finish line exhausted but very happy.’

For full details go to www.lichfieldfestival.org. To book tickets call Lichfield Festival Box Office: 01543 412 121.