One Night Only - The High Sheriff of Derbyshire's fundraising concert for Buxton Opera House

Louise Potter outside her beloved Buxton Opera House

Louise Potter outside her beloved Buxton Opera House - Credit: Louise Potter

International stars will descend on Buxton in February - and it's all for a good local cause.

Derbyshire's High Sheriff is passionate about many aspects of her home town, but most especially the world-renowned Buxton Opera House.  

Louise Potter owned and ran The Old Hall Hotel across the road from the theatre, and links the success of her business to the success of the opera house.  

‘It's such a cultural and architectural asset for the county,’ she says. ‘I want to support it and raise its profile in every possible way.’ 

She has chosen to do that in spectacular style. The ornate Opera House, built in 1903, is an outstanding example of the work of Frank Matcham, whose theatre and music hall commissions included the London Coliseum, the Hackney Empire and the London Palladium.   

Many have been modernised but Buxton's backstage area is in its original state, with antiquated systems that fall way short of production requirements today.   

Paul Kerryson, who has enjoyed a distinguished career in musical theatre, came to the Opera House as director four years ago, and loves the place, hailing it a ‘joy to behold.’. 

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He came from Curve, the most high-tech theatre in the country, to Buxton, the most low-tech, and remembers being taken aback when he walked into a backstage area that hadn't changed since 1903.

‘It was a beautiful glimpse of what it was like to work in an Edwardian environment, but more of a museum than a practical working theatre,’ he suggests. 

‘The uneven stage floor means we can't attract dance companies. The hemp flying system means we can't fly anything heavy. The small ‘get-in’ area means we can't attract the bigger designs and touring companies just cut Buxton out of their circuit.  

‘The dressing-room accommodation has poor access facilities, with two showers and two toilets for the entire company. And an underwater stream is still pumped out by the original Matcham engineering but regularly floods the stage and orchestra pit!’. 

‘It is a magical 'theatre in the hills' and everyone gets a thrill when they walk into the gilded auditorium, but they maybe don't realise what lies behind the curtain, and the difficulties in getting the best productions to come to the Opera House. There is such a passion for the venue from artists, staff volunteers and our key partners.’ 

Buxton Opera House and Buxton International Festival combined this summer to put on Paul Kerryson's new, acclaimed production of Sondheim's A Little Night Music. Janie Dee, David Leonard and Gabrielle Drake headed a star cast: proof, if ever there was, of Buxton's power - and Kerryson's - to attract the best.  

So the High Sheriff has metaphorically rolled up her sleeves and embarked on a launch pad for a major fundraising campaign for the work needed - in the region of £15m.  

In what is undoubtedly a triumph, she has secured two renowned young opera stars - Danielle de Niese, soprano, and Nicky Spence, tenor - for a ‘For One Night Only’ concert on February 18 2022 that will kickstart the campaign in style.  

‘They've both been appearing at the Royal Opera House this season and Danielle at Glyndebourne as well. We are so lucky they are coming here,’ she says.  

‘It is a coup for us. We have the wonderful Northern Chamber Orchestra playing, with John Andrews conducting, and the adult Kinder Choir - run by Carol Prowse and Joyce Ellis - is singing at the concert as well.’ 

Nicky Spence

Nicky Spence - Credit: Bertie Watson

Nicky Spence has sung at Buxton Opera House many times before at the Buxton Opera Festival. ‘I remember vividly performing the baddie role of Iago in Rossini's Otello some years ago and thinking what a privilege it was,’ he recalls.  

‘My first memory of the Buxton acoustic was during a tour of Handel's Messiah when I was singing the solos 18 years ago.  

‘We had slid through the icy hills in the dead of winter to get there, a real mission, but on arrival were welcomed by the most welcoming acoustic you could imagine and friendliness beyond compare, which go hand-in-hand at Buxton.’ 

He has sung on the world's most famous stages. Ask him his favourite and he reflects, ‘I really enjoy singing at the Coliseum in London. It's a big barn of a place but the acoustic is a friendly one and I know nearly everybody in the building from the stage door keepers to the makeup technicians which makes it special.  

‘The Metropolitan Opera in New York and Covent Garden too are unique. I recently sang Laca in the opera Jenûfa for the Royal Opera by Janáček, who is my most beloved composer - up there with my most ‘pinch-me’ moments.’  

Nicky likes to get involved with the process of curating the programme - something shared between the artist, the committee, the conductor and the venue.  

Decca's Danielle de Niese is heading to Buxton next February

Decca's Danielle de Niese is heading to Buxton next February - Credit: Chris Dunlop

‘It's fun to create something special together and collaborate,’ he says.  

‘The programme for Buxton will be special. I can't give too much away but there will be something for everybody between opera, musical theatre and some concert favourites with the wonderful choir under Joyce Ellis.’ 

For singers, and all performers, recent times have been frustrating.  

‘Singing was pretty dangerous during the pandemic as we basically breathe for a living, but I was blessed to take part in performances online and reconstructed seasons at opera houses such as Glyndebourne while the rest of my itinerary has been obliterated,’ he says.  

Nicky also worked as a vaccinator, something he describes as a wonderful experience.  

‘It was a slightly selfish move as I was keen to help get everybody protected so normal dramatic life could continue, but it did mean I could give vaccinations to many of my friends including conductors, singers and musicians so they could get back to work,’ he acknowledges. 

‘Sometimes I would sing a bit of Schubert if I had a particularly flustered patient. I'm not sure if it helped or scared but was worth a go!’. 

Nicky was the youngest singer ever to be awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Guildhall School of Music, while Danielle de Niese's talent was spotted even earlier in life. 

Born in Melbourne, she won the Australian 'Young Talent Time' competition aged nine, taking away A$5,000 and a Yamaha baby grand piano, which she still has.  

She grew up in the States, made her opera debut at 15, won an Emmy at 16 and appeared at Glyndebourne for the first time in 2005. 

She made her debut at the Royal Opera House in 2009, in Handel's Acis and Galatea, and has dazzled on stages all over the world.   

As a guest on Desert Island Discs in 2018, she captivated with her warmth, revealing: ‘My mum told me, dare to dream. She instilled in us, 'God gave everybody a talent and we have to discover what yours is'. Music is so much more than ink on paper: it is what you do when you take the notes off the page that makes music.’ 

She describes opera as a multimedia experience: something that has the values of a play, a huge cast of singers, up to 80 musicians plus a chorus... and isn't just for the elite.   

‘The great thing is we have these super-supporters of opera who step forward and say ‘we're going to cover that bill’, there are ways for everyone to get into it.’ 

‘My whole life has been a sort of union of opposites, both living inside and outside the classical world,’ she concludes. ‘I just want to be my true self, and hope it opens people up to the possibility that classical music can be as lovely to them as any other music.’ 

Tickets for For One Night Only are on sale now from the Opera House. Louise Potter is also encouraging donations, however small, to get the fund established. These can be made at: buxtonoperahouse.org.uk/event/one-night-only.