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The Opera House, Water Street, Buxton, Derbyshire
Incorporating - The Pavilion Gardens Arts Centre, formerly the Paxton Theatre

The Buxton Opera House main frontage in June 2007 - Courtesy Cliff Reynolds

Above - The Buxton Opera House main frontage in June 2007 - Courtesy Cliff Reynolds

 

The Opera house Buxton is situated in Water Street Buxton, and was built to the designs of Frank Matcham. The opening performance took place on Monday June 1st 1903 with a prologue specially written for the occasion, followed by 'Mrs Willoughby's Kiss' and 'My Milliners Bill' featuring Miss Florence St John and Mr Scott Buist.

The new Opera House was part of an entertainment complex featuring the Pavilion Pleasure Gardens (1871), the Winter Gardens and Octagonal Hall (1876) and the Playhouse (1889). The Opera House was built over the old entrance to the Gardens and a new entrance was built at an angle to the Opera House modifying the Winter Gardens entrance. The expenditure for the new Opera House and building of the new Gardens entrance was £25,000.

The Buxton Opera House and  Winter Gardens entrance in a photograph taken in 2000 - Courtesy David Garratt

Above - The Buxton Opera House and Winter Gardens entrance in a photograph taken in 2000 - Courtesy David Garratt

 

The Opera House is a masterpiece of Frank Matcham design, having a stone exterior with central entrance flanked by two leaded domed towers at each corner of the front façade. Over the central entrance was an ornate iron and glass canopy. The foyer featured extensive use of White Marble with a Grand Staircase leading up to a crush room, the walls of which had panels filled with silk tapestries. From the crush room, corridors lead to the dress circle and private boxes. At the end of these corridors stairs lead down to the stalls. The stalls were fitted with tip up seats. To the rear of the stalls was the pit, entered via an entrance in St Johns road, past a pay box to the promenade at the rear of the pit. The pit seating had backs and were covered in rich velvet. Above is the Dress Circle, again fitted with tip up seats of striped velvet. The circle was cantilevered thus no support pillars are in view, and therefore all seats have a clear view of the stage. To the rear of the Dress Circle was a large crush room where refreshments were available. Above the circle is the Upper circle approached by a wide fireproof staircase to a crush room and then via corridors to side entrances. The Gallery is at the rear of the Upper Circle forming a raised tier, fitted with comfortable seating. The auditorium was designed to be cleared of all patrons within 3 minutes.

The Buxton Opera House when it first opened in 1903 - From the Theatre's centenary programme - Courtesy David Garratt

Above - The Buxton Opera House when it first opened in 1903 - From the Theatre's centenary programme of the community production of 'House of Dreams' - Courtesy David Garratt

 

The auditorium of the Buxton Opera House in 2000, Courtesy David Garratt.The auditorium is very intimate and of the Louis the 14th decoration, having three boxes each side of the stage, two boxes at dress circle level, and one above with an oval curved shell ceiling. When it opened the dress circle boxes had light blue silk brocade and plush valances and curtains. The Proscenium arch was curved with heavy scroll decoration at each side surmounted by the Buxton coat of arms. The ceiling was a richly decorated oval dome featuring six painted panels by De Jong, of music, painting, poetry, literature, dancing, and comedy. A large curved shaped frieze joined the ceiling to the flat panelled ceiling over the stage which contained three monochrome paintings, representing grace, strength and beauty.

Left - The auditorium of the Buxton Opera House in 2000, Courtesy David Garratt.

The auditorium ceiling at the Buxton Opera House in 2000 showing the restored sunburner which was converted for North Sea Gas in 1979, the only working sunburner still in existence in the Country - Courtesy David Garratt.The Opera House had an iron safety curtain, and the Act Drop was painted by Hemsley. The auditorium colour scheme being blue, gold, and cream. The original seating capacity was 1250.

The Theatre was lit from its opening by electricity and hot water radiators formed the heating. In the centre of the ceiling was a large gas sun burner to extract air, thus giving adequate ventilation. The dressing rooms were situated in a separate block.

Right - The auditorium ceiling at the Buxton Opera House in 2000 showing the restored sunburner which was converted for North Sea Gas in 1979, the only working sunburner still in existence in the Country - Courtesy David Garratt.

 

The Proscenium of the Buxton Opera House in 2000 - Courtesy David Garratt.

Above - The Proscenium of the Buxton Opera House in 2000 - Courtesy David Garratt

In 1903, soon after the Theatre's opening the Halle Choir played in a concert, and on August the 1st 1903 there was a grand display of fireworks and illuminations in the grounds by J. Pain & sons of London.

 

A detail of one of the cherubs situated on the Proscenium arch of the Buxton Opera House - Courtesy David Garratt.Early Opera Companies to play at the Opera House were the Cavaliere F. Castellano English and Italian Grand Opera Company, the Empire Grand Opera Company, The Carl Rosa opera Company, the Harrison Frewin Opera Company, Sadlers Wells Opera Company and the Doyle Carte Opera company. Notable Shakespearean companies also visited, were namely the Frank Benson, Osmond Terle, Florence Glossop-Harris, Henry Baynton, Alexander Marsh, and Charles Doran companies.

For the next 30 years the Opera House was a home to touring companies presenting plays from the West End, Shakespearean companies, concerts, musical comedies, Opera Companies, and ballet.

Left - A detail of one of the cherubs situated on the Proscenium arch of the Buxton Opera House - Courtesy David Garratt.

The Fly Floor of the Buxton Opera House in 2000 - Courtesy David Garratt.In 1925 Anna Pavlova danced the 'Dying Swan', and watching from a box at one performance was Douglas Fairbanks senior and Mary Pickford. In 1927 the Opera House was turned into a cinema showing Silent Films, but by 1932 was converted to sound and the 'Talkies' were all the rage. There was still a demand for live entertainment and Lillian Bayliss the manager of the London Old Vic presented a summer Festival in 1937 and 1939. Artists who appeared at the Opera House at this time were, Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson, Robert Donat and Constance Cummings, Anthony Quayle, Robert Morley and Diana Wynyard, and Alec Guinness.

Right - The Fly Floor of the Buxton Opera House in 2000 - Courtesy David Garratt.

Cinema still continued though the fifties and sixties, but audiences were dropping off and the Opera House fell into disrepair, so that by 1976 the Theatre closed until the spring, and it was feared that the Opera House would close permanently.

 

In 1979 restoration work began on the Opera House. Arup Associates were responsible for the design with Theatre Projects Consultants, and Bovis the main contractors. It was found that the Opera House was virtually intact and unaltered as it was when Frank Matcham first built it. It was decided though that an orchestra pit was required, (strangely Frank Matcham's original building did not incorporate an orchestra pit). This was achieved by cantilevering the existing stage with steel girders, and at the same time creating a green room for the musicians. The capacity of the pit created, being for 85 musicians.

The Fly Floor of the Buxton Opera House in 2000 - Courtesy David Garratt.The original ventilation system was renewed. The Sunburner in the centre of the auditorium ceiling was taken down and cleaned and modified for North sea Gas, and reinstated. This is now the only existing fully working Sunburner in the country. A new heating system was put in using the existing Edwardian radiators. The Theatre was rewired and the existing 'Grandmaster' switchboard was reconditioned.

Left - The Fly Floor of the Buxton Opera House in 2000 - Courtesy David Garratt.

The Theatre was redecorated in blue, brown, cream, white and gold. A new carpet was specially reproduced by Firths of Brighouse who made the original carpets, to match an original piece of carpet which had been found three layers down in one of the stage boxes. The stage flying system was kept as the original (hemp ropes and man power). The timber grid above the stage, together with cross over bridges are all original, some being 42 feet long lengths of wood by 12 inches thick. The flying system is of 7 inch centres. The stage has a rake of 1:24. The Theatre was ready to reopen for the International Arts Festival on the 30th July 1979 and the restoration cost £506,663.00.

In 1999 the Opera House had a further renovation to secure its future. Air conditioning was installed, new seats installed in the Gallery and Upper Circle, and a new 'get in' lift was fitted to replace the old ramp. New working lights and the painting of the backstage area and dressing rooms was also done at this time.

The Opera House's current seating capacity is 902. The stage dimensions are Depth 12 metres (40 feet). Proscenium width is 6 metres (30 feet). Height to grid 14.75 metres (49 feet). The auditorium dimensions are, from the Proscenium to the rear stalls, 60 feet, and the auditorium width is 50 feet. There is a stream which runs under the stage, through an open channel, and has been known to flood the under stage.

The Buxton Theatre complex now also includes the adjacent Pavilion Gardens, a Pavilion Arts Centre with 369 seats (this was formerly the Paxton Theatre) the Octagon Hall, together with a two story restaurant, bar and gift shop.

The Opera House has gone from strength to strength, hosting an annual summer Opera Festival and a Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, and continues to present touring shows, plays, opera, ballet, musicals, concerts and one night stands, attracting audiences from near and far.

Arthur Lloyd is known to have performed in Buxton in 1891.

You may like to visit the Theatre's own Website here.

The above article on the Buxton Opera House was written for this site by David Garratt in January 2012. The article and most of its accompanying images are © David Garratt 2012.

 

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