Chorus of approval for family with song in hearts

Ian Smith, his son Neil and wife Janet are the organisers of the massively successful Gilbert and Sullivan Festival held in Buxton each August. Picture Bruce Rollinson
Ian Smith, his son Neil and wife Janet are the organisers of the massively successful Gilbert and Sullivan Festival held in Buxton each August. Picture Bruce Rollinson
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IAN Smith is a self-confessed workaholic. Recent mornings have been taken up with editing a 400-page book for the European Commission, one of many EC projects he carries out from his office in Halifax.

Most days he also spends a couple of hours with technical staff developing his patented anti-counterfeit solution (there’s a whole other story there that can’t yet be told). In among all this he is artistic director of the world’s biggest celebration of Gilbert and Sullivan – as well as being a husband and second-time-around father to teenage children.

It helps that, although the not-for-profit International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival has grown like topsy and is now in its 20th year in Buxton, it’s very much a family concern. In fact, it seems that you can’t really be a member of the Smith clan without appearing in, taking photographs of, selling tickets and holiday packages for or otherwise helping to organise this three-week extravaganza that pays homage to the Victorian-era theatrical partnership of librettist W S Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan.

The two men collaborated on 14 comic operas between 1871 and 1896, of which HMS. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado are among the best known. Gilbert created fanciful, topsy-turvy worlds where each absurdity is taken to its logical conclusion – fairies rub elbows with British lords, flirting is a capital offence, gondoliers ascend to the throne , and pirates turn out to be noblemen who have gone wrong. Sullivan composed memorable melodies that brilliantly conveyed the great wit and pathos of his partner’s stories.

In the 1960s Shipley-born Ian Smith, who is now in his 70s, was a familiar performer across the West Riding, specialising in the G&S patter parts – the Major General, the Lord Chancellor and KoKo. With the old Bradford Gilbert and Sullivan Society he trod the boards in many of these roles under direction from some of the most loved names from the original D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, including Leslie Rands and Mary Sampson. In the 80s he struck up a friendship with the most famous of that band – John Reed, who himself had travelled the world performing patter roles.

By that stage the D’Oyly Carte had closed, John was out of work, and Ian had established a new amateur group, The Savoyards Appreciation Society West Yorkshire. He persuaded Reed to direct them, and in a short time the Savoyards earned a huge reputation that brought invitations to tour the world, as well as winning trophies at light opera festivals. Ian wanted to start a festival in Britain and in 1992 the idea was mooted as possibly being tried out in Harrogate. However Harrogate didn’t go for it, says Ian, whose career has included being a correspondent for the Yorkshire Post and organising international conferences for the pharmaceutical industry.

He found the perfect place to realise his dream of an international festival devoted to G&S in Buxton Opera House. He and his son Neil (also a patter performer) launched the first festival in 1994 and it has since travelled to San Francisco, Philadelphia, Gettysburg, Lanzarote and Eastbourne as well as growing in size and stature in its Peak District home.

Today, the IGSF is run by three directors – Ian, his wife Janet and Neil. While Ian continues with the day job (and seemingly doesn’t sleep much...) Janet takes responsibility for the smooth-running of the event, which sells more than 25,000 tickets each year to people who travel from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand and Brazil and many places in between. Many fans stay for most of the three-week shindig, and the spa town’s economy is enormous, as busloads of fans flock into Derbyshire.

Neil looks after the professional G&S Opera Company which Ian set up to perform new productions at each year’s event. He also oversees technical aspects of performances and venues. Ian develops the programme, which includes a festival fringe around the main business and a youth festival.

This year is special, in that as well as running the usual festival in Buxton – where 50 full-scale productions will be performed by groups from across the globe – the team has accepted an invitation from Harrogate, two decades later, to consider the town as venue for a future event. “I was delighted they approached me and really liked the three spaces available – the International Centre, Harrogate Theatre and The Royal Hall,” says Ian. “We’ve put together what I’m hoping will be a real crowd-pleasing programme called Classic Fest around the August Bank Holiday weekend.

“The Royal Hall will host the professional Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company and Harrogate Theatre will see five operetta and musical theatre performances including The Merry Widow, Die Fledermaus, Chess and A Little Light Music.”

Ian says that in the early 1990s there was a very real fear that G&S would be lost to future generations, as interest seemed to wane after the closure of the D’Oyly Carte. He believes the not-for-profit International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival he created in Buxton has played a major part in resuscitating the fortunes of works penned by the long-dead duo.

You can see why Harrogate might have wanted a piece of the action: in its first (loss-making) year in 1994, the IG&SF sold 25 per cent of tickets available, and the following year this increased to 30 per cent. Now a staggering 90 per cent of tickets are sold, and the local economy is boosted by another £1m on top of that. A jolly affair that attracts an incredibly sociable crowd, it’s not unknown for a crowd of international punters to spill out of the Opera House after seeing HMS Pinafore, and carry on the evening in a pub or hotel bar, where they will sing their way through the whole of Iolanthe, just for fun.

The success of Gilbert and Sullivan is amazing, really, considering that fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber et al often consider the storylines dull and highbrow aficionados of grand opera regularly dismiss it as frothy and meaningless. Ian Smith warms to one of his favourite themes.

“Gilbert was an amazing writer, who poked fun at the British and was global in his perceptions, which you can see in productions such as The Mikado, where the British are seen as others saw them. Sullivan’s music is melodic and supple, with a lot of choral singing, which make them ideal for children to start learning about music and performance while having fun. I see American musicals as an easy opt-out for lazy music teachers, I have to say. I’ve had two G&S shows transposed for children and they performed them at Huddersfield Town Hall with a producer and conductor provided by us.

“As a result of involvement in the show, truancy and illness fell and the children now wanted to do more... There’s a lot of snobbery from opera buffs about G&S, but I fall asleep when I go to the opera.”

The 19th International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival will be at Buxton Opera House from July 28 until August 18. Booking: 08451 272 190 or Info:

Classic Fest will be held in Harrogate August 21-28 at Harrogate Theatre, The Royal Hall and Harrogate International Centre. Box office: 01423 502116 / Info: