Simon Glinn, Buxton Opera House chief executive
After a shaky period during which theatre bosses thought it might not survive, Buxton Opera House has risen, phoenix-like, to maintain its position as one of the country’s most beautiful and inviting entertainment complexes.
Many people might not realise the financial problems that the Derbyshire masterpiece of Edwardian architecture has undergone and the precarious position it was in.
It began in April 2012 when the former finance manager started taking money only days after being given a job at the Opera House. He stole almost £250,000 from the organisation to fund a lavish lifestyle. Paul Leighton was sent to prison for two years for fraud.
Then Arts Council England removed the Opera House’s annual grant of more than £45,000.
When other staff left last year, High Peak Theatre Trust which runs the Opera House and the Pavilion Arts Centre took the opportunity to appoint a new chief executive – a move which is already paying dividends.
For 11 years Simon Glinn had been at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the organisation that looks after Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and manages the professional symphony orchestra.
Before that he had a wealth of experience in the entertainment industry, his big break coming when he was invited to stage-manage the jazz stage at the legendary Glastonbury Festival in 1992. He also worked extensively in Bosnia in the 1990s before returning to Liverpool, the city he called home.
So why did he leave the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic? He admits no other city would have attracted him – but he was drawn to Buxton where he was “delighted to be joining one of the country’s most beautiful theatres, a stunning example of Frank Matcham’s work”.
Matcham, one of Britain’s finest architects, designed and built the Opera House in 1903. By the outbreak of World War I he had designed no fewer than 150 theatres and music halls, including the London Palladium.
Simon added: “There’s so much potential to position the venue at the heart of the UK theatre industry and I’m excited to lead the team in Buxton, a town that prides itself on its festival programme”.
Quietly spoken yet passionate about the industry he works in, Simon answers questions thoroughly and knowledgably. At six feet six inches tall he towers over most people around him and gives the impression of being a towering presence in his field.
His wife and two children have come with him and he clearly has no regrets about making the move.
“I live less than ten minutes walk from the Opera House, so to do this urban thing in this rural environment is a privilege. But that makes it more challenging.
“It’s a great job and there are worse things to do. But often when I find myself hanging out with actors and musicians and they ask what do you do, I (tell them I) play the spreadsheets. It’s not that exciting in some ways – it’s all about hard, commercial realities. And at the moment we’re having to face up to some hard commercial realities. It’s far more interesting doing this than many other things. But it’s certainly a very demanding job.”
Simon and the rest of the Opera House team are getting to grips with the finances: he admits that because of the problems already mentioned there is currently a deficit running into six figures.
He gives the impression that he thrives on demanding jobs, if his CV is anything to go by.
Simon James Glinn was born near Hull in 1963. He never actually lived there as both his parents were in the Navy and were soon relocated to Scotland. Eventually they settled in Gloucestershire where Simon went to school. He moved to Liverpool when he went to university in 1981. It was on a trip to Buxton with his then girlfriend that Simon got his first experience of the Derbyshire town.
After university he ran a music venue in Cambridge called the Boat Race. It was so successful that one of the visiting bands suggested Simon was the man who could graduate to Glastonbury.
“It was actually quite a shambles. So it gave me a bit of a chance to show how it could be done better. I also programmed the jazz stage from 1995 through till 2000 when I stopped having anything to do with it because the festival changed.
“That experience put me into contact with a lot of great artists and a lot of great agents, so it opened up the opportunity to do a lot of touring work.
“I went on the road with a few people, went to a lot of great festivals and venues all over the world. It was interesting to see both the technical and operating models of venues and festivals. It gave me a great network of contacts.”
After Glastonbury Simon became involved with an aid organisation that was largely funded through the underground music scene. Volunteers went to Bosnia when the country was at war after the break-up of Yugoslavia.
“There was a relationship of trust with the young people in Bosnia that was quite exceptional – they weren’t just handing out food parcels but guitar strings and CDs. Although it was very well-intentioned hippiedom in some ways, it also resonated very strongly with me and many other people who saw this as some kind of cultural activity as much as anything else.”
Simon helped to set up the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar, a not-for-profit arts institution funded through a number of concerts organised by Luciano Pavarotti, Brian Eno, members of U2 and other artists. Simon also co-founded the Sarajevo International Jazz Festival.
“There are still many projects going on there, the legacy of that work. I maintain pretty good contacts with the place and I hope to get back there at some point this year – I haven’t been back for a couple of years.”
In the meantime Simon will begin to make his mark on the artistic programme at the Opera House and Pavilion Arts Centre. The diary was full for many months when he arrived, so it will be the autumn before audiences will be able to notice whether a different kind of entertainment is on offer.
However, quality will be the key and Simon will no doubt turn to his extensive network of contacts to sign up acts which might not have considered visiting Buxton in the past.
Discussions are also continuing about how the Arts Council can fund aspects of the Opera House’s work. This could actually turn out to be worth more than £45,000 a year.
The Buxton Festival, recognised internationally as one of the UK’s leading arts festivals and specialising in rarely performed operas by major composers, will continue each July while Simon Glinn remains chief executive of the Opera House. This is due largely to the excellent relationship between Simon and the festival’s directors.
He says, “When my colleagues from Liverpool Philharmonic came up, we all had lunch together and talked about potential future possibilities and ideas. It needs to be a great working relationship and I think it is. But in many ways it’s the one month of the year I don’t have to worry about because they largely hire the venue for nearly all of the month, so as long as that’s working operationally, that’s fine. What I need is for the other 11 months of the year to be doing as well.”
With Simon in charge, you get the distinct feeling that the Opera House and Pavilion Arts Centre will be in safe hands all year round.
* This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Country Images magazine