ONE of Oxfordshire’s biggest arts festivals has been rescued by a team of opera lovers who say they are going to make some significant changes.

Wantage Summer Festival has been saved by the organisers of the town’s Opera Unmasked group, who have already said they plan to rename it Wantage Summer Arts Festival and use this year’s event to celebrate the 160th birthday of opera composer Giacomo Puccini.

The new team has also said it plans to spend much less time advertising the event on social media and go back to the old-style printed brochures, which can be distributed about the town.

Among the team is Jim Mitchell, who also founded Wantage’s Not Just Betjeman literary festival but left over disagreements about how it was being run.

He said that one of the new group’s first decisions had been that, rather than trying to encompass as many events in the programme as possible, as had been the style in the last two years, this year’s event would be more exclusive. He said: “We want to be much more exciting and original; it’s not just somewhere to plonk things.

“It’s got to be something that attracts people from outside, rather than just the usual crowd.”

The new team, which also includes Wantage town councillor Jenny Hannaby and arts lovers Yvette Cecil and Ruth Alexander, will hold an open evening upstairs at the King Alfred’s Head in Wantage from 7.30pm next Thursday night.

It has invited arts groups from across the area to go along and ‘pitch’ events, shows or ideas.

Mr Mitchell said his group had already agreed three events would form part of this year’s festival: Ray Collins’s Wantage Carnival, Armed Forces Day celebrations and the Wantage Music Festival competition at Challow Park recital hall.

He also said favourites such as the Lego Expo at the Vale and Downland Museum would still be part.

The month-long celebration of the arts, which has been going for more than two decades and attracts thousands of visitors, has nearly folded twice in four years.

In 2014, long-serving chairman Julia Reynolds stepped down for personal reasons, meaning the 2015 edition did not go ahead.

But that year arts lovers Linda Baines and Sylwia Korsak stepped up to take the reins and transformed the tradition by building a new website, using social media to promote events and making an effort to include young people more in events.

However in September they, too, announced they were stepping down, leaving the festival once more in the lurch.

After Wantage Town Council voted in November not to take the duty upon itself, it looked as if the festival might fold for good.

Mr Mitchell said he had been attracted by the festival’s summer slot in the Wantage cultural calendar, and saw an opportunity to get more people excited about the arts.

He said: “The main thing is we want people to participate in these things.

“A lot of organisations like choral societies are finding it very difficult to attract members because people are very busy these days, but the population of Wantage is expanding and new people are looking for ways to get involved in their community.

“We want all these sorts of organisations, no matter how strange they might be.”

Among the regular summer festival events whose future is uncertain is Dylanfest, previously held at King Alfred’s Academy East Site to celebrate the life of former pupil Dylan Edwards.

After King Alfred’s sold East Site to a housing developer in January, it is not clear what form Dylanfest will take this year or if it will be a part of the summer festival.

Mr Mitchell said one thing that was certain was the brochure, which would be A5 size with eight pages.

The dates for this year’s festival have been provisional set at June 4 to July 7.

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