ROBIN Martin-Oliver is a man on a mission. The former opera singer and director, now principal of the local Stagecoach theatre school, wants to turn Witney into a vibrant centre for the arts to match neighbouring towns.

Since the closure of the Corn Exchange in November 2011, Witney has been lagging behind towns such as Chipping Norton, Didcot, Abingdon and Wantage in terms of arts provision, and Robin is determined to try to redress the balance.

“Witney is the only town of any size in Oxfordshire that has nothing,” he said.

“It’s a black hole for the arts. There’s some ad hoc stuff, with people doing a bit of music and a bit of theatre, but essentially there’s zero.”

Two years ago Robin set up Witney Arts (Warts) in a bid to increase arts activity in the town, but his hopes of securing a district council-owned building in Station Lane and transforming it into a permanent arts centre have come to nothing, leaving him both angry and frustrated.

“We were in discussions with West Oxfordshire District Council for over a year, and we visited the premises several times, but at the end of it all they gave it to someone else, as a commercial let.

“I’m not knocking it if that’s their policy, but if we had a theatre here in Witney, the town would benefit from that financially. People would stay here, people would eat here.

“But with anything to do with theatre and the arts, it seems the council isn’t interested.”

Warts, meanwhile, has been forced to lead a nomadic existence, hiring rehearsal and performance spaces as required.

The company has put on two productions, the pantomime Sinbad and the Diamond Princess and a youth production of West Side Story, but Robin has far greater ambitions.

He said: “One of my aspirations for Witney Arts was to bring people and companies into the town, including professional companies from London, but a lot of companies won’t come to a place that hasn’t got a theatre.

“There is a demand here, because people go to Oxford and Cheltenham and London, so why not have things going on in Witney as well?

“I’m sure people would be delighted not to have to go to these places and pay huge parking and travel expenses.

“We’ve got so many professional actors in the area, people who would probably put their expertise behind a professional theatre. The possibilities are huge.”

Robin’s passion for the arts is rooted firmly in his childhood, with music a part of his life from a very early age.

He said: “I started singing in my pram, according to my mum. She says I was always singing, and kept myself happy like that.

“My father was very musical, but never really pursued it.

“He was particularly encouraging of my musical activities, paying for piano lessons when they couldn’t really afford it.

“He sang songs to us all the time, and had the ability to learn songs with loads of verses.”

Robin started playing the piano and clarinet at the age of eight, but singing was his main interest.

He sang solos in his school and local church choirs, progressing from there to a cathedral choir and then to the Royal Northern College of Music.

After graduating, he was instantly snapped up by Glyndebourne Opera, and spent the next 16 years performing with all the major UK opera companies, both here and abroad.

As a counter-tenor, he was particularly in demand for Handel and Vivaldi operas and others in the baroque repertoire, as well as contemporary opera “I was lucky to do all that and I really enjoyed it,” he said.

“The frustration of being that kind of voice, though, is that you are limited, because there’s nothing from the 19th century that you can do. It would be nonsense to have a counter-tenor in a 19th-century opera.”

From performing, Robin took the next logical step and moved into directing.

“I felt like I’d done my performing stint and really wanted to have more control over what I did,” he said.

“As a singer, you’re treated a bit like a pawn – you get moved around and if you don’t take that job, somebody else will.

“There’s a huge pressure to stay up there and ultimately that probably wasn’t me.

“I often worked with directors and thought, ‘I could direct this better than that’, which was probably very arrogant.”

As a director, Robin found himself working once again with major opera companies alongside the likes of Peter Hall and Tim Albery, and singers such as Felicity Lott and Thomas Allen.

“When you work at Glyndebourne, you get to work with a lot of these people. I was lucky enough to work with some very well-known people, and it was interesting to be on that side of the fence,” he said.

Did he ever encounter a battle of egos?

“Yes, quite often. Particularly with tenors — they can be very prima donna-ish,” he added.

“One of the things I found was that people still saw me as a singer, not as a director, so it’s as though they didn’t quite respect my authority. But even directors who had not been singers had that problem too.”

After four years Robin decided to strike out on his own, and for the next 14 years he ran his own small-scale opera company, which took productions into a range of venues, from community centres to hotels.

These days, he runs the Stagecoach theatre arts school, using space at The King’s School, in New Yatt Road, Witney, as well as teaching pupils and running three choirs – and he shows little sign of slowing down.

“It’s my life, it’s my passion, I love it. When I see people enjoying it, and youngsters achieving things, that’s immensely rewarding.”

As for Witney Arts, Robin is cautious: “At the moment, we’re just kind of ‘where do we go from here?’. But we haven’t given up yet.”

  • For more information, see or call Robin on 07890 948122