Graham Vick, director who opened the doors to opera, dies at 67

Opera theater

LONDON – Graham Vick, a British opera director who has worked at prestigious houses like the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala while seeking to broaden the appeal of opera by staging works in abandoned rock clubs and old factories and bringing more diversity to the cast, died Saturday in London. He was 67 years old.

The cause was the complications of Covid-19, the Birmingham Opera Company, which he founded, declared in a press release.

Mr Vick spent much of the coronavirus pandemic in Crete, Greece, and returned to Britain in June to participate in rehearsals for a Birmingham opera production. Wagner’s “Das Rhinegold” Jonathan Groves, his agent, said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Vick was the artistic director of the company, which he saw as a way to bring opera to everyone. His productions there, which were in English, often included amateur artists. And he insisted that ticket prices stay low for everyone to attend, and to hire singers who reflect the ethnically diverse nature of Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city. His the immersive production of “Otello” by Verdi in 2009, with Ronald Samm, the first black tenor to sing the title role in a professional production in Great Britain.

The company never hosted VIP parties because Mr. Vick believed that no member of the public should be considered superior to another.

“You don’t have to be educated to be touched, moved and excited by opera,” he said in a speech at the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards in 2016. “You just have to experience it firsthand, without anything getting in your way. “

Opera creators must “break down the barriers and make the connections that will unleash its power for everyone,” he added.

Oliver Mears, Opera Director of the Royal Opera House, said in a press release that Mr. Vick had been “a true innovator in the way he integrated community work into our art form“.

“Many people from a wide variety of backgrounds love opera – and have experienced it for the first time – through his work,” he said.

Graham Vick was born on December 30, 1953 in Birkenhead, near Liverpool. Her father, Arnold, worked in a clothing store, while her mother Muriel (Hynes) Vick worked in the personnel department of a factory. His love of the stage blossomed at the age of 5 when he saw a production of “Peter Pan”.

“It was a complete moment on the road to Damascus”, he told the Times of London in 2014. “It was all there – the flight through the window into another world, a bigger world.”

Opera gave him similar opportunities to “fly, soar, breathe and scream,” he said.

Mr. Vick studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, with the intention of becoming a conductor. But he turned to directing and created his first production at 22. Two years later, he directed a production of Gustav Holst’s “Savitri” for the Scottish Opera and quickly became its production manager.

With Scottish Opera, he quickly showed his desire to bring opera to local communities. He led Opera-Go-Round, an initiative in which a small troupe traveled to remote areas of the Highlands and Isles of Scotland, often performing only with piano accompaniment. He also brought opera singers to factories to perform during lunch breaks.

Some of his productions have received mixed or even severe reviews. “Stalin was right,” Edward Rothstein wrote in The Times in his 1994 review of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, calling Mr. Vick’s production “crude, primitive, vulgar,” just as Stalin had done with the original by Shostakovich. Just as often, they were praised, however.

Despite Mr. Vick’s success in traditional operas, he sometimes criticized them. “They are huge, glamorous, fabulous and alluring institutions, but they are also a dangerous black hole where great art can so easily become a selfish product.” he told the BBC in 2012.

Mr. Vick’s work at the Birmingham Opera Company, which he founded in 1987, was celebrated in Britain for his daring vision. His first production, another “Falstaff”, was staged in a city recreation center; other productions took place in a burnt-out ballroom above a shopping center and in an abandoned warehouse.

Mr. Vick decided to use amateurs after rehearsing an opera by Rossini in Pesaro, Italy in the 1990s. It was so hot and airless one day it recalled in a 2003 conference, that he opened the doors of the theater to the street and that he was shocked to see a group of teenagers stop their football game and watch, dumbfounded.

“To achieve this type of constituency in Birmingham, we decided to recruit community members into our work,” he said. People who bought tickets should be reflected on stage and in the production team, he added.

Mr. Vick kept coming back to Birmingham because, he said, it was only there, “in the glorious participation of the public and the artists”, that he felt whole.

The company was praised not only for its inclusiveness. His 2009 staging of “Otello” “puts you in your heart and guts”, Rian Evans wrote in The Guardian. And Mark Swed, in the Los Angeles Times, called Mr. Vick’s production “Karlheinz Stockhausen’s“ Mittwoch aus Licht ”in 2012”from another world. “(It included string players playing in helicopters and a camel, and was part of the 2012 Olympics celebrations in Britain.)

“If opera is meant to change your perception of what is possible and useful, to dream the impossible dream and all that, then this is clearly the spiritually uplifting way to do it,” added Swed.

Mr. Vick, who died in hospital, is survived by his partner, choreographer Ron Howell, and an older brother, Hedley.

In his speech at the Royal Philharmonic Society awards, Mr Vick urged actors in the opera world to “get out of our ghetto” and follow Birmingham’s lead in trying to reflect the community in which a company is based.

People must “embrace the future and help build a world we want to live in”, he said, “not hide and play while Rome burns”.