Although lead opera director Sir Graham Vick, who died of complications from Covid-19 at age 67, has worked on many of the world’s most prestigious stages, he has led the way with his own brand of productions on a low budget in unconventional places. There, he rejects sumptuous staging in favor of an emotionally charged dramaturgy, psychologically revealing, often interactive.
At the time of his death he was artistic director of the Birmingham Opera Company (BOC, formerly the City of Birmingham Touring Opera), which he founded in 1987, energetically creating groundbreaking works initially in sites such as hangars in planes, power plants and nightclubs. . The company eventually got its own theater in a converted ice rink, which city council agreed to renovate and manage.
His lecture to the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2003, partially reprinted in The Guardian, was a manifesto for his unwavering determination to broaden the social appeal of opera. Without ruling out the possibility of more country house operas, he urged companies to make their work known to the wider community for the well-being of the art form as well as society. herself.
Dedicated to pushing the boundaries of opera by embracing the contemporary world in all its richness and diversity, Vick and the BOC have mounted more than 50 productions, starting with a light Falstaff (the reduced orchestration was by Jonathan Dove) in 1987.
Ravi Shankar’s Ghanashyam (1989), an Indo-European cultural fusion with dance and mime, in the presence of former Beatles and Shankar enthusiast George Harrison, came next, followed by The Ring Saga (1990), another collaboration with Dove, reducing this time an epic masterpiece to 10 hours of music spread over two evenings, with 12 singers and only 18 orchestral musicians. He toured halls and sports centers across the country. Life Is a Dream, by Dove himself, premiered in 2012.
Over 200 local people participated in Fidelio (2002), with each participant placing a black bag over their head, to better understand the experience of Florestan being imprisoned in total darkness. The goal was not just to engage and excite the audience, Vick said, but to examine how the work could be explored and better understood.
Vick’s first significant appointment was as Production Manager for Scottish Opera (1984-1987), where his provocative streak – in his Don Giovanni, for example, the titular anti-hero, disguised as Leporello, plunged Masetto’s head in the toilet – was not always appreciated.
His willingness to operate on shoestring budgets, on the other hand, not only found favor with management, but allowed him to focus on what he saw as the fundamentals of opera, stripped of all the details. and pretension of embellishment. At this time he also worked occasionally in London, with a Madame Butterfly for ENO (1984) which was attentive to the problems of sexual and cultural imperialism and a production of Un Re de Berio à Ascolto in Covent Garden (1989) set on stage like a tumultuous play. rehearsal with booming acrobats and trapeze artists.
But by this time he had formed the BOC, which would play such an important role in his future career. He has also worked with the Musica nel Chiostro company, formed by Adam Pollock in Batignano, Tuscany alongside other emerging talents such as directors Richard Jones and Tim Albery, and designers Anthony Macdonald, Tom Cairns and Richard Hudson. There, the backdrop of the old monastic buildings served as the backdrop, with the audience often wandering from one performance space to another between acts.
After making a triumphant debut at Glyndebourne in 1992 with Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades – a prominent death angel on the entrance curtain at first, and skulls and skeletons in the demonic gambling den at the end signifying all the neurotic pathology of the work – he held the position of director of productions there from 1994 to 2000. In this role, he led the company in the new house with Eugène Onegin who emphasized non-isolation. only Onegin but also Tatiana and Olga. Other Glyndebourne productions include the UK premiere of Cavalli’s Hipermestra (2017), which touchingly affirmed the power of music in the face of inhumanity.
Born in Birkenhead, Merseyside, Graham was the younger of two sons of Muriel (née Hynes) and Arnold Vick. He had a formative experience at the age of 12 when he saw Tito Gobbi on television tap into the resources of makeup and acting to become the character of Gianni Schicchi or Scarpia. He was “hit, totally and totally,” he recalls. He later enthusiastically attended touring productions by Glyndebourne, Welsh National Opera and Sadler’s Wells. Graham attended Birkenhead School and trained as a singer, serving as a bass clerk at Chester Cathedral. He then studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, with the aim of becoming a conductor.
Joining the Scottish Opera as a producer, he founded an initiative called Opera Go Round, which took opera accompanied by piano by bus to remote areas of Scotland. He was also briefly associate director of the English Music Theater (which emerged from the English Opera Group) under Colin Graham until the company’s dissolution in 1980.
While the boundary-pushing productions he made for Scottish Opera and later for the BOC allowed him to indulge his passion for socially useful, adventurous and stimulating work, he was also ready to step into the citadels of privilege he so fervently denounced – even if only to subsidize the least lucrative projects. There too, his productions could be daring, even if they were sometimes disappointingly conservative.
His work for ENO was generally high profile, with Ariane on Naxos, Butterfly, Eugene Onegin and The Marriage of Figaro, under the title Figaro’s Wedding (the latter being most memorable for his playing of the charades of the final act in just one imaginary darkness, so that the audience can observe the stumbles and gropings) among his finest achievements.
His Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg for Covent Garden in 1993, which was frequently repeated, however, had more mixed success. The staging of the riot in Act II was undeniably a tour de force: bodies writhing as if a painting by Hieronymus Bosch had come to life, some springing from the foreground, others coming to life. dangling dangerously from the ceiling. But for all its acrobatic virtuosity, the production surprisingly lacked convincing staging. He also did not engage in the darker undersides of the work, potentially toxic nationalism and racial exclusion.
Another notable Wagner production was that of Tristan und Isolde, unveiled at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 2011. An ingenious division of the stage involving glass doors and skillful lighting suggested a transcendent inner world, an alternate reality to the mundane domestic sphere. with leather sofa and kitchen table.
Other productions for Covent Garden included Mozart’s Mitridate (1991), the exaggerated basket skirts conveying more than a hint of caricature, a contemporary realization of Tippett’s Midsummer’s wedding (1996) and a boisterous and screaming Falstaff (1999), with Bryn Terfel Supreme in the title role. He has also worked on many major international stages including the Metropolitan, New York (Lady Macbeth de Mtsensk), La Scala (Macbeth and Otello), the Mariinsky, the Paris Opera and Rome. His life-size ring has been seen in Lisbon and Palermo. His new production of Das Rheingold for BOC is expected to open at the end of this month.
His many honors included a knight awarded in this year’s New Year’s Honors List. The choreographer of many of his productions was his surviving life partner Ron Howell, as well as his brother, Hedley, a former member of the pop group Swinging Blue Jeans.