Last Updated on July 22, 2021 by MyGh.Online
Though the leading opera director Sir Graham Vick, who has died aged 67 from complications of Covid-19, worked on many of the world’s most prestigious stages, he also blazed a trail with his own brand of low-budget productions in unconventional venues. There he rejected lavish mises-en-scènes in favour of emotionally charged, psychologically revealing, often interactive, dramaturgy.
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 work initially in such sites as aircraft hangars, power stations and nightclubs. The company eventually obtained its own theatre in a converted ice-rink, which the city council agreed to refurbish and run.
His lecture to the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2003, reprinted in part in the Guardian, was a manifesto for his unflagging determination to broaden the social appeal of opera. Without excluding the possibility of more country-house opera, he urged companies to take their work to the wider community for the well-being of the art form as much as society itself.
Dedicated to pushing the boundaries of opera by embracing the contemporary world in all its richness and diversity, Vick and the BOC mounted more than 50 productions, beginning with a slimmed-down Falstaff (the reduced orchestration was by Jonathan Dove) in 1987.
Ravi Shankar’s Ghanashyam (1989), an Indo-European cultural fusion with dance and mime, attended by the former Beatle and Shankar enthusiast George Harrison, came next, followed by The Ring Saga (1990), another collaboration with Dove, this time reducing Wagner’s epic masterpiece to 10 hours of music spread over two evenings, with 12 singers and just 18 orchestral players. It toured halls and sports centres around the country. Life Is a
Dream, by Dove himself, was premiered in 2012.
More than 200 local people took part in Fidelio (2002), each participant placing a black bag over his or her head, the better to empathise with Florestan’s experience of imprisonment in total darkness. The aim was not only to involve audiences, Vick said, but to examine how the work could be more deeply understood.
Vick’s first major appointment was as director of productions for Scottish Opera (1984–87), where his provocative streak – in his Don Giovanni, for example, the titular anti-hero, disguised as Leporello, dunked Masetto’s head in a toilet – was not always appreciated.
His willingness to operate on shoestring budgets, on the other hand, not only found favour with management but enabled him to focus on what he regarded as the fundamentals of opera, stripped of all embellishing detail and pretension. At this period he also worked occasionally in London, with a Madam Butterfly for ENO (1984) that was alert to the issues of sexual and cultural imperialism and a realisation of Berio’s Un Re in Ascolto at Covent Garden (1989) staged as a riotous theatrical rehearsal with acrobats and trapeze artists in full swing.
But by this time he had formed the BOC, which was to play such an important part in his future career. He also worked with the company Musica nel Chiostro, formed by Adam Pollock at Batignano in Tuscany alongside other emerging talents such as the directors Richard Jones and Tim Albery, and designers Anthony Macdonald, Tom Cairns and Richard Hudson. There the backdrop of former monastic buildings served as scenery, the audience often perambulating from one performing space to another between acts.
Having made a triumphant debut at Glyndebourne in 1992 with Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades – a death-angel prominent over the front curtain at the beginning, and skulls and skeletons in the demonic gambling den at the end all signifying the neurotic pathology of the work – he took the post of director of productions there from 1994 to 2000. In this role he led the company into the new house with a probing Eugene Onegin that emphasised the isolation of not only Onegin but also Tatyana and Olga. Other productions for Glyndebourne included that for the UK premiere of Cavalli’s Hipermestra (2017), which movingly asserted the power of music in the face of inhumanity.
Born in Birkenhead, Merseyside, Graham was the younger of two sons of Muriel (nee Hynes) and Arnold Vick. He had a formative experience at the age of 12 when he saw Tito Gobbi on television drawing on the resources of makeup and acting to become the character of Gianni Schicchi or Scarpia. He was “struck, utterly and totally”, he recalled. Later he enthusiastically attended touring productions of Glyndebourne, Welsh National Opera and Sadler’s Wells. Graham went to Birkenhead school and trained as a singer, serving as a bass lay clerk at Chester Cathedral. He subsequently studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, with the aim of becoming a conductor.
Joining Scottish Opera as a staff producer, he founded an initiative called Opera Go Round, which took piano-accompanied opera by bus to remote parts of Scotland. He also briefly acted as an associate director with the English Music Theatre (which emerged from the English Opera Group) under the leadership of Colin Graham until the company was disbanded in 1980.
While the boundary-pushing productions he did for Scottish Opera and later the BOC allowed him to indulge his passion for work that was socially useful, he was also prepared to enter the very citadels of privilege he so fervently denounced – even if only to subsidise the less lucrative projects. There too his productions could be daring, though occasionally they were disappointingly conservative.
His work for ENO was generally on a high level, with Ariadne on Naxos, Butterfly, Eugene Onegin and The Marriage of Figaro, under the title Figaro’s Wedding (the latter most memorable for its playing out of the final-act charades in only imagined darkness, so that the audience could observe the stumbling and groping), among his finest achievements.
His frequently revived 1993 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg for Covent Garden, however, was a more mixed success. The staging of the Act II riot was, undeniably, a tour de force: bodies writhing as though a painting by Hieronymus Bosch had come alive, some dangling perilously from the ceiling. But for all its acrobatic virtuosity, the production was lacking in convincing stagecraft. Nor did it engage with the work’s darker underside of potentially toxic nationalism and racial exclusion.
Another notable Wagner production was that of Tristan und Isolde, unveiled at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, in 2011. An ingenious division of the stage involving glass doors and skilful lighting suggested an interior, transcendent world, an alternative reality to the mundane domestic sphere with leather sofa and kitchen table.
Other productions for Covent Garden included Mozart’s Mitridate (1991), the exaggerated panniered skirts conveying more than a hint of caricature, a contemporary-dress realisation of Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage (1996) and a riotous Falstaff (1999), with Bryn Terfel supreme in the title role. He also worked on many major international stages including the Metropolitan, New York (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk), La Scala (Macbeth and Otello), the Mariinsky, Paris Opera and Rome. His full-scale Ring was seen in Lisbon and Palermo. His new production of Das Rheingold for BOC is due to open at the end of this month.
His numerous honours included a knighthood awarded in this years’s New Year honours list. The choreographer of many of his productions was his life partner, Ron Howell, who survives him, along with his brother, Hedley, a one-time member of the Swinging Blue Jeans pop group.
Graham Vick, opera director, born 30 December 1953; died 17 July 2021