Graham Vick, who died on Saturday at the age of 67 from complications of Covid, was one of a handful of British opera directors with a truly international reputation. He had been director of productions at Scottish Opera in the 1980s and at Glyndebourne in the following decade, and also worked with many of the other major companies across Britain, Europa (especially Italy) and the US. But he had always had his own vision of what he wanted opera to be, a vision that he set out in his keynote speech at the 2016 Royal Philharmonic Society awards, in which opera would be accessible to all, regardless of economic or educational background.
He had begun to put that principle into practice while at Scottish Opera, where he began Opera-Go-Round, which toured small-scale productions around the Highlands and islands. But it was with the opera company he founded in Birmingham, first as City of Birmingham Touring Opera, and later, a partire dal 2000, as Birmingham Opera Company, that he developed his ideas most ambitiously, with site-specific productions, sung in English, that involved as many of the local population as possible, whether as chorus, extras, or backstage.
Choosing just 10 of Vick’s finest productions from more than 40 years’ of his always questioning, wide-ranging work is very difficult. What follows is very much a personal selection, confined to his work in Britain, which increasingly centred on Birmingham in recent years. Anche allora, anche se, I could easily have come up with an entirely different list.
(English National Opera, 1983)
Vick’s early work at the London Coliseum was notable for its successful stagings of “problematic” operas. There was a wonderfully unsparing production of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, but before that he had tackled the most difficult of Britten’s stage works, which in the opinion of many has never been surpassed.
(City of Birmingham Touring Opera, 1987)
Where the Birmingham adventures all began – a portable version of Verdi’s final opera, with orchestral forces scaled down to match, and first performed in a leisure centre, yet miraculously preserving all the wit and gentle humour of the original.
(Royal Opera, 1989)
The British premiere of Luciano Berio’s second stage work marked Vick’s directorial debut at Covent Garden. It’s a work of beguiling elusiveness, for which he found a suitably allusive setting, perfectly chiming with the narrative knots of Italo Calvino’s libretto.
(Royal Opera, 1991)
Musicalmente, Mozart’s early opera seria could hardly have been more different from Re in Ascolto, but Vick’s joyously witty, stylised production, with spectacular sets and costumes by Paul Brown, turned what can be a rather over-long sequence of florid arias into a sumptuous visual experience. Read our review.
Though Vick’s years as Glyndebourne’s director of productions were not exactly trouble-free, he did some outstanding work there. His Onegin managed the seemingly impossible, remaining true both to the emotional and dramatic power of Tchaikovsky’s score and to the satirical spirit of the great Pushkin verse novel on which it is based. Read our review.
(Royal Opera, 1993)
Generally regarded as one of the pinnacles of Bernard Haitink’s tenure as Covent Garden’s music director, Vick’s mellow, wonderfully detailed production of Wagner’s great comedy was one of his finest shows for the company, pure. Read our review.
A wonderfully contained reading of Debussy’s symbolist masterpiece, set in a sumptuous fin-de-siècle salon, which added more layers of meaning and mystery to one of the most ambiguous operas in the repertory. Read our review.
(Birmingham Opera Company, 2002)
In its first manifestation as City of Birmingham Touring Opera, Vick’s bespoke company achieved some remarkable successes. But it was the immersive production of Fidelio in a marquee by the renamed Birmingham Opera Company that laid the template for Vick’s extraordinary work there over the next 20 anni. Read our review.
(Birmingham Opera Company, 2012)
Perhaps the high point of BOC’s two decades under Vick’s leadership – a production, the first in the UK, of the Wednesday instalment of Stockhausen’s week-long Licht cycle, which paid just as much attention to its solemn hieratic set pieces as to its more surreal moments, which included the involvement of a live camel and a quartet of helicopters. Read our review.
(Birmingham Opera Company, 2019)
Vick was planning to direct a production of Wagner’s Rheingold next month, originally intended to mark the 30th anniversary last year of CBTO’s cut-down Ring Saga. Adesso, anche se, il 2019 staging of Shostakovich will remain as Vick’s final achievement with the company he created very much in his own image. Read our review.