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Sir Graham Vick, opera director with a highly original vision who was passionate that the art form should ‘release its power for everybody’ – obituary

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 19/07/2021 Telegraph Obituaries
a man wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: Graham Vick on The South Bank Show, 2002 - ITV/Shutterstock © ITV/Shutterstock Graham Vick on The South Bank Show, 2002 - ITV/Shutterstock

Sir Graham Vick, who has died aged 67 from complications of Covid-19, was an opera director who produced thrilling and often controversial stagings in many of the world’s greatest theatres including Glyndebourne, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera, New York; he was also the cofounder in 1987 of what is now Birmingham Opera Company, creating Wozzeck in a warehouse, Candide in a car-parts factory and Fidelio in a big-top.

His work was colourful, buoyant and humorous, though at times he had a dangerously provocative streak. The first Vick staging to achieve widespread recognition was his Madam Butterfly for English National Opera in 1984, which stripped bare Puccini’s sentimental love story to provide instead a powerful and effective tale of western interference in Japanese culture and the casual exploitation of women.

Christianne Stotijn as Tamerlano and Christine Schafer as Asteria in the Royal Opera's production of Handel's Tamerlano directed by Graham Vick - robbie jack/Corbis via Getty Images © Provided by The Telegraph Christianne Stotijn as Tamerlano and Christine Schafer as Asteria in the Royal Opera's production of Handel's Tamerlano directed by Graham Vick - robbie jack/Corbis via Getty Images

It foretold a social conscience and intellectual restlessness that led to him taking the art form into uncharted territory. There was a Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in Copenhagen with a chorus drawn from refugees; a Magic Flute in Italy featuring a bulldozer poised to raze a migrant tent camp; and a Boris Godunov in St Petersburg that contained obvious parallels between the venal 16th-century autocrat who destroys his rivals and the contemporary rule of Vladimir Putin.

In Birmingham Vick reached out to the city’s multi-ethnic population, although that was not always straightforward. “We achieved diverse audiences in Birmingham by setting out to,” he told The Daily Telegraph in 2017. “We didn’t have the audience I wanted, so we reconfigured the company until we got the audience that I did want.” 

Rather than offering well-known works, he provided a challenging repertoire that in 2012 included the world premiere of Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht with four helicopters, an airborne string quartet and a singing camel.

The audience were standing rather than seated in plush seats and often the cast would mingle among them, sometimes engaging with unsuspecting members of the public. Tickets all cost the same price, there were no private receptions for sponsors, and every opera was performed in English. “We spread our nets through the city, pulling people in,” he added.

Vick also cast his own net beyond these shores, enjoying financially lucrative work at opera houses in Chicago, Vienna, Paris and Barcelona that in part helped to subsidise his attachment to Birmingham. He claimed to see his own home for only about two weeks of the year. “I have a fascinating, stimulating career,” he said. “But it comes at a price.”

Nevertheless, his true love remained the holistic nature of the Birmingham company, with whom in the weeks before his death he had been rehearsing Wagner’s RhineGold (he liked to play with opera titles) with a cast of international stars and local volunteers online. “[It] takes away the pain of working in the big opera houses, which always leave you disillusioned,” he concluded of his 34 years there.

Graham Vick was born in Birkenhead, on the Wirral, on December 30 1953, the son of Arnold Vick and his wife Muriel (née Hynes). His older brother, Hedley, became a guitarist with the Swinging Blue Jeans, a band that enjoyed some success at the Cavern Club in Liverpool in the 1960s and 1970s.

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At the age of five he was taken to see Peter Pan at the Liverpool Empire and immediately fell in love with the theatre, adapting J M Barrie’s work for his school play. 

As a teenager he was part of a generation exposed to opera by the nascent BBC Two, which staged new productions in studios with the librettos translated into English. “We were a much poorer world and culturally richer,” he said when reminiscing about his youth.

He was educated at Birkenhead School, sang as a bass lay clerk at Chester Cathedral and studied singing and conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, later describing himself as a frustrated conductor. He dropped out after two years but returned in later years to hold an international chair in opera.

Turning up at Scottish Opera he ran the Opera Go Round offshoot, taking small-scale performances with piano accompaniment to remote parts of the country, before being appointed director of productions in 1984. That lasted three years and included a near-minimalist staging of Carmen with just a wall and a door rising out of the floor at the centre of the stage.

Meanwhile, he was being drawn to Birmingham’s cultural renaissance in the 1980s, finding a local authority willing to support a company that took opera to the people. The result was City of Birmingham Touring Opera, which began life with a production of Verdi’s Falstaff using a mass of 30 hinged trapdoors on a vertiginously raked stage, though, as one observer noted, the secret of its success lay “in the enthusiasm of the acting”. 

Around the turn of the century it evolved into Birmingham Opera Company, continuing to fulfil his vision of engaging with the community.

He joined Glyndebourne in 1994, having made his mark two years earlier with a staging of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades that had been the last new production in the old theatre and was notable for the way that the Countess’s skeleton-backed chair reappeared upside down on the ceiling after her death. His gorgeous interpretation of the composer’s Eugene Onegin was one of the first works in the new house and has been revived on several occasions.

Before long, however, he seemed to tire of the black-tie festival, provoking the wrath of its more traditional patrons, as well as some critics, with a Don Giovanni, in 2000, set on a pile of horse manure. It marked the end of his tenure, though he returned in 2017 with a slick account of Cavalli’s 17th-century matrimonial tale Hipermestra using some of the techniques he had honed in Birmingham, including several bride-and-groom couples wandering around the gardens before the show.

a man holding a sheep: A scene from Hipermestra at Glyndebourne, directed by Graham Vick, 2017 - Tristram Kenton © Provided by The Telegraph A scene from Hipermestra at Glyndebourne, directed by Graham Vick, 2017 - Tristram Kenton

Outside Britain, Vick was happiest in Italy, where he spoke the language fluently. Here again his stages ranged from the seductive opulence of La Scala, Milan, to a pioneering al-fresco opera festival in a renovated little monastery at Batigano, near Grosseto in southern Tuscany. It was there in 1990 that he staged the Italian premiere of Tippett’s King Priam set around a real apple tree and its fruit.

Above all, he remained passionate that opera should be enjoyed by everyone. “You do not need to be educated to be touched, to be moved and excited by opera,” he said in a speech at the Royal Philharmonic Society awards in 2016. “You only need to experience it directly at first hand with nothing getting in the way. It is those of us who make the work whose responsibility it is to remove the barriers and make the connections that will release its power for everybody.”

Graham Vick, a loveable figure with a big smile, was rarely seen in anything other than scruffy clothes. He often spoke of the anxiety and tension surrounding his work. “I’d be bloody stupid if I wasn’t worried,” was a refrain that echoed through many of his interviews. He is survived by the choreographer Ron Howell, his partner and collaborator of many years.

Sir Graham Vick, born December 30 1953, died July 17 2021

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