Obituary: Colin Graham

Opera director who worked with Britten and premiered many new works in the US

Colin Graham, a leading opera director for the past 40 years, had a two-part career. The first was spent in Britain, the second mostly in the US, more specifically at the St Louis Opera, Missouri, where he was artistic director from 1984 until his death at the age of 75.

He was, as it were, brought up professionally as an acolyte of Benjamin Britten, directing most of the stagings of the English Opera Group (EOG), Britten's small opera company, from the 1950s to the 70s. With EOG he was responsible for the premieres of, among others, Britten's church parables - Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968) - and Death in Venice (1973), all as part of the Aldeburgh Festival, and for many of the second productions the composer's earlier works. He also realised Britten's television opera Owen Wingrave (1971).

Graham always said how much he owed to and enjoyed working with Britten. He once commented: "He was a kind of surrogate father to me, there's no doubt about that." They worked well as a team: "When he was conducting a new production, we were absolute equals."

In 1975 EOG was transformed into English Music Theatre, a more adventurous company fashioned by Graham. It was responsible for much innovative work, and was beginning to make a reputation for itself when it was shamefully made redundant five years later by the Arts Council - one of its darkest deeds. That event was probably the most traumatic in Graham's career, and one cause of his decision to move his main activities across the Atlantic.

In the meanwhile, he had been expanding his work in larger houses, particularly at Sadler's Wells Opera which, six years after its move to the London Coliseum in 1968, became the English National Opera. He directed some 25 works for the company, among them memorable productions of operas by Janacek, Britten's Gloriana (1966), Prokofiev's War and Peace (1972), unforgettably, and the premiere of Iain Hamilton's Royal Hunt Of The Sun (1977). All these exploited Graham's superb gift for deploying large forces on a large stage. In 1992, he revived Britten's Death in Venice - very finely - at Covent Garden.

He first worked with the Opera Theatre of St Louis in 1977, and became associate artistic director in 1979, before ascending to the top job five years later. This seasonal company has always been bent on developing native talent, encouraging new works and performing most of its repertory in the vernacular, policies eminently suited to Graham's own ideas on opera. At the same time as he worked in St Louis, off-season he directed in many other centres, most notably in San Francisco, where he oversaw much of the regular repertory, and several new operas, including the premiere of André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire (1998).

Graham's style was almost always traditional with a modern slant. Being a good musician, he seldom strayed far from the wishes of the libretto in hand and he used designers who shared his own views. He also much preferred to work in the language of his audiences. His gift for staging new work stemmed from command of stagecraft and his ability to make the action coincide with the needs of the score in hand.

He also wrote the librettos for several new operas that he directed. For Britten, he provided the text for The Golden Vanity, a "vaudeville" set, like Billy Budd, on a troubled ship; it was first performed by the Vienna Boys' Choir at Aldeburgh in 1967.

Another libretto for Britten, drawn from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, did not see the light of day after the composer abandoned the project. However, it provided the basis for Graham's 57th premiere production, of a setting by David Carlson to be given by Florida Grand Opera in Miami at the end of this month, and in St Louis in June.

Graham was born in Hove, Sussex, educated at Northaw preparatory school in Hertfordshire and then Stowe school, Buckinghamshire, and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (1951-52). As a teenager, he once averred that he wanted to be everything - actor, singer, dancer, composer, writer. He settled at first for singing, but soon realised that his voice was not up to it, so he decided to become a director, starting out as an assistant stage manager with the EOG from 1953, helping on the premiere of Britten's The Turn of the Screw that year in Venice. Eventually Britten accorded him his own production, Noye's Fludde, the children's opera after the Chester miracle play, in 1958.

After numerous new productions and revivals there, he was made an artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival in 1968. The apex of his career at the festival was the premiere of Death in Venice in 1973 with designs by John Piper, a staging later transferred to Covent Garden and the Metropolitan, New York.

Although Graham was quite a stiff taskmaster when working on stage, he was never a director who laid down the law irrevocably. His fertile mind and quick wit nearly always ensured that he appealed at once to the mind and to the senses. Involvement with an audience was of the essence in all he achieved during a long and fruitful life dedicated to his chosen art. He became a US citizen, and in 2002 was awarded the OBE.

· Colin Graham, opera director and librettist, born September 22 1931; died April 6 2007


Alan Blyth

The GuardianTramp

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