Maestro, cue the camel: Graham Vick’s greatest opera productions

The opera director, who has died aged 67, had a vision of making the art form accessible to all. From Falstaff in a leisure centre to Stockhausen with real helicopters, here are his most ambitious, innovative stagings

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, Europe (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.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, 2019.
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Birmingham Opera Company, 2019). Photograph: Adam Fradgley/Exposure

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, from 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. Even then, though, I could easily have come up with an entirely different list.

The Rape of Lucretia

(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.

Falstaff

(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.

Un Re in Ascolto

(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.

Sumptuous ... Ann Murray (Sifare) and Yvonne Kenny (Aspasia) in Mitridate Rè Di Ponto by Mozart at the Royal Opera House.
Sumptuous ... Ann Murray (Sifare) and Yvonne Kenny (Aspasia) in Mitridate Rè Di Ponto by Mozart at the Royal Opera House. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Mitridate, Rè di Ponto

(Royal Opera, 1991)
Musically, 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.

Eugene Onegin

(Glyndebourne, 1994)
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.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

(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, too. Read our review.

Pelléas et Mélisande

(Glyndebourne, 1999)
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.

Fidelio

(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 years. Read our review.

Mittwoch aus Licht

(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 real live camel and a quartet of helicopters. Read our review.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

(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. Now, though, the 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.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

The UK's leading opera maestros in conversation - video

What does it take to be a musical director of a leading opera house? Glyndebourne's Vladimir Jurowski, ENO's Ed Gardner and the Royal Opera House's Tony Pappano met last month for a lively and illuminating discussion

Alice Salfield and Richard Sprenger

11, May, 2011 @8:01 AM

Article image
Why is it such a struggle for new voices to be heard in the old world of English opera? | Erica Jeal
Many think of it as people singing loudly over a huge orchestra, but opera can be so much more, says Guardian music critic Erica Jeal

Erica Jeal

01, May, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
The week in classical: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Kátya Kabanová; Haitink at 90 – review
Birmingham Opera Company excels with an unforgettable Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. At Scottish Opera, a great season for Kátya Kabanová continues

Fiona Maddocks

16, Mar, 2019 @3:00 PM

Article image
Inside Opera: Live stream hopes to widen access to UK's opera houses

Online linkup between all seven public-funded companies will be streamed on YouTube and aims to find younger audience

Imogen Tilden

05, May, 2014 @4:03 PM

Article image
A year since our concert halls fell silent, what future for classical music?
As UK culture eyes a slow and cautious return, what can we expect from our opera houses and orchestras, many of which have failed to seize the digital opportunities this past year

Andrew Clements

19, Mar, 2021 @10:24 AM

Article image
Wonder breaks the silence: pop, rock and classical music for 2021
Cardi B pushes into Beyoncé’s turf and Sleaford Mods tot up the cost of Covid, while UK orchestras head back to the concert hall – our critics look ahead to big music moments

Alexis Petridis and Andrew Clements

28, Dec, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Renowned opera director Graham Vick dies from Covid complications aged 67
Tributes paid to director who sought fresh classical audiences with pioneering productions and outreach programmes

Guardian music

18, Jul, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
Chorus of boos for state of English National Opera | Letters
Letters: It’s time all those working in the arts stood up fo fairer pay, rather than accept the expectation they ought to be grateful to simply have work

Letters

19, Feb, 2016 @5:44 PM

Letters: Arts funding, opera and all that jazz
Letters: The notion of a portfolio of organisations is flawed and appears to have the air of a hedge fund about it

21, Jan, 2013 @9:00 PM

Article image
Otello: opera, identity politics and blacking-up
Opera companies now eschew the once traditional black makeup for the lead in Verdi’s masterpiece, but it remains a controversial issue that highlights the need to nurture more diverse talent

Alison Kinney

15, Jun, 2017 @12:13 PM