Graham Vick, director who opened opera's doors, dies at 67
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Graham Vick, director who opened opera's doors, dies at 67
Graham Vick at the Metropolitan Opera, where he directed a production of “Il Trovatore," in New York on Dec. 4, 2000. Vick, a British opera director who worked at prestigious houses like the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala while also seeking to broaden opera’s appeal by staging works in abandoned rock clubs and former factories and by bringing more diversity to casting, died of complications of COVID-19 on Saturday, July 17, 2021, in London. He was 67. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Alex Marshall

LONDON (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Graham Vick, a British opera director who worked at prestigious houses such as the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City and La Scala in Milan while also seeking to broaden opera’s appeal by staging works in abandoned rock clubs and former factories and by bringing more diversity to casting, died Saturday in London. He was 67.

The cause was complications of COVID-19, the Birmingham Opera Company, which he founded, said in a news release.

Vick spent much of the pandemic in Crete, Greece, and returned to Britain in June to take part in rehearsals for a Birmingham Opera production of Wagner’s “Das Rhinegold,” Jonathan Groves, his agent, said in a telephone interview.

Vick was artistic director at the company, which he saw as a vehicle to bring opera to everyone. His productions there, which were in English, often included amateur performers. And he insisted on keeping ticket prices low so that anyone could attend and on hiring singers who reflected the ethnic diversity of Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city. His immersive production of Verdi’s “Otello” in 2009 featured Ronald Samm, the first Black tenor to sing the title role in a professional production in Britain.

The company never held VIP receptions because Vick believed that no audience member should be seen as above any other.

“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 Music Awards in 2016. “You only need to experience it directly at first hand, with nothing getting in the way.”

Opera makers must “remove the barriers and make the connections that will release its power for everybody,” he added.

Oliver Mears, the Royal Opera House’s director of opera, said in a statement that Vick had been “a true innovator in the way he integrated community work into our art form.”

“Many people from hugely diverse backgrounds love opera — and first experienced it — through his work,” he said.

Graham Vick was born Dec. 30, 1953, in Birkenhead, near Liverpool. His father, Arnold, worked in a clothing store, while his mother Muriel (Hynes) Vick worked in the personnel department of a factory. His love of the stage bloomed at age 5 when he saw a production of “Peter Pan.”

“It was a complete road-to-Damascus moment,” he told The Times of London in 2014. “Everything was there — the flight through the window into another world, a bigger world.”

Opera gave him similar opportunities to “fly, soar, breathe and scream,” he said.

Vick studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, intending to become a conductor. But he turned to directing and created his first production at 22. Two years later, he directed a production of Gustav Holst’s “Savitri” for Scottish Opera and soon became its director of productions.

With Scottish Opera, he quickly showed his desire to bring opera to local communities. He led Opera-Go-Round, an initiative in which a small troupe traveled to remote parts of Scotland’s Highlands and islands, often performing with just piano accompaniment. He also brought opera singers to factories to perform during lunch breaks.

Vick became director of productions at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1994. That same year, he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera House with a raucous staging of Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” the first time the company performed the opera. He also directed Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” and “Il Trovatore” at the Met.

Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times called Vick’s “Moses und Aron” “a starkly modern yet poignantly human staging.”

Vick put on his first production at La Scala in 1996, directing Luciano Berio’s “Outis.” In 1999, after a multiyear renovation and expansion, he reopened London’s Royal Opera House with Verdi’s “Falstaff.”

Some of his productions received mixed or even harsh reviews. “Stalin was right,” Edward Rothstein wrote in The Times in reviewing “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” in 1994, calling Vick’s production “crude, primitive, vulgar,” just as Stalin had done with Shostakovich’s original. Just as often they were praised, however.

Despite Vick’s success at traditional opera houses, he sometimes criticized them. “They’re huge, glamorous, fabulous, seductive institutions, but they’re also a dangerous black hole where great art can so easily become self-serving product,” he told the BBC in 2012.

Vick’s work at the Birmingham Opera Company, which he founded in 1987, was celebrated in Britain for its bold vision. Its first production, another “Falstaff,” was staged inside a recreation center in the city; other productions took place in a burned-out ballroom above a shopping center and in an abandoned warehouse.

Vick decided to use amateurs after rehearsing a Rossini opera in Pesaro, Italy, in the 1990s. It was so hot and airless one day, he recalled in a 2003 lecture, that he opened the theater’s doors to the street and was shocked to see a group of teenagers stop their soccer game and watch, transfixed.

“To reach this kind of constituency in Birmingham, we decided to recruit members of the community into our work,” he said. People who bought tickets should see reflections of themselves onstage and in the production team, he added.

Vick kept returning to Birmingham because, he said, it was only there, “in the glorious participation of audience and performers,” that he felt whole.

The company was praised not only for its inclusivity. Its 2009 staging of “Otello” “gets you in the heart and the guts,” Rian Evans wrote in The Guardian. And Mark Swed, in the Los Angeles Times, called Vick’s production of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Mittwoch aus Licht” in 2012 “otherworldly.” (It included string players performing in helicopters and a camel, and was part of Britain’s 2012 Olympic Games celebrations.)

“If opera is meant to change your perception of what is possible and worthwhile, to dream the impossible dream and all that, then this is clearly the spiritually uplifting way to do it,” Swed added.

Vick, who died in a hospital, is survived by his partner, choreographer Ron Howell, and an older brother, Hedley.

In his speech at the Royal Philharmonic Society awards, Vick urged those in the opera world to “get out of our ghetto” and follow the Birmingham example in trying to reflect the community where a company is based.

People need to “embrace the future and help build a world we want to live in,” he said, “not hide away fiddling while Rome burns.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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