LONDON – Graham Vick, a British opera director who has worked on prestigious houses such as the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala in Milan while trying to add to the appeal of the opera by staging works in abandoned rock clubs and former factories and adding more diversity to the cast , died on Saturday in London. He was 67.
The cause were complications from Covid-19, said the Birmingham Opera Company, which he founded, in a press release.
Mr Vick spent much of the coronavirus pandemic in Crete, Greece, and returned to the UK in June to rehearse for a production of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” at the Birmingham Opera, his agent Jonathan Groves said in one Telephone interview.
Mr. Vick was the Artistic Director at the company, which he saw as a means of bringing opera to everyone. His productions there, which were in English, often included amateur actors. And he insisted on keeping ticket prices low so everyone could attend and hiring singers who reflected the ethnic diversity of Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city. In his 2009 immersive production of Verdi’s “Otello” played Ronald Samm, the first black tenor to sing the title role in a professional production in the UK.
The company never hosted VIP receptions because Mr. Vick believed that no spectator should stand above the other.
“You don’t have to be educated to be touched, touched and thrilled by opera,” he said in a 2016 speech at the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards. “
Opera makers must “remove the barriers and make connections that unleash their power for all,” he added.
Oliver Mears, the opera director at the Royal Opera House, said in a statement that Mr. Vick was “a real innovator in the way he has incorporated community work into our art form”.
“Many people from very different backgrounds love opera – and experienced it for the first time through his work,” he said.
Graham Vick was born on December 30, 1953 in Birkenhead near Liverpool. His father Arnold worked in a clothing store while his mother Muriel (Hynes) Vick worked in the human resources department of a factory. His love for the stage blossomed at the age of 5 when he saw a production of “Peter Pan”.
“It was a complete way to Damascus,” 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, hover, breathe, and scream,” he said.
Mr. Vick graduated from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England with the intention of becoming a conductor. But he turned to directing and realized his first production at the age of 22. Two years later he directed a production of Gustav Holst’s “Savitri” for the Scottish Opera and soon became its production manager.
With Scottish Opera, he quickly showed his desire to bring opera to the local communities. He led Opera-Go-Round, an initiative in which a small troupe traveled to remote parts of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and often only performed with piano accompaniment. He also brought opera singers to the factories to perform during lunch breaks.
Some of his productions received mixed or even harsh reviews. “Stalin was right,” wrote Edward Rothstein in the Times in a review of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” in 1994, calling Mr. Vicck’s production “raw, primitive, vulgar”, just as Stalin had done with Shostakovich’s original. But they were praised just as often.
Despite his success at traditional opera houses, he sometimes criticized them. “They are huge, glamorous, fabulous, seductive institutions, but they are also a dangerous black hole where great art can so easily become selfish products,” he told the BBC in 2012.
Mr Vick’s work at the Birmingham Opera Company, which he founded in 1987, has been celebrated in the UK for his bold vision. His first production, another “Falstaff”, was staged in a recreation center in the city; other productions took place in a burnt-out ballroom over a mall and in an abandoned warehouse.
Mr Vick decided to use amateurs after rehearsing a Rossini opera in Pesaro, Italy in the 1990s. One day it was so hot and evacuated, he recalled in a 2003 lecture, that he opened the theater’s doors to the street and was shocked when a group of teenagers stopped their soccer game and watched, mesmerized.
“In order to achieve this type of constituency in Birmingham, we decided to bring members of the community to our work,” he said. People who bought tickets should be reflected on stage and on the production team, he added.
Mr. Vick kept returning to Birmingham because only there he felt whole “in the glorious participation of the audience and performers”.
The company was not only praised for its inclusiveness. The 2009 production of “Otello” “takes you to the heart and guts,” wrote Rian Evans in The Guardian. In the Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed called Mr. Vicks’ staging of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Wednesday from Light” in 2012 “otherworldly”. (It included strings performing in helicopters and a camel, and was part of the UK 2012 Olympics celebrations.)
“If opera is meant to change your perception of what is possible and worthwhile, dreaming the impossible dream and all that, then this is clearly the most spiritually uplifting way to do it,” added Mr. Swed.
Mr. Vick, who died in a hospital, leaves behind his partner, choreographer Ron Howell, and an older brother, Hedley.
Speaking at the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, Mr. Vick urged the operatic world to “get out of our ghetto” and follow the example of Birmingham to reflect the community in which a company is based.
People must “embrace the future and help build a world we want to live in,” he said, “not hide while Rome is on fire.