Updated: Jul 21, 2021
Birmingham Opera Company's Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, 2019
Photo by Zoë Challenor
“Music already belongs to everyone. The democratic wonder of opera is that we all of us already share the material - it is of us.” Graham Vick
I have two heros and one of them is Graham Vick, Artistic Director of Birmingham Opera Company who died on Saturday from Covid complications. I didn’t know him well , but I am heartbroken and this is why:
He was one of the inspirations behind B’Opera - he brought people from ALL backgrounds together around a shared experience of opera.
In March 2016 I took my six month old baby to Birmingham Opera Company's production of Dido and Aeneas in a former nightclub in central Birmingham. She lit up in a way I’d never seen. She was completely mesmerised and looked like a spark had been ignited in her. This taught me something about the effect the art form that I love, opera, can have on the youngest of children.
Towards the end, she started to join in, uninvited, with the singing. As she turned up the volume, I sidled towards the exit ready to make a quick getaway. Graham Vick suddenly appeared in front of us urging “Stay! You’re welcome - we’re glad you’re here.”
These words were a manifestation of Graham Vick’s why.
Unlike many people involved in opera, he believed - deeply believed - that it is for everyone, including my six month old baby daughter. He also seemed to have a sense of the hurdles I'd overcome to be there and was determined to smooth the way.
His words planted one of the seeds that would become B’Opera, the only baby opera company I know of in the world, which I started in April 2017 with two colleagues, with the purpose of bringing stories to life through opera for babies and toddlers.
He understood the power of art - really understood it - and was using it to change the world.
I left BOC's Lady Macbeth of Mtensk in 2019 feeling sick. So brutally had they ripped away the plaster covering up misogyny, Me Too, sexual abuse and intersectional racism. Often we feel good about ourselves when we discuss these things. “I am part of the solution, not part of the problem”, we tell ourselves. This was not that. This was an ugly, exposing of the rotten, maggot-filled wound that infects all our worlds. They did something similar with Wake in Digbeth in 2018, sending boats of refugees around the audience in an inescapable reminder of the daily drownings in the Mediterranean.
"The reason I return is because in Birmingham when I wake up in the morning wondering what it’s all for I know the answer. There in the glorious participation of audience and performers - of people and peoples from every aspect of the city, every age, every ethnicity every social background - only there can I be completely myself - only there do I find myself - only there is my loneliness always consoled. Isn’t that what we are all looking for in the miraculous shared experience - something that is deep within us all joining us together - something we can recognise as our common humanity?" Graham Vick
He called out the protectionist edifice that surrounds most opera in this country and beyond.
When you say “opera”, I know from experience that for most people it conjures up images of people in horned helmets singing in loud wobbly voices in lavish red velvet opera houses. And of course, that stereotype exists. What I wish they knew is that it doesn’t have to be like that.
Graham Vick and Birmingham Opera Company worked hard to ensure that it didn’t look like that. They worked hard and consistently and consciously to ensure that it looked like the stuff that matters - really matters - today.
That it looked like addressing inequality, poverty, racism, misogyny, discrimination, hate...
That it looked like black and brown faces as well as white ones.
That it looked like the people of Birmingham - all the races, genders, sexualities, abilities, shapes, sizes, neuro-diversities and ages.
The revolutionary nature of this needs to be acknowledged. I haven’t seen anything quite like it anywhere else.
Working between Birmingham Opera Company and the revered La Scala in Milan, he defied the toxic stereotype that most of the classical music world happily lives alongside - that you either make great art, or you engage in the patronisingly titled “outreach”, where we reach out from our ivory towers to the plebs below, offering them the crumbs off our fine tables - a variation on George Bernard Shaw's pernicious “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach” theme.
“It’s time to change. It’s time for each one of us to step up and take responsibility for the well-being of our society rather than just taking. I want our work to be part of the solution not the problem. Maybe that way the song will remain.
Maybe that way artists will help bind together our fractured society. Maybe that way we will open up a world of common feeling, and dare to confront false gods in pursuit of our common humanity. Well maybe. But only if we get up off our arses, get out of our ghetto where we’re protected by our excellence, our artistic integrity, our outreach and education departments, our annual reports and go out to find the new world, embrace the future and help build a world we want to live in - not hide away fiddling while Rome burns.” *
* From his inspiring 2016 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards speech - read the transcript here: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/may/10/graham-vick-opera-rps-awards-keynote-speech
He created an opera company that truly belonged to the people of Birmingham
I know people for whom BOC has been a life and sanity saver. People who need music in their lives, but just like babies and toddlers, don’t fit the traditional mould and so are not welcomed. I have students who have been able to be part of productions of world class, thereby making enormous strides on their journey of learning and understanding. I know B’Opera parents from diverse backgrounds who have been given the message “come along - this is for you”, and so consequently love opera and feel ownership of it.
I never managed to tell him any of this.
Parenting little children while working long hours in the arts, starting an organisation and trying to keep it afloat in a pandemic while battling severe Covid is no joke. I somehow think he’d have understood that. But I would have loved to tell him what an inspiration he was. This will have to do instead.
I send heartfelt condolences to the people of Birmingham for this loss. Our city has been made an infinitely better place by his vision.
I send love to his friends and family, and to everyone who worked with him.
If I’m feeling this level of heartbreak, I can only imagine what they must be experiencing. I hope that reading about the impact he had brings some comfort.
Donate to or get involved with Birmingham Opera Company here https://www.birminghamopera.org.uk/contact
Zoë Challenor is a founder and Director of B'Opera Baby Opera company in Birmingham which exists to bring babies and toddlers of diverse backgrounds together around a shared and unifying experience of music and storytelling. You can find out more here: www.bopera.co.uk