Birmingham Opera Company is preparing to make an international splash alongside the canal in Ladywood. Terry Grimley meets artistic director Graham Vick.
For a man used to working in grand opera venues like La Scala and Venice’s restored 18th century jewel La Fenice, Graham Vick seems remarkably excited to be directing an opera in a disused rubber factory in Ladywood.
The derelict complex is only a few hundred yards from another where Birmingham Opera Company, newly reconstituted from the former City of Birmingham Touring Opera, made its debut with Votzek in 2001.
Its huge performance space is still in a raw state, with large quantities of earth waiting to be formed into the set for next month’s performances of Mozart’s Idomeneo, featuring a community cast of 80 and a community choir of about the same size together with professional soloists and orchestra.
The factory might seem an eyesore to most people but, with a large office block providing unusually extensive workshop and rehearsal space, to Vick it’s the last word in post-industrial luxury.
“I love it – it’s got a lot of possibilities,” he says. “It’s got scale because the space is very open. I love being by the canals. We’ve got very good rehearsal conditions, and it’s the summer so we don’t have a very big heating bill for that big space. I like it here a lot.”
In a few years’ time, economy permitting, this whole area will be swept away to make way for the huge Icknield Port Loop canalside development. The masterplan is said to have been directly influenced by Venice, so there’s a wonderful irony in the fact that Venice is one of the international opera companies expected to have representatives in the audience for Idomeneo – along with Lisbon, Brussels, the Bregenz Festival, Verona and Madrid.
Why is the cream of Europe’s opera world making the pilgrimage to Ladywood? Because BOC’s unique seven-year experiment in integrating this supposedly elitist art form with community casts and down-to-earth venues has attracted growing international interest.
“They are all coming to see the work and the process that goes into it, because they are all interested in learning how to do it,” says Vick. “This is the company as international research centre in the development of new audiences. It’s the only company of its kind in the world, a centre for a lot of people from the opera world to visit.”
Vick’s production of Traviata, originally staged at the Arena di Verona and brought here under BOC’s banner for two performances at the NIA last October, was an example of the Birmingham model of teaming professional casts with volunteers recruited from the local community, being exported to Italy.
Traviata was seen by nearly 10,000 people in Birmingham, of whom a high proportion were first-time operagoers who paid just £5 for their tickets – an achievement which won the company a prestigious Royal Philharmonic audience award for audience development for the second time in its history.
But it was very nearly BOC’s swansong. At the end of last year, as part of its controversial national review, the Arts Council removed the company’s grant.
While the Arts Council’s West Midlands office appeared unaware or indifferent that it had something of international significance on its doorstep, it was eventually forced to succumb to pressure from London and the company’s grant was restored in full. At the same time the company acknowledged some of the Arts Council’s criticisms with a new range of educational add-ons designed to widen the impact of Idomeneo.
“The Arts Council is now on board and we’re doing more for them,” says Vick. “We did a big open day, and we’ve brought all sorts of new people in.
“A big plus this year is that we have a big education programme around the production. The designer, Stuart Nunn, is leading a big theatre design brains trust, so we’ve got ten design students from Birmingham City University and Nottingham Trent University doing workshops. On the further education front we’re working with Sutton Coldfield and Matthew Boulton colleges, in higher education with Birmingham University and the Conservatoire.”
There are always compromises to be made between creative endeavour and a target-focused funding system. For example, the company could demonstrate that it was reaching more people if it did not allow volunteers to come back for subsequent productions, but Vick resists that idea.
“It’s pretty much 50-50 on this show,” he says. “The standard of this is the highest we’ve started at in terms of attitude and discipline. The advantage of having 50 per cent experienced is that they create an atmosphere with the others, and you get the freshness of the new 50 per cent mixing very well with the experience of people who come back.”
What made him choose Idomeneo – the story of the Greek hero who promises Poseidon to sacrifice the first person he meets on shore if he and his men are delivered from a storm, only to find that it is his son – for this production?
“It’s in the tradition of challenging, difficult great works, which is what I’ve mostly chosen. We’ve done a popular Mozart before in Don Giovanni.
“After Traviata some of the people who had worked with us before missed the devising side of the work, the workshop element, so I wanted to reclaim that. I had already done Traviata, so I knew it in complete detail.
“On the other hand the chorus had been a tremendous success in Traviata, so I wanted to do a piece with a chorus which was also an interesting devising piece. We are trying to find what Idomeneo is, because it’s a very difficult opera.
“This is a very collaborative experience and I don’t know what it’s going to produce, so I’m in there with everybody else – we’re all looking for an opera together. I can guide people through the themes but what it’s going to turn into is what everybody is looking for. I think from that point of view the level just gets higher all the time.”
Another aspect of the company maturing is that the stock of its professional associates continues to rise.
“Will Lacey, who conducted Fidelio for us, has just been conducting in Washington with Placido Domingo. Now he comes here because he wants to, because it’s a unique experience. So now we have a conductor of international stature and experience, eager to come and work here for our fees.
“As Idomeneo we have Paul Nilon, who 21 years ago was in the first CBTO production as Fenton in Falstaff. He’s singing round the world but he is here, leading from the front. He’s wonderful with the community cast, an incredibly humble man, and he does wonderful work here. It’s an atmosphere that suits him, I think.
“These are things that mean we are artistically upping the level, which is why it’s not just workshops or an opera about the community of Birmingham but it’s the putting together of the community of Birmingham with highest level of opera. That’s what’s unique and it exists nowhere else.”
On the other side of the coin, Vick sees a serious decline in the standard of international opera, which he says has become star-dominated and homogenised.
“It’s globalised – it’s all international, shared co-productions everywhere. When you go to English National Opera or the Royal Opera House you will see what you would see in Sydney or New York. It’s all re-heated in the microwave. It’s had some successes, but overall it’s a terrible sickness, I think.
“What we do here is the opposite. Just try taking this show around the world. It would be nonsense because it’s born out of the physical space and the people and their relationship with the space and responses to it, and the audience is part of the artistic event.
“It’s the exploration of that idea, that’s what it’s about for me. This is now the major thing I do. It’s always been important, but it used not to be more important than La Scala or the New York Met. Now it’s much more important.”
* Birmingham Opera Company performs Mozart’s Idomeneo at The Sherborne Building, Icknield Square, Birmingham on August 2, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22 and 23 (Advance booking through the Birmingham Rep box office: 0121 236 6771).