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Deep issues of the heart : A conversation with unconventional and charismatic opera director Graham Vick (BM)

Graham Vick - Picture courtesy of Greek National Opera

He is known for his pioneering productions, designed to reach new audiences. Not the kind of thing one gets to see very often in Greece, so how fortunate that after his recent success at Greek National Opera with La Bohème Graham Vick has come back to put on an opera by Wagner – relatively unfamiliar fare for Athens audiences in terms of the music as well.

Graham Vick has kindly agreed to meet with me during the rehearsals running up to the premiere of Tannhäuser, a revival of the production he put on at San Francisco Opera in 2007. He looks a little worn out, though not entirely disinclined to speak to me, but as we sit down one of his first remarks is that “most everyone starts out by asking me to talk about the production, and I always feel like telling them to just come and see it.”

I’m much more interested in him than in the production due to open in a few days time. I want to find out what it is that makes him so popular with the artists he has directed, since I’ve never spoken to one who wasn’t utterly enthusiastic about having worked with him.

“Well, I think it may be because I go at directing from every possible angle – vocal, musical, physical, etc., so that it is something of a holistic approach. I’m always interested in where the material meets the performer. For the production about to open here in Athens, the result of this is that in human terms, it’s different than the one we put on in San Francisco, even though the sets and costumes, the music and the material are all identical. But the performers are not the same and have built up different relations to one another. Nonetheless, both versions of the production are a valid account of the story told by the opera. And that is good for the artists. Another thing which probably helps is that I’m very thorough, I take care of absolutely everything! And this gives the performers security, it liberates them, and allows them to be at their very best. At the same time, we never choose the easiest way to do something, but rather the one that is the most alive, and that can mean hard work, but it’s worth it, and above all: we laugh a lot! I’m sure everyone appreciates that a great deal. Then, when a production is ready, you have to step back and regard it as self-fulfilled and complete, to let it go, so to speak.”

The enthusiasm and commitment in his voice are really all you need to hear in answer to the question of why he is so popular – it is easy to tell that he is just as inspired by working with these artists as they are by him.

I ask him to what extent the work he is best known for is still significant at this point in his career, i.e. putting on performances with amateurs, people who are out of work, prison inmates…

“Very important indeed, two to three months of the year are devoted to my work in Birmingham, which is precisely that, and I intend to increase this portion to six months over the next few years. Just recently, we put on Idomeneo in an empty rubber factory, in front of an audience that was 40% non-white, with a non-professional chorus, etc. We’ve also staged Fidelio, Monteverdi’s Ulysses, and other significant works, which were all a popular success because on the one hand they are interesting, challenging repertoire, and at the same time they deal with deep issues of the heart, the immense moral questions that will always draw people to a theater…Can a man go as far as to kill his own son? What will happen to this starving people? How do we resolve the struggle between our conscience and the force of life? The playwrights in ancient Athens had to present work that dealt with high moral standards, and the same thing is working for us in Birmingham. Next year, we will be putting on a production of Othello, featuring a black Othello, and a black Iago painted white…! This is going to be a major investigation into a great opera, and I know it will be fascinating because with as great a number of black, Asian and Muslim performers as we have, I have the right to address issues such as Muslim heritage and honor killings, which I wouldn’t if almost everyone involved were white and middle-class.”

I wonder about his plans for the near future. “I have something of a festival “of my own” coming up in La Coruna, quite an honor – three productions and an exhibition about my work – and Aida in Bregenz this summer. But what is next on my schedule is a production in Australia, involving 200 amateurs.”

I find myself wishing someone would ask him to do something like that here in Greece… opera really still is an art form reserved for a fortunate few in this country. “Yes,” he concurs, “the number of exorbitantly expensive handbags one sees around this concert hall alone certainly attests to that…”

Will he be back in Athens soon?

“No specific plans at present, but it might be interesting to do something at the Herodion (the ancient open air theater in Athens). I’ve put on La Bohème at the GNO’s old Olympia Theater on Akadimias street and Tannhäuser is about to open here at the Megaron Athens Concert Hall, so who knows, perhaps if a new Greek opera were commissioned?”

But on the other hand, isn’t he tired of living out of a suitcase?

“Yes, though I’ve become much more selective about traveling than in the past, and I travel to wonderful places, of which Athens and San Francisco are only a few. It’s certainly not bad to be able to take a walk around the Acropolis when you happen to have some time off here in this city. But at the same time, travel and the isolation it entails are probably what I like least about my profession.”

And what does he like best?

“Being in the rehearsal room! My life is most completely balanced when I’m standing in the rehearsal room with my hands in my pockets, directing – at the stage when we are still working with a piano coach, mind you, not towards the end with the orchestra and the stress of opening night looming over us. I’m a man who is happy when there is a job to be done – in that way I’m a missionary.”

And he chose to go into directing opera rather than plays because…?

“Because of the music! I always wanted to be a conductor, actually.”

Ah, a closet musician, I venture… ”No, not all,” he fires back, blue eyes flashing, “music is what I do”.  And so it is, luckily for the rest of us!

So for now, there’s more travel coming up, from one city to the next.

“Yes, and it’s a rewarding life, but it’s also a lonely life, and there’s much I’ve had to sacrifice for my art – my roots, family, friends. And you always have to remember that however much you achieve, in the end, you’ll be going home alone with a plastic carrier bag, perhaps with a program in it…But I feel fortunate, I lead a fulfilled life and have managed to accomplish a lot of what I set out to do. And hopefully I’ve succeeded in making opera a little bit more popular.”

You can say that again.

Bettina Mara

Recommended reading: Opera has to change  - by Graham Vick

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