We are standing in a vast, semi-vacant tent. An unamplified singer holds forth on a makeshift platform at one end. Halfway to the other end, a pianist is pounding the accompaniment on a rickety upright. Between them, in glorious isolation, stands a grey-haired, quietly animated director, wearing jeans and a donkey jacket. He is Graham Vick, one of the UK’s few internationally recognised opera luminaries, and he is rehearsing his annual production for Birmingham Opera Company, as he has done for the past 27 years.
“Life is a bitter, painful fight” – the words, coming from the cavernous bass voice on the platform, reverberate round the tent until Vick interrupts to explain the emphases he wants. The temperature may be chilly but the mood is collaborative, and the atmosphere starts to heat up when another operatic bass starts to declaim simultaneously from an opposing platform. The scene also involves two stagehands, who hold placards emblazoned with the slogans “Homosexuality is a sickness” and “Our simple freedom is the right to carry a gun”. Vick, pointing to the first singer, interrupts again: “Don’t sing to him – sing to the world.”
It is doubtful that the 19th-century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky envisioned such a scenario when he wrote Khovanshchina, his epic tale of social and political conflict – but it encapsulates much of what Vick’s work is about. A long-time Russophile, he wants to draw parallels between the society portrayed by Mussorgsky, riven by political and ethno-religious strife, and the world we live in today. The opera, which Mussorgsky left incomplete, is being sung in English under a new title, Khovanskygate: A National Enquiry. The whole thrust of the interpretation is to create an experience a 21st-century audience can identify with, whether they are opera fans or first-time visitors.
“I choose pieces because of their substance,” says Vick, who makes no secret of his belief that opera is an art form capable of changing the world. Breaking off for a quick lunchtime sandwich, he has no trouble switching from the alert expansiveness of running a rehearsal to the more thoughtful mode of explaining his craft. An interview with Vick is like a tutorial in cultural ethics and social morality: his wilder pronouncements sometimes make him sound like opera’s Holy Fool, but you come out feeling chastened, challenged – and enriched.
He says the point of his Mussorgsky production, and of all serious operatic endeavour, is to spark a debate “about the way you live your life, about the society you’re in, the way we relate to each other, the choices we make. For all our staggering diversity, we have a huge amount of shared experience. My work is a process of communicating this not only to the participants, but through them to the audience.”
Born on Merseyside, Vick, 60, cut his teeth with Scottish Opera, becoming director of productions there in 1984 before going on to the same position at Glyndebourne from 1994 to 2000. Given his extensive international experience, he could have been an energising leader of one of Europe’s major companies (he is still in demand at Covent Garden), but his distaste for various aspects of institutionalised opera, including co-production, has kept him from positions of power.
He argues that most big-house performances are as far “removed” from their surrounding communities as they are from the burning questions opera is designed to address. “It’s frustrating. Opera houses think they’re opening their doors, but the discussion is always based on outreach, marketing and satellite activity. The actual stuff at the heart of their work is rarely touched by the desire to reach out. Opera has become skilled at the marketing of glamour. It’s a dangerous cloak for avoiding a sense of social responsibility.”
Really? What about the student ticket offers and schools performances at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, funded by sponsors? Vick is unimpressed: he cites the Royal Opera’s proposal to sell its season-opening performance in September to students for as little as £1. “If I spend £1 to see Anna Nicole at Covent Garden and love it so much that I have to save £100 to see the next revival of La bohème, what am I supposed to think [about opera as an art form]? I can’t do it in Birmingham: it would be morally indefensible to say ‘you can only have it here through the generosity of private or corporate wealth’. I’m trying not to be rude.”
What Vick means by this tirade is that in contrast to the widespread perception of opera as an entertainment for the rich and cultured, it should really be an expression of the community it serves, at prices everyone can afford. Like his army of performers and volunteers, Vick’s Birmingham audience is a cross-section of the city’s multi-ethnic mix. He has built it assiduously over the years with a recipe of easy-to-understand music theatre, unconventional spectacle and basement prices. There are no red velvet seats or gilt-edged balconies in Birmingham’s Cannon Hill Park, where Vick’s tent is pitched for the duration of his Mussorgsky show. This is opera in the raw, for which audiences have to do their share of standing and moving around the auditorium during the performance.
He sees no conflict between his description of opera houses as “huge, seductive institutions where great art can so easily become self-serving” and a freelance career that takes him to those very theatres. Next month Glyndebourne will revive Vick’s classic 1994 production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and in July he will stage Prokofiev’s War and Peace in the imperial grandeur of St Petersburg’s imperial Mariinsky Theatre.
“I go off to opera houses because I carry these things [about moral debate and shared experience] before me,” he says, regaling me with the popular response to his recent stagings of zarzuela in Madrid and Wagner’s Ring cycle in Palermo.
How, then, does he propose to make Mussorgsky relevant to a 21st-century audience? Are there parallels between the medieval Russia depicted in Khovanshchina and the Russia we see today? Vick acknowledges some similarities – the existence of a Tsarist state, a church opposed to change and Russia’s exposure to westernernisation – but says it would be simplistic to forge such a narrow interpretation. The essence of the piece is “about change and non-change. It’s too easy to criticise another country on their moral standards. It’s better to look carefully at ourselves.”
And that is what Vick hopes his audience will do, aided by the clarity of Mussorgsky’s dramatic recitative. “It’s a good moment in Britain to do a piece about a corrupt police force and rightwing retrenchment, about a church that will not modernise, sitting outside the law as it is on gay marriage. The fact is, there’s no absolute right or wrong. Our task is to keep the debate alive, to show that humanity doesn’t change, that life goes in cycles and that it’s absurd to conduct our lives on the basis that the world isn’t turning.”
‘Khovanskygate: A National Enquiry’, April 22-May 2, Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham; birminghamopera.org.uk