Founded in 1987 as City of Birmingham Touring Opera by Graham Vick and Simon Halsey, the company has always been at the forefront of making good opera available to more people.
Originally set up to produce smaller-scale work suitable for touring throughout the UK CBTO pioneered a style of opera production now followed by many others.
Commissioning new versions of operas for smaller orchestral forces the company brought adventurous repertoire to parts of the country with little or no access to live opera performance. Productions such as Verdi's Falstaff, Mozart's Zaide, Rameau's Les Boreades and Wagner's The Ring Saga (Prudential Award 1990) toured to Town Halls, Assembly Rooms and local authority theatres proving that good opera could be seen and heard outside major metropolitan opera houses - in venues without red carpets and chandeliers.
By 2000 many other companies had followed CBTO's example and were now touring smaller-scale productions throughout the UK. It was time to move on and find new challenges. In 2001 Birmingham Opera Company emerged from CBTO to investigate whether it would be possible to create a company that people in the city could be a part of and would support in the broader sense. Could opera ever be a means of engaging a wider public in discussions about issues of our time?
Two things were clear: Firstly we would open up the process of opera production and ask people from the city to join us. Secondly we would perform the work in unusual places not normally associated with opera or theatre. We wanted to circumvent the idea that certain kinds of people went to certain kinds of places to see opera. This way the operas themselves could speak directly to audiences.
Since 2001 we have presented Berg's Votzek in a dilapidated warehouse on the edge of the Ladywood housing estate, Beethoven's Fidelio in a big top pitched in Aston Park beside Aston Villa FC and Bernstein's Candide in an old car parts factory in Digbeth. We explored the work of Monteverdi through a series of experimental projects during 2004 leading to a large-scale production of Ulysses Comes Home in a fire-damaged ice rink in Spring 2005. In the mean time in 2004, we performed Britten's Curlew River (with BCMG) at The Proms and in Birmingham and the show was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC TV. In 2006 we presented Strauss's Ariadne Sells Out at the Q Club and in Spring 2007 Mozart's He Had It Coming in The Old Birmingham Municipal Bank on Broad Street. In October 2007, 300 Birmingham people and the CBSO joined us to present Verdi's La Traviata (an international co-production with Arena Di Verona) to almost 10,000 people in The National Indoor
Arena, Birmingham. In Summer 2008 we presented Mozart's Idomeneo directed by Artistic Director Graham Vick and with internationally renowned tenor Paul Nilon in the title role. In 2009 we presented out most challenging work yet, Verdi's Othello with the UK's first Black tenor in the title role and broadcast on BBC Two alongside a documentary film following Graham Vick preparing two contrasting productions of Verdi in Bregenz and Birmingham, Verdi: The Director's Cut.
2012 was the year in which Birmingham Opera Company gave not just one but two world premieres. The company commissioned Jonathan Dove, an outstanding British composer and one with a long association with the company, to write a new opera. Working with the prominent writer Alasdair Middleton and based on the legendary play by the 17th century playwright, Calderòn a new opera Life is a Dream was premiered in March 2012. In August, Birmingham Opera Company staged the long-awaited world premiere of Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht / Wednesday from Light - the last of the 7 operas from the cycle to be staged. As part of the London 2012 Festival and Cultural Olympiad this was an extraordinary event attended by audiences from all over the world as well as from all over Birmingham. Considered by many to be too difficult to stage, Graham Vick and Music Director Kathinka Pasveer created a bewitching production here in Birmingham marking another great landmark in the company's history.