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 Montiverdi through a series of projects during 2004 in Cannon Hill Park, Oozells Square, Brindley Place, the Cathedral Precinct, The Bull Ring, The Fazeley Canal leading to a large-scale production of Ulysses Comes Home in Planet Ice 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 Que 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. And in 2009 we presented out most challenging work yet, Verdi's Othello with the UK's first Black tenor in the title role and about which the BBC produced a film to be broadcast on BBC Two.