Graham was educated at Northaw School (Hertfordshire), Stowe School and RADA. Early in his career, he began a long association with Benjamin Britten, for whom he directed all but one of the composer's stage works, including all of the world premieres after 1954. He became associated with the English Opera Group in 1953. In the 1950s, he also worked for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London and later at Glyndebourne and at the English National Opera in the 1970s. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Graham was associated with several recordings of Gilbert and Sullivan operas conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent with the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus and principals including George Baker. He enhanced these recordings with movement for the performers that makes the recordings sound more like a live staged performance.
Graham made his American debut as a stage director at Santa Fe Opera in 1974 with his staging of Britten's Owen Wingrave. Graham later became Director of Productions for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) in 1978, until 1985, when he became OTSL's Artistic Director. He held this position until his death.
Graham directed the world premieres of John Corigliano's opera, The Ghosts of Versailles, for the Metropolitan Opera; The Dangerous Liaisons and André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire for San Francisco Opera; The Song of Majnun for Lyric Opera of Chicago; and a series of three operas by Miki Minoru. In addition, he directed productions for the Santa Fe Opera, notably Bright Sheng's Madame Mao in 2003, continuing his association with general director Richard Gaddes, which had begun during the latter's tenure at OTSL. Collectively, he directed 55 world premieres of operas.
Graham also wrote libretti for several operas, including:
- Benjamin Britten, The Golden Vanity
- Richard Rodney Bennett, Penny for a Song
- Stephen Paulus, The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1982
- Minoru Miki, Joruri
- Minoru Miki, The Tale of Genji, 1999
- Bright Sheng, Madame Mao, 2003
- David Carlson, Anna Karenina, 2007
In the US, Graham studied theology and became a minister in 1987, and ultimately took US citizenship. He received the Order of the British Empire in 2002. At the time of his death, Graham was at work on the premiere production of Anna Karenina for Florida Grand Opera and OTSL. He left no survivors.
- Alan Blyth (10 April 2007). "Colin Graham". The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-04-12.
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- Information from the G&S Discography Archived 2008-06-20 at the Wayback Machine
- Obituary for Colin Graham, The Times, 9 April 2007.
- Matthew Westphal, "Colin Graham, Opera Director and Head of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Dies at 75". Playbill Arts, 9 April 2007.
- "Colin Graham, 75, Celebrated Opera Director and OTSL Artistic Director, Has Died". Opera News (on-line), 9 April 2007.
- Bernard Holland, "A Novel Of Lust Becomes An Opera". New York Times, 2 July 1998.
- Elizabeth Forbes (11 April 2007). "Colin Graham". The Independent. Retrieved 2008-05-01.
- Sarah Bryan Miller, "Colin Graham, Opera Theatre's artistic director, dies". St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 6 April 2007.