He throws himself onto the sofa and glowers. Rumour has it that David McVicar, internationally sought-after whizzkid director, is turning prickly. He's already legendary as the director who turned down the New York Met. 'It was to do with the choice of designer. I wasn't prepared to compromise. There was a stand-off for six months and we called it a day. They were a bit shocked I wasn't prepared to bend over and let them fuck me'.
The Royal Opera House press ladies flutter in nervously with an unexpected bottle of wine: evidently the customary ROH offer of tea, coffee or water has evoked an abrupt Glaswegian response.
As the wine goes down, McVicar relaxes, occasionally leaping up, gesticulating to make a point, a reminder of his brief acting career; lapsing into smouldering silences, only to come out with views - on opera, on dumbing down - finely honed, robustly expressed. 'Opera is good for you and everyone should go. Its fuck-all to do with Russell Watson and Charlotte fucking Church - they're entertaining the Saga holiday crowd. I'm really angry: what I'm doing is more likely to appeal to the young, but I can't get my friends into the Royal Opera House…Every new production I do I take along a few people I know who have never been to the opera before and they're blown away. But they don't go by themselves. It's the price. It bothers me, working with this fabulous cast when it's so expensive to see it. It's not the Royal Opera House's fault. As ever, it's British attitudes. It should be available if you want it. In your teens, at an impressionable age. I'm fucked off trying to promote my art-form.' He slumps back. 'What the fuck are we going to do about opera? Ask Tony Blair.' Rhetorical question, contemptuous answer.
I hastily ask how the sex is going. McVicar's on record as criticising Verdi's Traviata for having too little sex: the lady of the camellias, Garbo's Camille, the tart with the heart who renounces happiness for love: no sex? He laughs. 'I always feel there's one act missing when we see them enjoying one another…'
Verdi left no such ambiguity in Rigoletto. The story
hinges on a debauched Renaissance duke, his hunchbacked jester and the
clown's secret treasure, a daughter he keeps hidden away until she is
kidnapped and raped by his master. The subsequent plot for revenge goes
horribly wrong. Full-blooded melodrama with rip-roaring tunes and a
grand guignol ending. Or something more?
The opera and the Communist Manifesto were written within three years of each other, McVicar reminds me. Yes, there's sex in Rigoletto, but much else. 'It's hard to find a piece with a more pessimistic view of mankind. We're mining the sex under the surface, clarifying what's at stake. You find Rigoletto (the jester) is schizoid. He's kept Gilda shut up, the one person in the world who is pure, untainted, she holds his world together. She's the spitting image of her dead mother.' He grins. 'She doesn't take after him, obviously.'
Obviously, since Verdi, despite the 1851 censor, insisted on putting the hunchback's deformity on stage. 'We've decided to go for it. Gavanelli, the baritone, wears a prosthetic spine'. A twisted spine, uneven legs, and this jester uses two sticks like Sher's Richard III. 'What's wrong physically helps you sense what's right spiritually. Part of him has known love which nobody else in the opera has. He knows compassion, but he's full of self-loathing. He's as vile, if not more, as the court. He has to be - it's his work.'
Court and world alternate; McVicar and designer Michael Vale underline that closeness with a revolving set. 'It's a symbol of society, a palace façade of glass, tipping over, shored up by girders, wooden struts and a mad Dickensian burrow where cockroaches pick a living from the shit thrown from the palace. They depend on the top people but they're supporting them. We want to be aware of two worlds co-existing all the time. The whole is enclosed in a rubbish tip - like Brazil where the poor live in rubbish heaps just below the rich. It's a very angry opera, screaming about inequality.'
Today there are additional inequalities between the 'beautiful and the ugly. It's tied up with our love of celebrity, glamour, supermodels…you have to cast a Duke who's a sexy guy who knows how to seduce a woman, surround him with beautiful people.' The ROH scores with the young Argentine tenor Marcelo Alvarez, though his whopping high spirits have been taken aback by the production. 'Marcelo told me that he'd never played the Duke like this. I'm asking for a possible psychotic. If he weren't a serial shagger, he'd be a serial killer.'
Bucking the operatic directorial trend, McVicar is keeping to the original period. 'It's so easy to update, to transplant', he says wearily. 'Black leather, studs, drag queens…it's kind of lazy. It's more interesting to dress people in beautiful laces and ask them to be depraved.' But he's hard on the artificiality that can attend period lavishness. 'You don't wear costumes, you wear clothes', he tells his cast. 'Don't ponce around in them. Don't let them get in the way of the urges of this society…'
Society is a word that recurs. Far from being an escape into fantasy from what McVicar recalls as a grim, lower-middle-class family background with no artistic interests, theatre and opera - starting with Glasgow's Tramway and Citizens' Theatre - provided the breakthrough to self-awareness and reality. 'I may work on a piece 100, 200, 300 years old but I'm talking about the society we live in'.
Despite his recent huge successes in opera - culminating in
an ecstatically acclaimed production of Britten's problem piece, The
Rape of Lucretia, for ENO, McVicar has worked in theatre and wants
to do more. What can we expect? 'Address that question to Trevor Nunn
and Adrian Noble. They know I exist. I'm ready and available. I'm fed
up with Michael Billington saying no young directors can use the big
stage. I'm pissed off with them for carving up the Lyttleton. There's
fuck-all wrong with the Lyttleton - it's a fabulous proscenium theatre
and I know how to use that stage without them carving it up so less
talented directors can pretend they're in a studio. What's the difference
between opera and theatre? They sing. The plot of Cymbeline is
no more or less ridiculous than Rigoletto. They're both about
While the great international stages beckon, including festivals from Salzburg and Glyndebourne - where coke-snorters and the subsistence-style existence of McVicar's modernised student Bohème were a chillingly apt echo of Puccini's garret-dwellers - he's loyal to the smaller companies, like Opera North and Scottish Opera, of his early successes. 'That's where you do the serious work', he says, the paradox being that non-jetset singers permit the luxury of six-week rehearsal periods. 'They're not so expensive to keep in the country', he smiles. Not that the Covent Garden internationals are a 'cage of canaries', he adds. They're serious artists, up to the ROH's four-and-a-half-weeks-and-then-we're-on-breakneck routine.
Like many Scots he warms to the eighteenth century, when Glasgow and Edinburgh were international centres of intellectual activity. Like many Scots, like young James Boswell who drank in Dr Johnson's wit and wisdom and experimented with fish-skin condoms, McVicar ranges from exquisite speculation to excessive copulation (or rather its depiction). The opening orgy of Rigoletto will, he promises, keep us 'pinned to our seats'. You can take the opera-lover out of Glasgow, but…'
Melanie Eskenazi reviews
the Royal Opera House's new production of Rigoletto and takes
issue with David McVicar's direction.