Radical Reconnection

David McVicar, who stages the Met’s new Tosca, is an unconventionally—and unapologetically—traditional director.
By Richard Fairman
Photographs by Uli Weber 

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Photographed at Glyndebourne by Uli Weber
© Uli Weber
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McVicar in rehearsal with Sondra Radvanovsky (Elisabetta) for the 2016 Met premiere of Roberto Devereux
© James Estrin/The New York Times/Redux Pictures
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Nadja Michael in McVicars’s 2008 staging of Salome at Covent Garden
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

IT IS AN OPERA SECRET THAT DAVID MCVICAR DOES NOT ENJOY GIVING INTERVIEWS. In his own words, he does not like “putting himself out there,” and there does not seem to be any common ground that might win him over—until his dogs are mentioned. “David will be thrilled you are looking forward to meeting the dogs,” writes his agent by e-mail, and suddenly it’s all systems go.

The address leads to a terraced house in Islington, north London, only paces from the main street, but completely silent. Ominously, there is a “To Let” sign outside the front door. A suspicion that it might be the wrong place seems to be confirmed when ringing the bell does not elicit a single woof from within. A moment later, though, McVicar throws open the door. Overflowing with apologies, he explains that the dogs left for his house in Sussex an hour before.

The absent celebrities are called Tito, Nero and Ivor. “Dogs appreciate two-syllable names,” he says. “But after naming Tito and Nero, we couldn’t think of any more operatic names that worked. You can’t go into a park and call out ‘Vitellia!’ or ‘Fiordiligi!’ All three are miniature schnauzers, and they used to travel with us regularly before my husband, Andrew, took a break from his job as a choreographer. There was nothing better than piling in the car and driving to Barcelona or Vienna, stopping off at interesting places on the way. When we were there, it felt like being a family, and that grounds you, because some engagements can be quite crazy and stressful.”

Many opera directors enjoy international careers, but McVicar’s output is industrious, to say the least, and ranges across many countries. In the twenty-five years or so since he became established, he has covered most of the operas in the standard repertoire, often at a rate of four or five a year, and his productions enjoy an unusually high profile, not least because they are so often revived.

McVicar’s “shows,” as he calls them, are never predictable. Some are in period, others updated, some lavish, others simple in design, but they share the ability to tell a good story and stay true to the characters as their composers imagined them. Audiences, at least in the countries where he works most often, enjoy them. Critics, too, are generally benevolent. 

It is hard to see what can lie behind McVicar’s loathing of interviews, though it is clearly real enough. One writer described him as “raw, neurotic, [with a] slightly dangerous intensity.” Others have called him “belligerent,” “prickly” and “glowering.” So many have labeled him the “Bad Boy of Opera” that it has become a cliché. McVicar, for his part, has hit back, calling critics “idiots who pursue vendettas.” 

What does he have against interviewers? “They often ask such stupid questions,” he says with a disarming smile. “There was a Belgian journalist who sat down and just said, ‘Why Britten?’ I thought to myself, ‘Because I was offered a contract, of course. Why do you think?’ So I replied, ‘This is my ‘B’ year—Berg, Beethoven, Britten. Last year was my ‘A’ year, Arne and ’andel.’ And he looked puzzled and accused me of making fun of him.” McVicar laughs heartily at the recollection. 

It would seem best not to believe everything he says. The interviewer who was given salacious details of McVicar’s spell working as Miss Joanne, the dominatrix transvestite, on a sex telephone line came away suspecting it was fictional. The same goes for the reputed affairs with singers, though possibly not the difficult childhood in Glasgow.

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McVicar at Glyndebourne with his dogs, Tito, Nero and Ivor, in 2017
© Uli Weber
 

IN THE SPACIOUS BASEMENT KITCHEN of his Islington house, all this seems like a distant echo from a former life. Photos of McVicar and Andrew, together with Tito, Nero and Ivor, line the walls. The shelves groan under the weight of cookbooks. Life in middle age (McVicar is fifty-one) can’t be so bad.

“The older I get, the more I value working with colleagues who aren’t jaded and have genuine passion for what they do,” he says. “For example, it’s so important if you can have all the cast present for the rehearsal period. I joked recently at Pelléas et Mélisande in Glasgow, ‘This is wonderful, you are all here except Yniold, and he is at school!’ It isn’t often that you are willing to accept a singer who can only be there for four or five days, though there are exceptions. Jonas Kaufmann I would put into that category. He’s a busy chap, and you are never going to get him for five weeks, but—wow!—he’s worth it when he is there. So open-minded, so willing to try things!”

All this is communicated with McVicar’s trademark enthusiasm, arms flailing in the air. A documentary made during rehearsals for his production of Salome at the Royal Opera House in London offers a peek at how he expends all this high-octane energy behind the scenes. There is a huge amount of swearing, with four-letter words peppering every other sentence. The McVicar fondness for sex and gore also shows through. (“I want it to be gross,” he says greedily of John the Baptist’s head, “and I want it to have a big reservoir inside, so that it can bleed copiously for ten minutes.”) But what comes across most of all is his burning desire to fire up the audience.

He throws out a challenge to the more extreme breed of European directors. “Famously, I get very bored watching opera in Germany,” he says. “I think there is an aesthetic tyranny going on in German theaters, and this seems dangerous to me at a time when our cultural institutions are under threat. The most radical thing a director in my position can do is reconnect with the ideas of the composers. Surely that’s a valid thing to be doing right now? I’m not saying I want everyone to work like me. But I want to see an intrinsic belief in the great operas and a willingness to embrace the audience.”

He has been as good as his word so far. That Salome made a vivid “show” out of its updating to a dictator’s seedy but glamorous art deco palace in some Fascist state. His much-admired Manon kept Massenet’s opera true to its eighteenth-century story. The now celebrated Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare, which traveled to the Met in 2013, transplanted Handel into the colorful India of the Raj. No matter where McVicar chooses to set his productions, the operas leap off the stage.

“I firmly believe that fidelity to the score is also a conceptual choice,” he says. “It’s a red rag to me when people say of a production that it is traditional, but what they mean is period. It depends how one articulates that period. Do you perform the opera like a meticulously researched museum piece? Or do you, as I did in Der Rosenkavalier, put the singers in eighteenth-century costumes but with hairstyles in the style of Klimt? There are so many possibilities even within a period framework.”

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Maria Stuarda, 2012, with Joshua Hopkins (Guglielmo), Joyce DiDonato (Maria) and Elza van den Heever (Elisabetta)
© Beatriz Schiller
 

MCVICAR SAYS HE REGRETS not having done more spoken theater, but as a colleague of his observed, he has made a speciality of working in music drama and clearly has an aptitude for it. Wherever he can, McVicar likes to get a copy of the score and study how the music informs the action and the characters. No composer impresses him more in this respect than Puccini. In McVicar’s words, he is “the master musical dramatist,” able to portray in one deft phrase what a character is thinking. “The whole opera is there when you open the score.”

It’s a safe bet that his forthcoming Tosca at the Met will be true not only to Puccini’s characters but to the music. “The big challenge is pinpointing what kind of opera Tosca is,” he says. “It’s an opera that a lot of people love and a lot of people despise—like Mahler, for one. He conducted it, which is how he knew. It is a historical melodrama, a bodice-ripper. The political situation the opera depicts is semifictional, rather than historically true to those feverish days in June 1800 after the Battle of Marengo, but it has a blunt grandeur about it which is unassailable. You have to accept Tosca on those terms and make it work for a modern audience.”

It is clear that McVicar has enjoyed his visits to the Met. He says he was especially pleased with Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux, not least because of the “fabulous” experience of working with Joyce DiDonato and Sondra Radvanovsky. When somebody on the staff questioned why Roberto Devereux had done well at the box office, he said, “It’s simple. The opera is good, the cast was fantastic, and we had plenty of time. Put those things together, and you will have a success.”

Similarly, he enjoyed Pagliacci hugely, while finding its “heavenly twin,” Cavalleria Rusticana, hard. “Some people complained Cav was too static, but that’s the nature of the beast, and I felt it was a valid response to portray it not as naturalistic village life but on a bare stage, with just a wooden floor and chairs. Pagliacci, by contrast, has to be exciting, pure verismo. One of the delights was making the play at the end really funny, so that when tragedy strikes, it comes as a tremendous blow to the solar plexus.”

McVicar has achieved such a lot that it is hard to believe there is much left on his to-do list. He says he is sorry not to have directed any Janáček, and invitations for more Handel or Monteverdi’s Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria would be welcome. “And, before I fall off my perch, I need to do Parsifal, because I would like to immerse myself in its world, do all the research and find out how I myself feel about it. Sometimes I find it repugnant. Sometimes I find it the most transformative opera.

 “I don’t want to be carried out of the theater in the proverbial box, but so long as I have something useful and valid to do, I would like to carry on,” he says. After that, there is cooking—the shelves in the kitchen seem to hold the complete works of Jamie Oliver (“No, no, there are more upstairs,” he insists)—and reading. Not much sign of the former “Bad Boy of Opera” there, any more than there has been in the upbeat bonhomie of our interview.

And then there are the dogs. “You may have seen the ‘To Let’ sign outside?” he asks. “After twenty-five years here, it’s no longer necessary for me to live in the intense hub which is London, and we are moving to Glasgow, where I grew up. There will be more places to walk the dogs. When I return feeling entirely spent from a period of work, they grab their leads, because they want to go out straightaway. However stressful the production was, there is nothing I enjoy more. I always come back from that walk feeling a million times better.” spacer 

Richard Fairman has been a music critic for the Financial Times since 1988. 



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