Don't you dare knock Mozart

David McVicar's take on The Marriage of Figaro for the Royal Opera has been hotly awaited. But Jessica Duchen finds him in a foul mood backstage

Sitting on the floor, he quickly banishes his fury, at least for the moment. He didn't choose to be an opera director, he says. "Opera chose me. I kicked and screamed and bit against it, but now I have to admit that this is what I'm best at. I've said that opera is a dead art, and I still believe that, because nobody is writing any decent ones now. But I don't care: we have 400 years of it and we only do 20 per cent of what there is. I'm utterly devoted to the art form."

The fury returns as he refers to a comment on Mozart by a world-famous British tenor. "Ian Bostridge - and I really want this quoted - goes on about how Mozart never wrote any interesting roles for the tenor voice," McVicar fumes. "To which my answer is: if you could sing any of those roles, maybe I would listen to your opinion! I was incandescent with rage. If he could sing Ferrando in Cosi and finds it unrewarding, I would listen to what he has to say, but since he can't... D'you know what I mean?"

McVicar's productions reach parts of operas that many others don't. Rich with authentic, human detail, they are about convincing storytelling, fidelity to the composer and responsibility to the audience. Not for him obscure modernist reinterpretations. Recent successes include a powerful Rigoletto for Covent Garden, an irresistible La Bohème for Glyndebourne, setting Puccini's classic in modern-day London, and, last summer, Handel's Giulio Cesare, also at Glyndebourne - four and a half hours of Baroque music, after which the first-night audience gave what McVicar describes as "the biggest standing ovation I've ever seen. I think I acted as a conduit to Handel: the audience could see with blinding clarity what an incredible, exciting, moving opera this is. I put the composer and audience together: we crossed 300 years, and they met in that moment. It was the proudest night of my life!"

What's his take on Figaro? "It's this: can we please pay attention to the story? We've all forgotten the story. I feel I'm taking a palette knife and scraping off a patina that thick of meaningless, crap tradition. That's all I'm ever interested in doing, and that's why I'm so misunderstood in German-speaking countries - they'll say, 'Aber wo ist das Konzept?' [A trained actor, McVicar peppers the conversation with wicked impersonations.] And I say: there's no concept. Only truth."

He's no less hard-hitting about attitudes to opera in Britain. "I think we are in a kind of crisis," he says. "The British are chronically embarrassed by opera. Look, it's a difficult, expensive, complex art form; it requires some effort; and I don't think we should apologise for that. I'm Scottish and I feel nothing but shame at the way the Scottish Executive treated Scottish Opera. Do you want a civilised country or don't you? That company was allowed to go to the wall. It's a fact that when that happens, nobody is prepared to offer a hand to help, because it's supposedly 'elitist'. But can you imagine if Rupert Murdoch liked opera, if Tony Blair liked opera...?

"I think we should do everything we can through educational resources to give audiences an avenue into understanding the art form. Audiences should be absolutely inclusive. But what I can't stand is the dumbing-down process: attitudes like, 'Ho ho, this is for you, Mrs Bloggs; you don't need to understand anything about it', or, 'You too can be an opera singer overnight', or suggesting that groups like Il Divo amount to anything resembling opera. It's so patronising.

"And I've heard people saying, 'Oh, it's all for toffs - it's all about Cambridge types.' Excuse me, am I a toff? Am I a Cambridge type? I didn't even go to university."

How would he like to see things change in the next 20 years? "I'd like to see more opera in Britain happening at a higher level. We have to get back to the ethos of nourishing the national companies, making them centres of excellence. We've got to lower ticket prices. And we have got to get more opera on to TV. I'm only doing what I do now because when I was a kid in the Seventies you'd stumble on opera as you were channel-hopping. Suddenly there's La Bohème with Ileana Cotrubas. I switched on by chance halfway through Act 1 and just sat there on the kitchen stool, transfixed. Ditto when I saw Ingmar Bergman's film of The Magic Flute by accident. That doesn't happen now. We're fortunate that this Figaro is considered important enough to be screened on BBC2 at prime time. My Barber of Seville wasn't, and The Merry Widow from Welsh National Opera went out at a time when most of us were recovering from a Christmas hangover. That's not good enough."

McVicar has plenty to look forward to in the year ahead, including the revival of Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne starring the countertenor David Daniels ("I could drown in his voice!"), and preparations for his first Wagner, the Ring cycle for the Strasbourg Opera next year. For now, there's Figaro: its designs, by Tanya McCallin, are inspired by the paintings of Ingres and Delacroix; the conductor Antonio Pappano is on the podium; and the cast features, as Figaro, Erwin Schrott, whom McVicar describes as "the most amazing young bass-baritone to emerge since Bryn Terfel".

It should be a night to remember. As for his Oliver Award nominations, they are for Outstanding Achievement in Opera and Best New Opera Production, both for Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito at English National Opera. "I've never won anything in my life," McVicar insists. "I'm not the sort of person who wins things." That remains to be seen.

'The Marriage of Figaro', Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC1 (020-7304 4000; www.royaloperahouse.org) today to 6 July

Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
film
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s