Opera's hot - and this man is the reason why

David McVicar, wunderkind director of the new opera
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The Independent Online

Bravo! The audience for opera is growing faster than for any other art form except film. According to an Opera and Music Theatre Forum study published last week, over the past 15 years the audience for opera has increased by 25 per cent. Statistics are always rather dry, but this one hints at a genuine excitement, both in the audience and backstage. That excitement was palpable last week when Covent Garden opened public booking for the Royal Opera House's production of Verdi's Rigoletto, and the queue for tickets stretched the length of the street.

Of course, opera's popularity poses no threat to Hollywood – not least because the genre can't escape from its past. With a few worthy exceptions, "new opera" is a contradiction in terms, and it's certainly not bringing new audiences to the opera houses. Instead, companies everywhere rely on the same few repertoire staples, such as Rigoletto, which require stage directors to bring new perspectives to wrench them free of tradition.

Covent Garden's Rigoletto is in the hands of one of the most sought-after directors in opera, David McVicar. At 35, McVicar is fresh enough not to be bound by received ideas. Last year his production of Puccini's La Bohème gained a certain notoriety because McVicar had his young bohemians snorting cocaine onstage at Glyndebourne (the horror!).

As updatings go, that hardly counts as radical. What mattered more was that McVicar, without sacrificing opera's hyper-reality, produced a credible drama. The characters were singing, but the action was as urgent as if they were speaking to us across the table. McVicar's ability to achieve that intimacy is why he's on the wish list of every opera house, from New York's Met to the Salzburg Festival. And that's why the Royal Opera has entrusted the opening production of its new season to a director who has never worked with the company before.

McVicar's Rigoletto is set in the 16th century, but the production will be no less relevant to modern times than his La Bohème. For McVicar, Rigoletto is not a prettified vocal display, but a "a howl of rage" at political, social, and physical injustice. "This is a world where people are judged by their looks as much as their power and wealth. Beautiful people win, just as rich and powerful people win."

Born in Glasgow, McVicar discovered opera when he saw Ingmar Bergman's film of Mozart's The Magic Flute on television. He trained in theatre and moved into musical theatre, directing Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale in 1991, followed by Mozart and Handel. In 1995 he staged Prisoner Cell Block H: The Musical, a subject best not mentioned in his presence today; and in 1998 he directed Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd for Opera North.

Operas, musicals, plays: in terms of theatrical viability, McVicar makes no distinctions. If his direction of plays has a musical quality, his direction of operas and musicals insists on an immediacy every bit as forceful as that we demand from spoken theatre."My starting point is: 'This is a brand new story that's never been done. Let's look and see what it's about.' I don't start by saying 'What can I do to make my production of La Bohème different?' My goal is that the audience shouldn't know I was there."

That wasn't the case when McVicar's production of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia opened in Aldeburgh last June, and the director loudly upbraided one listener for sleeping during the performance. It seemed an insult to him, to the performers and, most of all perhaps, to the audience, which for McVicar is a vital part of the equation: "If a show is good, it's an organism that comes alive only when that group of singers gathers on stage in front of an audience. That can't be controlled, and that's a good thing. The audience is the final component in the whole procedure. You only learn how the show really runs through the audience's reaction."

McVicar shares with opera audiences a distaste for contemporary opera. Ask what's missing, and his answer is curt: "Song". Can contemporary composers rediscover that? "Yes, but is the opera house the place for that to happen? Would the powers that be allow it, and would the results be derided in critical circles? Opera died – magnificently – last century, and the musical took over the role that opera had. Today, no new pieces are being written that make into the repertoire. That's why I won't direct world premieres of new opera: I just wouldn't be able to do it."

That is contemporary opera's loss, but he still has 350 years of musical history at his disposal. Given time, he'll probably work his way through all of it.