LONDON — Depending on whom you ask, director Katie Mitchell is either a guiding light or a destructive force of the British stage.
Backstage, between rehearsals, Mitchell, 53, spoke about her career, sitting next to a modern set with dark blue paneling and an Ikea-style double bed.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
Q. Why did you accept this commission?
A. I very much love working with George and Martin. They make amazing operas, so who would say no? It’s a really exciting re-imagining of a bit of English history, with exceptional music.
Q. You often like to reinterpret plays. Are operas more constraining?
A. Different art forms have different constraints. When you’re working on a new opera and you’re doing the first production, you are really wanting to realize the vision of the person who wrote the text and the person who composed it. You could call that constraint. I would just say that’s a given circumstance.
Q. Your love of music was passed onto you by your father, right?
A. Yes. My father, a dentist who became a book designer and bookmaker, loved classical music. He was a working-class boy who’d never had it at home, never had any books at home. So in his 30s, he was playing music all the time. I slept above the record player, and I would dream inside Shostakovich or Bach. There was one rule that we had as a kid: You could buy as much music and as many books as you wanted.
Q. In Britain, people have often been harsh about your treatment of classics of the stage.
A. A healthy culture is a culture that has a spectrum of interpretation of classical material. Sometimes I feel that there’s a nervousness about things on the more avant-garde end of the spectrum. I just think, “Come on guys, let’s just embrace it!” We don’t have to all do very default realism — very earnest, conventional productions.
Q. In Britain, visual artists have torn up the rules. But in theater. …
A. It’s really old-fashioned. Very quickly, there’s anger, and very quickly, it’s personal. There’s a lot of heat and temperature on it. Theater is just an art form that got stuck. There are lots of invisible gatekeepers. They are very alive, and they’ve got very sharp teeth.
Sometimes the gatekeepers are in the organizations, sometimes they’re the critics, sometimes they’re the audience. People go to watch the performing arts for something about the past, something to forget the present. If you’re an artist like me who wants to interrogate the present, they find that a bit hard.
Q. What effect does nasty feedback have on you?
It used to hurt a bit. The thing is, I really love my job. I love making things. Obviously you’d like them to be liked. It’s not the most joyful thing.
Then I had a child. I have a 12-year-old daughter. That was an enormous change. If things go bad in work, they just go bad. I have my lovely child at home which keeps everything in total perspective.
Sometimes, I feel very schizophrenic. I have that problem here, and then I go to Germany, where the idea of historical costumes and naturalism is so outdated.
Q. Had you been French or German, would you be as well known? Britain is the place that crowned you queen.
A. I had a very lucky career. At different moments, I had advocates. But they were of a certain duration. The more I settled into the relationship, the more radical I became. And then I found in all instances that there were ceilings.
I come back and do stuff, but 70 percent of my time, I’m in France or Germany.
The thing that I craved more than anything was acceptance on mainland Europe. That’s the highest accolade. If you want to look globally at where theater practice is the most radical, the widest spectrum of interpretation, you have to go to Germany.
Q. You’ve been very vocal in condemning Brexit.
A. It’s awful, isn’t it? There’s a worsening of the economic circumstances, and an increase in racism, and a consolidation of a tendency towards isolation. The isolation has always been a tendency, but because we’re part of a large group, you can fight it a little more easily. Once we break from that group, that tendency to self-isolate culturally will be worsened, I’m afraid.
The oxygenating air from mainland Europe is really important to this practice. The young go to Germany and come back here with new ideas. If that becomes harder, then that would be a cultural problem.
Q. You often talk about how opera portrays women through the male gaze.
A. In all 30 years of my career, I’ve focused on female experience. I chose to be more outspoken about it because I felt that I should, as a senior female artist, help the younger generation. Also, we started a policy of allowing people to watch rehearsals. We normally have a lot of young women watching.
Opera is really dominated by male directors, and there are very few women at my level. It’s useful if I’m very careful about how women are represented, in an art form where the unconscious gender biases can affect the representations of women on stages — which can be very off-putting for women in the audience, particularly younger women.
Q. How does #MeToo feel to you?
A. Great! I just think it’s for the good. I’m cautious.
Q. Why cautious?
A. Because I’m a different generation, brought up in the 1970s, who lived through quite a lot of gender bias behavior in my working life for a long time. It’s been understood that the way to function as a woman, if that happens, is to weather it and not call it out. So of course you feel slightly nervous about a culture where that’s now being called out.
This moment of great optimism and hope — I want to see it embedded in our laws. I want to see safeguarding made legal, because of the risks attached to the women who are speaking out. It’s an enormously brave thing to do to speak about any type of abuse or gender-bias behavior. You won’t know for a long time how safe it is, really, to have done that.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.