We are in the red-plush everything of the Metropolitan Opera House on a weekday morning, insulated from the blare of traffic around Lincoln Centre and Columbus Circle, but maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin is busy. He had been working on a break in the orchestra pit when cast members onstage began discussing over one another, drawing his reaction. It’s not a rare moment of pique from the conductor — it’s the only one, as anyone will tell you.
In a black t-shirt conducting a full dress rehearsal of the second act of Verdi’s Otello, the Montreal native is just days away from opening the Met Opera season and taking the opera live. On Sept. 21, the house will be packed and buzzing, but Otello will also be broadcast to live screens in Times Square, and there are still tweaks in music, singing and staging to be done.
In the pit even in rehearsal, his style is muscular, expressive. Onstage, tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello in black military dress, gold brocade and boots stands as young soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona collapses to her knees in a heap of red ball gown and gloves. Nézet-Séguin stops the rehearsal again. “So beautiful,” he says of Yoncheva’s performance. “But if you could just . . . ” There are unintelligible directions between conductor and soprano. Director Bartlett Sher hovers on the edge of the pit.
Ask anyone directly or in passing and they’ll marvel at the how easy Nézet-Séguin is to work with/for — and that terminology is important. In the hierarchal world of this art form, he has a distinctly collaborative style.
“When you have authority over music at the level, you have to be in charge. You’re responsible for the rhythm and quality of the piece,” Sher explains. “And he is extraordinary, but what’s most unusual is he really listens and collaborates.” A great guy.
There are repercussions for the show beyond New York — because this is the Met, press coverage is massive, and opening night of Otello will be filmed, part of Met Live in HD, for a movie premiere Oct. 17 in 70 countries including Canada, the Met’s second-biggest market after the U.S.
“It’s a huge operation,” says Lee Abrahamian, communications director for the Met. “So many moving parts. But when it’s the actual performance, it’s in his hands.”
Backstage, encased in more red plush, Nézet-Séguin laughs. “Maybe there were some periods about 10 years ago when it felt a little whirlwindy.” This? This is just work.
“Basically, the life of a conductor is always split between our home, when we’re music director somewhere — usually that’s more than one place, nowadays — and travel,” he says.
In his case, that is as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra (since 2012), of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (since 2008), and artistic director and principal conductor of Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain, where he has been since 2000, and where it was announced this week that he will remain through to the 2020-21 season.
Ten years ago, he was discovering all the orchestras. Every week, a guest conductor for a new orchestra in a new city. Berlin, Munich, Vienna . . . “That was challenging, establishing a rapport with all these human beings,” he says. Now, he knows them.
“Including the Met. I know them, they know me, so the stress is out and we can get down to business: the music.”
Inadmissibly young at 40, he is the toast of his métier. He has triumphed across North America and the European classical capitals, is already a Companion of the Order of Canada and Officer of the National Order of Quebec. Opening night at the Met/Times Square puts him at the epicenter of the music world.
Short and stocky, close-cropped with a slightly receding hairline and an amiable visage, he radiates calm control and purpose. There is none of the beak-nosed severity and patrician hauteur of the “classic” conductor. It’s a long way from Ahuntsic to Otello.
Thirty years ago, growing up in north-end Montreal, a 10-year-old boy was expected to practice his wrist shot. Not many were told, “Go work on your Mahler.”
This was entirely self-directed, given his parents were not musicians, “but they opened horizons to everything.” (Today, father Serge and mother Claudine manage his career).
For the record, 10-year-old Nézet-Séguin did play hockey for a year, “which I hated. I was that predictable clichéd artistic type who was not into sports.” (Today, the rigours of his career mean physical training is a major part of his life).
Yannick Nézet-Séguin: a timeline
As a kid, he loved theatre and improv, and played piano. Conducting? That was an accident. He was 10, and the legendary Charles Dutoit appeared on TV, conducting Montreal’s Orchestre Symponique. Something in the oceanic sound conjured from that flashing baton resonated in the young consciousness.
But still — how did his success happen? Nézet-Séguin smiles. His parents got him OSM tickets once his interest was piqued. “I remember I was sitting very high up, and I was fascinated.” When the Choeur Polyphonique de Montréal came to his school, he enlisted. At some point, the choir was asked to sing at a downtown convention. “O Canada. I think it was in Place Bonaventure. We were waiting for our turn, and the choral conductor was looking to kill time, and asked, ‘Is there anyone who wants to try conducting?’ ”
He was 10. He took the baton, started flashing it with his wrist, and began moving his entire body. “It worked. It was immediate. Somehow, I knew what to do.”
He would go on to study piano, conducting, composition and chamber music at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec, then on to Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., and under Italian maestro Carlo Maria Giulini. At 22, he could have gone to Europe in search of an assistant position with an orchestra. But he had conducted choirs to hone his craft and enhance his reputation, so the hometown Opéra de Montréal came looking for a chorus master. Thanks to that, the Orchestre Metropolitain took note, and engaged him as music director.
Hey, it ain’t Vienna. “I was discouraged at the time by some who said, ‘You should go and travel.’ And I said, ‘Listen, I have the opportunity to have an orchestra that I can shape.’ ”
“Yeah, he’s amazing,” Sher says. It is their second opera together, after Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet seven years ago in Salzburg, which later went to La Scala in Milan. The two men work in different spheres, with Sher in Broadway. “But it’s reassuring to know that in the world of classical music, there are people growing up into positions with his skill, ambition and openness.”
Sher describes “a depth of musicianship unparalleled in anyone I’ve ever met aside from (the Met’s legendary musical director) James Levine. He works really hard to be really great. You need a level of ambition to accomplish this at the highest level.”
That ambition . . . “The most boring aspect of a conductor is — start together, finish together, keep the time,” Nézet-Séguin says. “But that’s just the beginning of it.
“We play dead composers. So that means, these pieces are such masterpieces that they are still speaking to us today . . . but they need someone to bring them to life. A pianist does that. A violinist does that, a singer does that. But when you put 100 people together, they need to somehow agree on a vision. Because it’s not all written down.”
No. The music sheets simply bear a centuries-old code. “Another example is a play. You read Shakespeare, of course you can imagine it, but you need a stage director to put it into something cohesive.”
And there is the human element. “I guess it was something that was in me that I knew, it’s all about those units, the musicians — they’re all intelligent, sensitive human beings. So it’s not like activating a keyboard. A huge part of my work now is psychology — knowing what to say, knowing when to say it, knowing how much to push, how much not. Pacing a rehearsal — I’m obsessed with it. I can’t stand having a dip in energy.”
He speaks of authority and sensitivity. “My job is more to make people so confident in themselves that they can bring their A game. That’s the real job of a conductor. If you’re too much of a schoolteacher, either they ignore you, or they’re too fixated on you and then they’re not themselves. I need to frame it, but within that frame, they need to feel free.”
And so there is something in that passionate yet approachable demeanour that radiates, that communicates through the orchestra to an audience.
“When I first started being in front of big orchestras,” he says, “the Metropolitain at 23, the MSO at 24, (other) Canadian orchestras in my 20s, Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics in my 30s — I was so nervous, of course. Why would they listen to me? So then, you have to ask yourself — ‘What can I bring that is unquestionable?’ ”
Experience? Nope. Reputation? Neither. This was a 30-year-old in a world that measures by centuries, prizing decades of experience. But there were two things a young conductor could bring.
“Be impeccably prepared,” he says. “Knowing your stuff inside out. And it seems like a given, but I’m telling you, there are people — they don’t take it that seriously. Otello — this is my first time conducting it. And I’m sure most people cannot tell — even in the orchestra.”
The second, he says, is to be genuine.
“Sometimes, you can play a game, the role of the maestro. It’s not me, and it wouldn’t work. I’m just trying to be myself. Because an orchestra will know you’re playing a game, the way a dog smells fear.
“For me, it’s passion — bringing it to life means it has to be alive. We still have problems in classical music or opera, in that sometimes it feels like it’s boring, because it’s taken for granted. The audience is taken for granted, the music is. We get accustomed to things. But it needs to start with a conductor to be passionate, to re-energize it. And only with this is the audience once again taken by the throat. It doesn’t interest me to be purely aesthetic. It has to be electric.”
He has his favourites. Brahms is No. 1. In opera, it’s Verdi, “Not just because of Otello . . . But in second position, I have a lot — Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, Bach, Mozart, Puccini.”
Well, we all have our old faves . . . but there’s an interesting point. Nézet-Séguin didn’t grow up in the 18th century. He’s familiar with what’s in the record stores — kidding! There are no record stores, but he knows popular music, the Now and the Then. So I mention – never mind classical music, think of how fans of classic rock are drawn by the lazy comfort of the familiar, when their bands used to represent the radically new . . .
He avidly picks up the notion. “Yes! Take Beethoven, for example. People think it’s so ‘classical’ — like this marble sculpture. But Beethoven was this revolutionary figure. He wanted people in the audience to be always unsettled. As the years and the generations go by, you end up where the message, which was once disturbing, becoming the norm.
“So when I play Beethoven, I have to find solutions to shock people, in a way. To get back to the intention of the composer. Much more important than just playing the notes and getting people into this half-stupor.”
When Nézet-Séguin is asked what it is about his background that gave him the talent/persona balance, he thinks Montreal.
“What I’m more and more conscious of is how decomplexé I was.” Assured, self-confident, uncowed by the weight of the tradition.
“Germany is where most of the music we play comes from. The Berlin Philharmonic is still arguably the best orchestra in the world.” So where are the German conductors?
“Maybe the weight of the tradition — you can’t really do your own vision. And if you come from a completely different country that has no classical tradition whatsoever, it might be difficult as well.”
But Montreal is between those poles. “Being European and North American,” he says. “Old and New World.”
Orchestras function in archaic expression of their source — Europe, and the class system. “For instance, the first row of strings, the principals, they can ask questions of the conductor directly,” he says, “but not the members of the sections. And then I arrive, and I’m interested in talking to the guys and girls in the back. And at first in Europe, it shocked everyone. And that’s very Canadian.” And very Montreal.
Back in rehearsal, there aren’t any fistfights, but a palpably mounting sense of urgent purpose. Es Devlin’s set design is a marvel of stagecraft.
The set pieces are giant 18-foot translucent Perspex armoires that suggest entire rooms and staircases. They are slid across the stage at angles, lit from within by nacreous silver, green and blue for appropriate ghostly effect. The backdrop projection is a wracked sea as the conductor and his players block out Otello’s emotional calisthenics. It is, you know, Shakespearean.
Suddenly, camouflaged stagehands pull the huge pieces away to the wings for director Sher’s big reveal: 100 members arrayed in plum, mulberry and blue gowns and admiralty uniforms. When there is an audience for this, there will be a gasp. The rehearsal continues with a complex cascade of vocals, brought to a sudden halt when Nézet-Séguin hears something infinitesimal that does not fit the unified vision due on Sept. 21 on opening night, in the Met, in Times Square. Stop.
He turns to the orchestra and asks them to start again, “Not the whole scene, the beginning and the chorus,” but there is chatter around him. YNS is busy. “We need silence onstage please! We’re still working. Thank you!”
“Okay maestro,” says an assistant, “whenever you’re ready.”
This version corrects the original version, which had misidentified the same of Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s father.