YANNICK NÉZET-SÉGUIN laughs and then frowns. “No,” he says thoughtfully, “this has not been a fast, sudden rise to fame.”
In June 2016, the Metropolitan Opera announced that the French–Canadian conductor, who turns forty-two this month, would be the company’s next music director, succeeding music director emeritus James Levine. Seven years ago, when Nézet-Séguin made his company debut at Lincoln Center, he was virtually unknown.
Today he juggles opera performances in New York, London, Milan, Vienna, Baden-Baden and Salzburg with freelance symphonic assignments and full-time jobs heading both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic. He’s a recording star with Deutsche Grammophon. Since the Met’s announcement, he’s been in Japan with the Philadelphians, all over Europe with the Rotterdam, Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics and in Montreal leading his own Orchestre Métropolitain. Back in Philadelphia, in November, this opera newsinterview was sandwiched between a Philadelphia Orchestra rehearsal and a series of afternoon meetings before an evening concert at Verizon Hall.
A ten-minute lunch is not quite finished when he sits down with me in his office, dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans. There is no sign of fatigue after two-plus hours rehearsing three big works for organ and orchestra. The thick-muscled arms fly around as often in conversation as they do on the podium.
Though Nézet-Séguin says he loves the question about overnight success, he adds, “I started in an old-fashioned way. First, starting at thirteen I was trained to be a concert pianist, and I started singing in a choir, then doing sectionals, assisting, playing rehearsals. I founded a Baroque ensemble at twenty, and by twenty-three I was assistant conductor of Montreal Opera and its chorus master.” At twenty-five he became music director of the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal, a position he still holds; the symphony orchestra plays ten concerts in Montreal and close to twenty in surrounding towns during its regular season.
“All of this,” says Nézet-Séguin, “was not in the limelight, or international. I led everything in the symphonic repertoire—every Brahms, every Bruckner and Beethoven, plus Ravel and more. I admit that the fast track internationally was fast, because my debut outside of Canada was [just over] twelve years ago. But it was rooted in almost twenty years’ experience.”
His early jobs taught him more than music. “Now, every time I do a project, I see better how it made sense to be doing rehearsals in less than ideal conditions, somewhere in a church basement where we had to put on the Saint Matthew Passion. Being, at eighteen, artistic director of things, I knew what it was to do the library thing, the personnel management, the marketing and dealing with a board and sponsors. It’s great luck in my life to have started so young.”
BORN IN MONTREAL, Nézet-Séguin is the youngest of three children in a family of educators. His parents were supportive, arranging lessons and travel, although he worked at two or three church-choir jobs to support his CD-collecting habit. (He has about ten thousand CDs.) At ten, he set his sights on conducting, although he pondered other options such as journalism (“because I love language”), law (“the performance aspect—courtroom drama!”) and architecture (“I studied the anatomy of buildings but always came back to the anatomy of music scores”).
Before music captured his imagination, the eight- or nine-year-old aspired to become nothing less than pope. “I performed my own ‘services’ in our home, in costume,” he recalls. “After Christmas Eve midnight mass, the family came home and had to hear my version of midnight mass.” He confirms an anecdote he related on a French–Canadian TV talk show: during important early debuts abroad, he often wore superhero boxer shorts under his podium outfit, “almost like a talisman, and to remember to be myself. I have kept just one pair of the boxers, as a reminder. But I don’t think I need that now.”
Nézet-Séguin says he was surprised when the Met offered him its top musical job. The company did not hesitate to accept his terms—including the four-year wait until 2020, when he will finally become full-time music director and conduct five productions per season. In the meantime, starting in fall 2017, he will lead two operas each year as “music director designate.”
Before accepting, he says, “I wanted to find the true, deep reasons why I was drawn to this house.” He cites “the best orchestra and the best chorus in the world for that repertoire,” along with great principal singers, musical and technical staff. “And I like the spirit—I like the ethic of the house.”
At the same time, he says, “At some point we are all in need of something I mentioned to the orchestra this morning.” This is a reference to his only display of impatience during the rehearsal with the Philadelphians earlier in the day, when he reacted sternly to some automatic playing during a fast passage in Saint-Säens’s Symphony No. 3. “They’ve played that piece so often before, with other conductors,” he says. “Basically, doing a familiar piece is an opportunity to re-look at it with fresh eyes, always—just as I said to the musicians. They know that, but it’s good sometimes as music director to remind them why.” In both symphonic and operatic repertoire, his aim with standard, familiar works is “to reassess and rethink everything we do and re-create a tradition together.”
As Met music director, he will decide—in collaboration with general management—questions of repertoire, casting and a host of administrative matters, including outreach. “Just like our rehearsal today, with hundreds of high-school kids there, I like to let people look into the kitchen. It makes them more interested in the final product. The Met is the standard-bearer of opera in the world, and that means obviously an international attraction. And yet it is also New York’s opera house par excellence. We are actively discussing at the moment how to be more connected to our city. As the music director I should be the face of that and encourage it. This was my mission in Philly and everywhere, to destroy the myth that ‘opera or classical music is for someone else, it’s not for me.’ It’s not about convincing everyone that they will love it but convincing people that it could be for them. That is so important.”
In his video statement at the Met press announcement last spring, he said, “It’s not a question of arriving as a leader and wanting to change completely the direction of the ship.” He prefers not to mention specific goals, because they’re still under discussion, but he expresses a mixture of confidence and modesty. “Basically I needed to feel that I was the right person, maybe, to give my little help for the future,” he says.
“I had to make sure, absolutely sure, that at least for a few years I could do Philadelphia and the Met at the same time,” he says. (His directorship in Rotterdam expires in 2018.) “It would have been completely wrong for me to stop with the Philadelphia Orchestra that early, because I feel we’re still at the beginning of our journey together.” He deliberately balances his career between symphonic work and opera, noting, “Each helps inform the other.”
As for his future repertoire at the Met, he mentions Wagner, Strauss, Puccini, Poulenc and Verdi. His first Wagner assignment with the company is in April—a revival of Der Fliegende Holländer.
His approach to any operatic assignment, he says, is “to make everything seem natural,” beginning with the vocal line, by which he doesn’t mean the singers’ notes alone. “The vocal line is also the orchestral line. The question I most often get is, ‘What is the difference between conducting symphony and opera?’ My main answer is that it shouldn’t be different, because if there’s an oboe solo, it needs the breathing, and it needs the same accompaniment as the vocal line. I’m trying to get back to something which will be accommodating to the line, whether it’s the voice or the woodwinds. And therefore when I start with an opera, I don’t separate the two elements—it’s line, line, line, line, line.
“The tempo is the last thing that is decided. I know some colleagues of mine say that the tempo is the first thing. But to me it would be wrong to think this way, because the tempo has so much to do with the place you are, and especially in opera with whoever is singing. If there’s a lack of direction in the line—if I hear that it’s static and doesn’t go anywhere—I start to push like crazy, because I can’t stand it. But the ideal thing is to work with a team so that the line is there, and then it doesn’t need to be hard-driven. It can be just unfolding naturally.”
Nézet-Séguin believes that routine is “the enemy of music” and recalls of a 2009 Carmen, his debut at the Met, “We worked on it and changed a few things.” This strikes me an understatement: the Bizet score usually shows the well-worn corners and frayed upholstery of furniture that’s been moved around too often, but that night one heard something fresh from pit and stage—a svelte, flexible vocal line that merged, often seamlessly, with the text and orchestration. Familiar tunes had meaningful dramatic inflection and French style. That impression was confirmed a few seasons later with his equally distinctive Met Faust. In Verdi operas as well, he has combined excitement with an unusual degree of polish.
“Looking back,” he says, “I think I was a little too obsessed with the fear of routine. That fear made me sometimes push things a little bit too hard. Now I feel that [you should be] trying in every performance to be in the right zone. Opera is all about the moment. You never know how the singer feels, and you have to embrace that and not overcontrol.
“By definition, there’s no autopilot, and therefore if you’re open to the moment it’s not routine. So even if it’s your two thousandth Traviata, if you’re completely in tune with what’s happening—the energy, the speed, the expressivity, the tension, no tension, the breathing, the line—then it is by definition a unique performance, and interesting.”
Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, who sang Emilia in the Met’s Otello under Nézet-Séguin, says of her third conductor in the role, “Everyone in the cast really felt that freedom to breathe within a performance, trying something new. You don’t feel micromanaged in his presence—there’s a sense of active listening and participation in the entire process. He makes you aware that you have to be disciplined in order to be spontaneous.”
Nézet-Séguin and his longtime partner, Pierre Tourville, a Canadian violist, are looking for an apartment in Manhattan. “It’s been a dream of my life to be a New Yorker,” he says. “I can’t wait.” His strong affection for the Met dates from the first performance he attended with his family at age sixteen (the Zeffirelli Bohème). He learned a lot of opera repertoire during frequent visits to the Met between 1998 and 2001 (with ritual stops at Tower Records).
“Now, at some point during every performance when I’m on the podium at the Met,” he says, “I look up toward the ceiling and remember being right there in the audience, wondering and hoping—could it ever come true?” spacer David J. Baker is a writer, editor and translator based in Connecticut.