The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin - Luiz Gazzola, Almaviva

Opera Lively has interviewed one of the brightest emerging stars of a new generation of conductors, French Canadian maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin. We met him on the occasion of his Traviata run at the Met with Diana Damrau, Plácido Domingo, and Saimir Pirgu, but we talked about many other topics. Maestro Nézet-Séguin is intelligent and articulate, and had some very interesting answers.

OL - You took over the Philadelphia Orchestra recently. How has that experience been like? What do you think is unique about the orchestra and the city, and what are your plans for the future of the orchestra?
YNS – About the Philadelphia Orchestra, when I first conducted them in 2008 there was something very special happening. It was as if we had known each other before, as if it wasn’t the first time. Maybe we knew each other in a previous life or something. Now that I am the Chief Conductor and the Music Director, I feel this very special connection that allows us to already benefit, even if it hasn’t been a long time since I’m at the helm. I feel that our work is already very significant, because I feel the style of the orchestra and what I want to achieve with it is becoming more and more impressive by every concert. It’s a very special group of musicians. They are very great human beings, not only great musicians. They are very passionate and very dedicated.

My plan for the city is that more people in the Philadelphia will come and see our concerts, to reconnect. Because the city used to be very, very proud of its orchestra and maybe in recent years people were proud but they were not going to the concert hall. Now we want people to come back.

OL – A glance at your numerous recordings would appear to suggest that you have interest in both instrumental and vocal music. Do you have a preference between conducting symphonic pieces and conducting opera? What kind of different satisfaction a conductor gets from these two genres?
YNS – Opera and symphonic music for me of course have differences, but I would say that maybe unlike many others, I don’t feel that there is so much difference between the two. I’ll even say that I tend to conduct symphonic music more like opera, because I find that in opera there is always the conscience to be accompanying an instrument, or a group, or a voice – to breathe, in other words. To breathe is so essential to all of music, whether it’s a Brahms or Beethoven symphony, or whether it’s a Verdi or Puccini opera! For me it’s the same thing, I have to make the orchestra flexible enough to always listen to what is the dominant voice, and this is why for me doing both is something natural.

Of course opera involves much more people- the set designers, the producers, the costume makers, the chorus, the lightening designers, and so it’s a different kind of control than in symphonic music, but I really need both to live as an artist.

OL - Since our website is about opera, please allow us to focus on operatic conducting. You are currently doing La Traviata at the Met with Diana Damrau, Plácido Domingo, and Saimir Pirgu. Would you please tell us what is needed for a successful Traviata? Is there a way to describe in words your personal reading of the piece and to express to us how you go about it? What advice do you give to the singers of a piece like La Traviata?
YNS – La Traviata, Giulini used to say that it was the perfect opera. I always look at La Traviata as being this perfect opera; but until now I had never conducted it, so this is my first time. I realize that what is very special about it is that we have to have a great understanding of the character of the music and what it says beyond the words, between the singers, the conductors, and the orchestra. It’s more like large scale chamber music. I find Traviata at its best when it’s intimate, and that’s when we accompany the duets and the arias of Violetta with all the delicacy that is needed. It’s very important to have the tenderness, and the inflexions of the harmonies. Of course we have grand scenes and the concertati at the end of Act II; yes, we have powerful moments, but the most important thing is to be able to create something very intimate, and that was possible this time with the wonderful cast that the Met put together. We really worked prior to the performances to make sure that we would be very, very close to each other during the performances to make this chamber music effect.

OL – Yes, I attended one of the performances and noticed that in acts II and III the dynamics were kept very low. It was very intimate. Ms. Damrau was singing softly, which I loved. Was it your doing?
YNS – Yes, well, I accepted to do this production at the Met because I knew that this cast would be so wonderful! But this exceeded all my expectations. And the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of course knows Verdi so well, and they react so well when singers are so intelligent and sing it beautifully and expressively, then the orchestra transforms automatically the way it plays. This is why it’s really a dream.

OL - I’m curious about the opera scene in Québec. Is there a bigger space there for French opera as opposed to other Western countries where Italian and German-language operas seem to be more popular? For example, I’m extremely fond of Berlioz and I think he is underappreciated by the operatic public. Are his operas more popular in Québec than elsewhere?
YNS – I don’t know really what it is that in Québec we have about the voice, but there is quite a long history with the voice and opera in general. There was Léopold Simoneau, of course who was this great Mozartian, then we had many people like Richard Verreau, and we had Maureen Forrester, English-speaking coming from Montréal, so, there is a long tradition, and now we have great singers like Marie-Nicole Lemieux, and also opera conductors like myself and others. I think it is probably because in Québec there is this fight always to exist in a more French tradition among all the English tradition in the North-American continent, and that creates this desire to express and be creative. Therefore it probably makes us accept some repertoire more easily than others. You know, when you talk about Berlioz’s works, Dutois did a lot for making them appreciated in Québec. It is probably because of the language. The Montréal Opera, for example, doesn’t do a lot of Wagner; it’s not something that is necessarily so popular in Québec. Maybe we also have the same struggles and pains of everywhere else in the world but what is very distinctive, I would say, is the diversity of the number of people and groups – two symphony orchestras, two operas, many, many chamber orchestras, many ensembles of contemporary music, and this for a total of only seven million people; it’s not very big.

OL – Yes. I love Léopold Simoneau’s version of Les Pêcheurs de Perles, more than Alfredo Kraus’ that everybody raves about – I think Simoneau did it with more elegance and delicacy.
YNS – [laughs, pleased] Yes, I would tend to agree with you!

OL - What do you think of critical editions of opera scores? Do you like to consider all possible explanations for different versions of a work that scholars come up with, or do you like to follow the living tradition of operatic performance more than the scholarly research?
YNS – Yes, I think critical editions are very important. It’s interesting to look at what was the research and understand especially where the traditions come from, because in opera more than in other genres I think that the balance between what is written in the score and the many traditions is very interesting, and I’m not a conductor that says – “oh, we should get rid of every tradition and just play what the composer wrote.” But it is very important to understand why there is a tradition to slow down here, or why there is this change in the vocal line, so in that sense, to be aware of the critical edition is important, but it shouldn’t mean that we get rid of all the experience that the generations have accumulated, performing the opera.

OL - Opera recordings in studio are becoming rarer, while live recordings in video media are becoming much more frequent. Is this a reason for concern?
YNS – No, the video aspect of opera is not necessarily a concern. It’s good news. Because video now makes opera more accessible, and more visual; it is true that people have more immediate access to opera everywhere in the world, especially younger people, and I think this is something we should be happy about, because that means it is an art form that is far from dying. However, like any new phenomenon, it has its own dangers. In that sense, maybe yes, there is a small concern about the visual taking the place of the musical aspects. Real opera for me must reach a perfect balance between the two. I think there is a place for recordings, and there is a special place for experiencing the intensity of the acting of the singers when we get the video. The series that I’m doing now with Deutsche Grammophon of the Mozart operas in audio only, almost studio-like recording of concert versions, I think there is also space for this because the recordings give us the opportunity to concentrate really on the beauty of the music and especially to understand that all the drama is within the music. But opera at the end of the day is this perfect union of both visual and musical aspects, so I think we should always be careful to keep the balance right.

OL - Could you give us examples of operas that people would assume are simple to conduct but aren’t, and are, instead, surprisingly difficult? What about the other way around: operas that are seemingly complex but are easy to tackle?
YNS – Well, the first example I have is La Traviata. I think it is a little bit like in the symphonic world, talking about Beethoven’s 5th. Everybody knows it; that makes it extra difficult to conduct, because first of all not only everyone has an opinion about it, but also there is always the danger of taking things for granted, for routine. I was worried about this here at the Met, because I thought, “oh, this orchestra plays it all the time.” So it’s very important to go back to the score and really work on not doing things automatically. That’s related to my previous answer. In the end I find that the operas that are more difficult for me, personally, as a conductor, are the ones where we have to search really this delicate line and have the orchestra and the singers accept to sing more dolce and to express in a more intimate way, rather than for example Turandot. Turandot is the opera that I have most pleasure to conduct, and for me it is almost easy, because it’s big, it has its challenges, but the more there are people, the more you can conduct in broad musical gestures, so I think the most difficult ones are the most intimate ones.

OL – Very nice answer, thank you. Do you have an interest for contemporary opera? If yes, what composers?
YNS – Regarding contemporary opera, what interests me is the process. I’m in discussion already with one composer who is about to compose her first opera, Jennifer Higdon, American composer; she will create her first opera in a few years in Santa Fe. [Editor’s note: Higdon is currently writing an opera based on Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain". It is co-commissioned by Santa Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia and is scheduled to be premiered in Santa Fe in 2015]. I would like to be with her for her second opera. What I would be interested in, is to witness the process from the very beginning when the composer decides for a libretto and decides for the shape of the piece, and I would be involved in every step, to feel that there is a real sense of creation. This is what was the most wonderful about the creation of music. For us, interpreters, we always wish that we would have the red telephone line to talk to the previous composers who are now dead. It’s incredible to think that we can have a composer working with us in contemporary opera, and exchange our ideas with these composers.

OL – Right. And do you have any favorite contemporary composers that you admire?
YNS – I have to say that when I saw Nico Muhly’s Two Boys last year in London I was very interested in it. I think he is a composer who is able to speak a very different language, just because of the bridge he is able to make between pure operatic music and also music that is more influenced by a certain aesthetic of popular music. It’s not the only way for me to do opera, but I think it is also very interesting that someone of this generation in the 21st century is able to make more bridges and more connections.

OL – Nice. Today’s operatic environment is quite hectic. With conductors’ and singers’ busy schedules and all the flying around, sometimes rehearsal times are drastically short. Do you make a point of not accepting projects that don’t have decent time allocated for rehearsals?
YNS – Yes, the schedules, yes. [laughs] I mean, my own schedule is one thing, because I’m a relatively young conductor, and I’m able to have a lot of energy and I’m able to focus very well when I am traveling. Of course my schedule is maybe the biggest subject of conversation that I have with my agents and people around me, just to make sure that it is still livable. But in more general terms, I think it’s a big topic, because we have to distinguish whether it’s stagione, or repertoire opera houses, which are different challenges. You asked about short rehearsals, but I find that much the opposite, now the periods for rehearsals are getting longer and longer because some directors with new productions think they need seven weeks of rehearsals, but I find that sometimes there is a bit of waste of time, because everyone now arrives more prepared, including the set designers, the directors, the actors and dancers when they join us, so everybody does more work in general, and when we put together everything with the singers, when everybody is ready, it should take less time for rehearsals. And then, this would enable the opera singers who are very much in demand, the opera stars, to all be there at the same time. Because sometimes what happens everywhere in the world is that because the rehearsal period is too long, the star singers will miss two weeks of rehearsals, and other singers will miss two other weeks, and we will end up with seven weeks of rehearsals, but only for the last week everyone is there, so, if rehearsals were shorter with everyone more prepared, and no permission to go away, it would be better. It’s better to have two weeks with everyone ready and working hard, than seven weeks while having half of the people, all the time.

OL – I see. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of the stagione versus the repertoire systems? What is more conducive of good performances?
YNS – I think they bring two different aspects of what opera is. I think it is beautiful to have cities where all year long one can really go and hear in a nice theater good quality singers and orchestras, like especially in the German system, where there are all these ensembles of house singers who can work very often together. I think there are good qualities to it. But personally as a conductor I prefer of course to be involved with only one team of singers and do it in a concentrated time, so I’m more for the stagione concept. Both systems have their own merits. It’s a question of comfort and taste.

OL - What do you think of abridged versions of operas and of performing opera with heavy cuts to make it more palatable to the public or to comply with labor or budget limitations? We’ve heard of efforts like the recent 7-hour The Ring of the Nibelung in Buenos Aires, or the 2-hour Rienzi DVD… Is this a concerning trend?
YNS – Hm… you’re talking about cuts, but you are also talking about Wagner. Wagner of course has his own space and time. While I believe maybe for some people it might be good to have a shortened version to get more at ease with the offering, OK, Wagner may be an exception, because in general I am very much unfriendly to cuts. I find cuts like an insult to the composer. I know that operas have very often been cut by the composer himself because of circumstances, having one scene less because of this singer or the other singer, because of demands of the theater… They could have this freedom. But I think that for us nowadays, we think sometimes that to cut an opera will make it seem shorter, but actually very often the cuts are badly done, and we end up with less harmonic diversity, and that means that in the end, for the psychology and for the ears of the people, it ends up feeling longer. I’m very, very careful about cuts. I can agree sometimes to cut a full scene or something like this, or when there is ballet music but there is no ballet corps in that staging, I agree, but to cut a few bars here and there, for me, it’s not something I’m generally in favor of.

OL – I agree. What opera composers and/or works do you consider to be unfairly obscure and would love to help revive?
YNS – I’m interested in one day actually trying to do on stage Massenet operas that are not done a lot. Think of an opera for example like La Navarraise by Massenet. I think Massenet is a great opera composer, and Manon, yes, we do a lot, and we do Werther and it is beautiful. I know that by saying this I contradict a bit my attitude of the last few years when opera houses would contact me and ask me to conduct a lot of the French repertoire that was forgotten, even some Meyerbeer, and I decided not to do this for the moment, because I don’t want to be typecast as a French opera conductor, because that’s not what I feel I am in essence. But in a few years time, maybe in a decade or so, maybe I can use my own position as an opera conductor and then try to take on some lesser known French repertoire.

OL – OK, great. But when you say “that’s not my essence,” what is your essence, then?
YNS – Hm… my essence is that I need to conduct a lot of repertoire. I cannot be confined to any single one. I’m not a specialist, by nature. To me, to be able to do Verdi right, I need to do Verdi against Gounod, against Mozart, against Monteverdi, against Strauss, and then I’m able to understand more what Verdi’s style is. I feel sometimes that people who do only one style, they try to put everything in the same style, instead of finding the differences. But this is a very personal choice. This is how I feel, and I think it is very good now that I have a more varied exploration of the operatic repertoire. It’s not because I feel more Italian than German or French; I just feel more international! [laughs]

OL – I see. [laughs] While you were training, what were your major influences, and who functioned as a source of inspiration? We know about maestro Carlo Maria Giulini. Any others? Do you have some interesting vignette to tell us about some epiphany or encounter with a major source of inspiration, that helped shape who you are as a conductor?
YNS – Yes, maestro Giulini of course was my main inspiration. But many aspects of many other conductors have inspired me, in terms of their interaction with the artists. This is what interests me the most. Because it’s so personal! Of course, the genius of someone like Giulini, or the genius of Toscanini, or Bernstein or Karajan, or the genius today of Claudio Abbado, for example, it’s something nobody can imitate. We can be inspired by them but we cannot try to reproduce them. What we can try to reproduce in a way is that kind of interaction with the people. Because for us, conductors, the primary function is of course to be a musician, therefore, to be very true to the composer and the score, but the second most important thing is that we have to make the people around us do their best. The whole trick is how to achieve that, and I’m mostly inspired by people who, in concert, like Abbado or Carlos Kleiber, would leave people extremely free in the performance. But someone like Kleiber, what people don’t always know is that he actually was extremely detailed in rehearsals. He would rehearse a lot in order to achieve that freedom. This is more what I’m trying to do myself.

OL - How did you get into classical music, as a child or teenager?
YNS – My encounter with classical music happened when I was five years old, and was playing the piano. But it’s the combination with the singing in a choir, when I was nine years old, that was the real shock, when I became passionate about it. So, it started very early for me; as a child really, and I already knew that this was my goal in life.

OL – Your parents are not musicians, right?
YNS – No, no, they are teachers. They love music but they are not musicians.

OL - You are known for physical fitness and even got an endearing nickname by Ms. Joyce DiDonato – “Mighty Mouse” - that makes reference to your physical strength. Does fitness play a significant role in conducting? Is working out at a gym part of your preparation for conducting?
YNS – Oh yeah! (laughs hard). Yes, the fitness happened in my life because when I started to conduct more regularly ten years ago and more often, of course I started to have pains in my shoulder and some back pain, and I visited a few therapists, and they all advised me to just have someone who could help me develop evenly all my muscle structure. Because that is the problem with conducting; one always starts a lot of movements, but they are always the same movements, and it was important for me to get this balance, and eventually in my life it became a good way of resting my brain, concentrating on the body so that sometimes, a few times a week I could forget about music and give myself a little bit of rest for my brain. I think everybody needs that, and this is what fitness has done to me, combined with making sure I don’t get injured. Since I started working out, I never got injured; I was never in pain in my muscles any longer.

OL – Nice! Outside of classical music, what are some of your other interests in life?
YNS – It’s related. Apart from fitness which is my only time away from music, I think I still consider myself as completely dedicated to my art. Of course I have interest in movies like everyone else, in good wine and good food, and I spend a lot of time with my friends and my family; this is very important for me, having some holidays at the beach, you know, nothing very unusual. But even when I am at the beach music is always present somewhere, with some scores, and I’m perfectly happy with this.

OL – Oh wow, we made it through all the questions in the time we had allocated.
YNS – Yes, thank you so much for your good questions.

OL – Thank you for your time, Maestro! Good bye.

« Sous le charme de Yannick Nézet-Séguin »

M.J. Parent, Le Journal de Montréal