Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the future of the Metropolitan Opera

15 Mar

He's 1.65 meters tall (5 feet, 5 inches), with an athletic build, piercing brown eyes in a friendly face, a tattoo of a turtle on his shoulder and slightly thinning hair. At age 41, Yannick Nézet-Séguin points to a long and intense relationship with music, having made his career choice at the early age of 10.

With his partner, the violist and choral conductor Pierre Tourville, he shares three cats and apartments in Montreal, Philadelphia and Rotterdam - and in the future, also in New York. He's the first prominent openly gay conductor, although he doesn't want to be reduced to that status.

There's little reason to fear that. The French-Canadian is one of the most sought-after conductors worldwide. Whether it's the Berlin, Vienna or London philharmonics, at La Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London or the Salzburg Festival: the world of music is in a full-fledged love affair with the musician they simply call Yannick.

Now, New York

Succeeding James Levine, Nézet-Séguin has been named the future music director of one of the world's most prominent opera houses, the New York Metropolitan Opera. With a yearly budget of about $300 million (265 million euros), the company is one of the largest cultural institutions in the US.

His contract with the Philadelphia Orchestra was also recently renewed until 2026. "To have the chance to make music with both these amazing institutions was irresistible to me," he said after the announcement of his newest appointment on Thursday. "I am, without doubt, the luckiest music director in the world today."

In addition, Nézet-Séguin is principal conductor of the Orchestre Metropolitain in his hometown of Montreal and will remain there, only relinquishing his position as principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, which he has led since 2008.

The busy musician will not be able to take on the full range of responsibilities in New York until 2020 however; the datebooks of top musicians are full five or more years in advance. It will be a long transitional period at the Met, which has had to deal with health-related absences of its erstwhile music director, the 72-year-old Levine, who will step down after the current season.

In recent years, the venerable opera has also had to deal with labor disputes, financial woes and falling attendance. With Nézet-Séguin in the pit and responsible for all matters musical, the company is expecting an influx of energy.

Energy and charisma

Born in Montreal in 1975, Nézet-Séguin was a child prodigy at the piano. Having sung in a choir during his school years, he started his career as a choral conductor. His most prominent musical mentor was the Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini.

Nézet-Séguin debuted at the Met in 2009 at a new production of George Bizet's opera "Carmen," and has featured there some 50 times since. Apart from his other stints, he performs regularly with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and at the Vienna State Opera. At the Konzerthaus in the German city of Dortmund, he was conductor in residence for three years.

"He's young, full of energy," said Met general manager Peter Gelb. "We expect that energy to have an infectious quality for the whole company."

It's that factor that helped bring another venerable American music institution back from the abyss. One year before Nézet-Séguin took over at the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012, it had declared bankruptcy.

"Coming back from that crisis demanded efforts from everyone," he told DW after a guest appearance of the orchestra in Dortmund in 2015. "But I was always ready to spearhead that challenge, because I knew I had a group of musicians for which the word 'generosity' - and I'm not talking money, but musically - is at the core of how they feel about music. It's also at the center of how I feel about music."

Allison Vulgamore, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra, reports that the crisis phase is over and that the orchestra is "thriving" under Nézet-Séguin's direction, on the strength of his strong connection to the musicians, the audience and the city itself.

The human connection was clear backstage in Bonn's Beethoven Hall after a performance of the Rotterdam Philharmonic during the 2014 Beethovenfest. While most conductors retreat exhausted to their room after a concert, Nézet-Séguin hugged each passing orchestral member, delivered kisses on the cheek and had words of praise for everyone.

As in Philadelphia, Nézet-Séguin will seek to integrate the opera in New York more strongly into the community at large - even devoting attention to marketing the productions rather than leaving that completely to the professionals.

Music now - and in the future

Charisma, energy - but what about vision? In 40 years at the Met, Levine conducted some 85 different operatic works. From his earliest days there, he has been a strong advocate of modern repertory. Up to now, Nézet-Séguin has stood out through powerful, energetic and nuanced musical renditions but not in innovative programs. But he has time. It's said that a conductor is only really mature at age 60.

Meanwhile, younger audiences can be expected to be drawn to concerts by Nézet-Séguin, who tolerates smartphones at his events and encourages tweeting, an attitude evident in a 2011 interview with German magazine "Stern."

"If we succeed in attracting people to the concert hall, I'd like to see the teenager who doesn't realize that a hundred people making noise like us is far more overwhelming than four musicians with amplifiers," he said.

Author Rick Fulker

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