So it finally happened: After years of speculation, the Metropolitan Opera appointed Yannick Nézet-Séguin to replace James Levine as music director.
Naturally, the opera world wants to know what that will look like. And they want to know now - although he doesn't fully take on the position until 2020-21 and opera companies work four years in advance. Nonetheless, in a Thursday-morning video interview from Osaka after a Philadelphia Orchestra tour concert, he says he'll be working with the Met as early as this fall. Or sooner: "I'm looking to start as of now."
Never radical, Nézet-Séguin believes in harnessing an institution's history rather than turning the page on it. But such a practice could mean many things at the often tumultuous, multifaceted Met.
Will he mercilessly fire temperamental divas (such as Maria Callas and Kathleen Battle in generations past)? Not likely. He's a long-established "diva whisperer" who is able to minimize insecurities and "nice" singers into submission. Having begun life as a choral director, he knows voices.
Will he conduct the slowest performances of Wagner's Parsifal in recorded history - as did his predecessor at the Met, James Levine? Nah. The slow trend - fostered in the early 1990s by Levine, Leonard Bernstein, and Giuseppe Sinopoli - is long gone. Besides, Nézet-Séguin may be French Canadian, but he has a Latin pulse. He keeps things moving. Singers often like that. Aesthetes like the structural clarity that comes with it.
Whatever he does, it'll be different. That's essential. The Met recently reported its lowest box office income percentage ever - 66 percent of the overall potential. Despite good reviews, Metgoers looked at acres of empty seats even when star Sondra Radvanovsky was singing her Tudor Queen trilogy - three rarely done Donizetti operas.
It's a low-grade crisis - and it works in Nézet-Séguin's favor. Just as Levine brought the Met through the institution's financially troubled 1970s, Nézet-Séguin will be a savior, which is more work, but it means the company will be more open - both to change in general and to his way of doing things. Certainly, he'll be a more accessible public figure for the Met than the genial but not-so-available Levine ever was.
The opera industry's wish list for the Met - which would entail Nézet-Séguin's making fundamental changes in the institution - include a smaller alternative space for more diverse repertoire outside the cavernous 3,800-seat Lincoln Center theater. Most of all, broader repertoire is needed. Much broader. "When I travel outside opera circles, I find the guiding rule is that new is better. That's where people's minds are these days," said Charles Jarden, general director of American Opera Projects.
Kaija Saariaho's dreamy L'Amour de Loin debuts at the Met next season, but new work hasn't been consistent. A consistently high standard is being set elsewhere, with fine new works being premiered in companies all over the United States. They just haven't been heard in New York.
Moby-Dick, an acclaimed opera by Jake Heggie, "is a no-brainer, says Lawrence Edelson, producing artistic director for American Lyric Theater, which also develops new work. "Why not have Silent Night [a Pulitzer Prize-winner about a World War I truce] rather than Hansel and Gretel at holiday time? I don't see those as big risks. It's easier to raise money for new opera than standard rep."
The Met has often presented itself as a Eurocentric island; it has coproduction relationships with London's English National Opera and the Aix-en-Provence festival. The few American "flyover operas," such as Carlisle Floyd's Susannah presented at the Met, suggest such works aren't to New York taste. Or maybe the audience is there but hasn't been found.
Though Nézet-Séguin has few musical prejudices, he was at a loss in a recent New York Times interview when asked what new repertoire he'd like to bring to the Met. Yet one need not look far in his Philadelphia history to see how he could stretch the definition of what Met opera is.
He has established relationships with directors such as Kevin Newbury, whose imaginative and nuanced productions of new operas such as Doubt and Oscar have drawn many admirers.
And Nézet-Séguin himself has shown a taste for recontextualizing choral works in an opera setting. He had semi-staged successes, for example, with Bach's St. Matthew Passion and Bernstein's Mass. He probably would have done the same with his distinguished production of Handel's Messiah last December had the staging not been canceled for budgetary reasons. Imagine the possibilities at the Met, where there's nothing "semi" about any staging.
Because Met general manager Peter Gelb has been seen in the audience at National Sawdust, the cutting-edge new venue in Brooklyn, Nézet-Séguin may well look across the river to New York's artistic hot spot, and not just for resident talent such as Missy Mazzoli (tapped by Opera Philadelphia for her new work Breaking the Waves). Artistically fascinating visitors include the music-theater group Carmina Slovenica (seen at St. Ann's Warehouse in 2015), which builds high-style, visually entrancing theater pieces around, say, Pergolesi's sublime Stabat Mater.
The Met's underused dance company could be put to better use in something like choreographer/director Pina Bausch's operetta titled Renate Emigrates rather than the silly Jeremy Sams rewrite of Die Fledermaus.
Some might say opera is dying in New York anyway, considering the demise of companies like Gotham Chamber Opera. But opera flourishes elsewhere. Visits in recent weeks to London and Paris show healthy audiences for challenging repertoire, from Aribert Reimann's Lear at the Paris Opera to the new 4:48 Psychosis produced by the Royal Opera at an alternative space, the Lyric Hammersmith theater.
The barely known George Enescu opera Oedipe, in a major production at the Royal Opera shared with nearby Brussels, had long lines for turn-back tickets last Monday, even with mixed reviews. Is this unusual? "Oh no!" said a nearby coat-check clerk. "It's always like this!"
"The Met has the potential to dream bigger than it does," says Edelson. "So often, financial realism puts the brakes on vibrant, exciting programs that can appeal to a diverse audience. But we're in the business of transformational emotional experiences."
Success at the Metropolitan Opera is like wanting the Hope Diamond: It's a beautiful, rare thing, but it might kill you. So said composer John Corigliano, who survived Met success handily with his Ghosts of Versailles opera. But Yannick Nézet-Séguin?
He is affable, flexible, and a good administrator. He has conducted plenty of opera around the world and during his journeyman years around Canada, so he's deeply familiar with the complex mechanics of the art form that combines all art forms. It's singers, dancers, orchestra, scenery, and some of the fussiest audiences in the world. At the Met, stage directors and designers are routinely booed, and you aren't always sure why.
James Levine was sometimes called "the Teflon conductor" because bad stuff seemed not to stick to him. That's one reason for his long tenure. Nézet-Séguin seems to be able to run gauntlets without sweat or worry. In one interview after another, he turns negative factors into positive ones. A more cheerful, personable conductor has perhaps never been born. That's important here, because backstage personality is as much a key to success as in-performance survival.
And in the artistry department? Singers work with him again and again - a very good sign. A few summers ago, he conducted his first Wagner opera at a Montreal-area festival, and it was a big one: Lohengrin. You'd never guess it was a first for him or his Orchestre Métropolitain. Time and again, he nails other repertoire the first time out. During his early years, when he would get stuck with third-rate works such as Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and Franck's Symphony in D minor, he made them sound first-rate.
Beyond his obvious talents, it's hard to know what skills he will bring to the Met because he's still on a steep learning curve. He was a good bet when the Philadelphia Orchestra hired him. He was a far better bet by the time he actually got here. The challenge of the Metropolitan Opera position may well take him to that next level. As if he weren't headed there anyway.